From the moment we pull out of the underground parking garage at Audi's space-age headquarters in Ingolstadt, the light blue A6 becomes the center of everybody's attention. Audi drivers in particular go nuts trying to catch a glimpse of the new sedan and its controversial single-frame grille. As we stop to buy the obligatory toll sticker on the freeway to Austria, five occupants of an A6 Avant swarm out, then fire more questions at us than a trained salesperson could answer. The response during the three-day drive is positive, occasionally even enthusiastic. Thanks to clever advance publicity from the Pikes Peak, Nuvolari, and Le Mans show cars, Audi's future family face is met with almost unanimous approval.
After 700 miles, we can say the same about the whole vehicle. The latest A6 has made significant progress in many key areas. It is roomier than the model it replaces, it is more rewarding to drive, it can be ordered with a host of new luxury-car features, and its engineering has been upgraded to a level that must worry its chief rivals. Mercifully, the enhanced driver and passenger appeal is combined with classic Audi brand values, setting new standards in terms of fit and finish, cabin-related craftsmanship, and ergonomic efficiency. The car will start appearing in North American showrooms this fall.
We opted to try the new 3.1-liter gasoline direct-injection V-6 that delivers 252 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque, an improvement of 32 horsepower and 22 pound-feet over last year's 3.0-liter unit. In the United States, this engine will be available initially only in combination with Quattro all-wheel drive and the six-speed Tiptronic transmission. The sticker price will be around $40,000. In mid-2005, Audi plans to add a front-wheel-drive variant equipped with the continuously variable Multitronic that gets a seventh ratio in manual mode. At the top end of the range, there's a 330-horsepower, 4.2-liter V-8 Quattro Tiptronic. Waiting in the wings is an awesome V-10, which is expected to deliver 420 horsepower and 376 pound-feet of torque. Borrowed from the Lamborghini Gallardo, the brawny ten-cylinder will power the sporty S6.
On first inspection, the biggest improvement over the previous model is a more spacious cabin. Boasting a wheelbase more than three inches longer and a wider track, the A6 is now as roomy as the competition. Head, shoulder, and rear leg room have increased, and the trunk volume is a cavernous 19.3 cubic feet. While the torsional rigidity is up by 34 percent, the drag coefficient is down to 0.29. The A6 has evolved into a big car at 193.5 inches long, it plugs the gap between E- and S-class Mercedes-Benzes. The 3704-pound curb weight underlines the fact that this car is made mostly of steel, not aluminum.
It's hard not to love the interior of the Ingolstadt midliner. The materials are first class, color and trim are an object lesson in good taste, the seats are comfortable and supportive, and the Multi Media Interface (MMI) system is easier to use than iDrive by BMW or Comand by Mercedes-Benz. Even so, you still have to take your eyes away from the road to activate one of the eight main menus, and MMI is still the conduit for simple tasks such as adjusting the temperature of the seat heaters or storing a radio station. Nice touches include a power-operated glovebox lid, rain and light sensors, dual-zone climate control, and asymmetrically split folding rear seats. Like the A8, the A6 can be ordered with cornering lights, keyless stop/start, adaptive cruise control, and Bose surround sound.
The A6 3.2 Quattro isn't the fastest car in its class, but its performance is certainly respectable. Audi says it will accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 7.1 seconds, and it tops out at an electronically limited 155 mph. On the highway, you relish the splendid isolation, the magic carpet ride at 100-plus mph, and the lack of wind, engine, or road noise. The six-speed Tiptronic is an absolute delight. It picks up revs with vigor, doesn't lose much momentum while changing up, and shifts smoothly, except in the busier sport mode. The communication among throttle, engine, and autobox yields prompt and well-balanced shifts instead of rushing or delaying them. Audi claims an average consumption of 26 mpg, but our specimen returned a less impressive 19 mpg.