Although our car ran on standard sixteen-inch wheels shod with modest 225/55HR-16 Continental ContiPremiumContact tires, it didn't soak up ripples, bumps, and grooves quite as efficiently as an E-class or a 5-series BMW. Extra money buys wider seventeen- or eighteen-inch rims. An optional adaptive air suspension, coming in 2005, is said to improve the ride at low speed and over imperfections such as expansion joints and manhole covers.
Close to the Czech border, on the heavenly country roads east of the Danube River, we encountered an inexhaustible network of gradients and radii, of long straights and spiraling ess-bends, plus solid ice on roads through forests and snowdrifts dotting the wide, open plains. Although it had ordinary summer tires, our Audi tracked like a star and climbed the iciest slopes without putting a hoof wrong, thanks to Quattro. But the 50/50 torque split is responsible for a certain indifference at the limit, because you are never quite sure whether the front end will let go first, or the rear end, or all four wheels at the same time. Although the engineers are working on a more aggressive 40/60 torque distribution, this tail-end bias won't be production-ready for another twelve to eighteen months.
Over the rolling hills leading to Vienna, the Audi got another chance to stretch its legs. The latest A6 has shed most of the mushiness and indifference of previous versions. The steering is not quite as sensuous and tactile as that of a BMW 530i, but it is quick and precise. Body roll is more effectively suppressed, and there's less understeer. The A6 generates higher levels of adhesion than its predecessor and remains neutral all the way to the edge of grip, at which point mild understeer typically prevails. Even the brakes, which used to be spongy and notoriously short of breath, are suddenly potent and progressive.
Although the new sedan is much more of a head turner than its predecessors, its driving character is one of inconspicuous efficiency and pragmatic ability. At night, on an unfamiliar road, this car is incredibly confidence-inspiring because it goes where you point it, period, and does a remarkable job of pairing stability and agility. Pushing hard-even very hard-involves neither drama nor squealing tires nor emphatic protests from the suspension.
But the dynamic performance isn't totally flawless. For a start, the new A6 definitely does not like crosswinds, and its responses to driver inputs can be a little too edgy at very high speeds. Braking hard to avoid a wayward truck from, say, 125 mph in the middle of an autobahn bend causes the rear end to go light, and it takes a quick flick at the wheel to calm things down.
During our three days, the A6 came across as a true luxury car in every respect. In fact, it's dangerously close in overall appeal to the standard-wheelbase A8, which Audi sensibly doesn't bring to the United States. Compared with its direct rivals, the Audi's packaging is up there, it musters the most powerful six-cylinder engine in its class, and the six-speed manu-matic transmission and Quattro drivetrain add to the appeal. Put the balanced road manners, the gorgeous interior, and the opulent specifications into the equation, and the newcomer from Ingolstadt becomes rather tempting. It may not be quite as sporty as a BMW or quite as prestigious as a Benz, but it is a great luxury sedan and a serious alternative to the establishment.