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First Drive: 2012 Audi A6

Joe Loriowriter

Change at the top
Audi's new A6 is the third new model in the brand's large-sedan family. The redesigned A8 flagship went on sale in the States last fall, the new A7 fastback sedan reaches U.S. dealers in May, and the redesigned A6 completes the changeover when it arrives in September as a 2012 model.

Not-so-new look
Audi has long been lauded for its design, but judging from the new A6 (and the A8 before it), the company now appears content to slowly evolve its form language. Just fractionally lower and shorter in length, the new car's only significant dimensional changes are in width-where it's 2.9 inches wider-and in wheelbase. The reconfigured powertrain (first seen on the A5) has finally come to the A6, allowing the front axle to move forward and resulting in a three-inch-shorter front overhang and a consequently longer wheelbase. Aside from that alteration of proportions, the new look mostly involves tweaks. The shape of the grille opening has been revised, making it a hexagon; the rear fenders sit out from the greenhouse; and LED lighting is more widely used. To the previous LED daytime running lights, the new A6 adds LED taillamps and (as an option) all-LED headlights.

Interior design
Perhaps more so than with exterior styling, Audi has made its mark recently with its interior design, and here the changes are more evident. The new A6 features a redesigned dash with elongated trim panels that wrap around onto the doors. In our test car, the trim was a unique-looking planked oak veneer; brushed metal is also available. The new instrument cluster is more three-dimensional and sits in a curved backdrop. The comfortable front seats include adjustment for seat-cushion length and four-way movable head restraints. In the rear, even six-foot passengers have adequate headroom under the sloping roof, but the seat cushion is low. Knee clearance is good, and foot room is adequate.

Under the hood: some new motivation
Two of the three current engines won't reappear in the new model. The 4.2 V-8 is gone. The 3.0-liter supercharged V-6 (again badged 3.0T) returns as the volume engine. And in place of the entry-level 3.2-liter V-6 is Audi's familiar 2.0T, paired with the Multitronic CVT. Available at launch only with front-wheel drive, the 2.0T eventually also will be offered with Quattro all-wheel drive. As much as we love the 2.0T in other applications (A4, A5), the turbo four's 211 hp is a significant ride down compared with the previous V-6 engine's 265 hp. Although the 2.0T's fuel economy of 25/33 mpg city/highway is certainly enticing, it will be interesting to see whether buyers will find the smaller engine adequate in the A6.

Unfortunately, there was no A6 2.0T on hand at the launch event we attended. Instead, we spent most of our time in with the 3.0T, which is paired exclusively with Quattro and whose performance is unlikely to disappoint anyone. Again with 300 horsepower, and with a bit more torque-325 lb-ft, up from 310-this muscular six makes the new A6 splendidly quick. The engine is also utterly unobtrusive, never even hinting that there's a supercharger at work. In fact, the one criticism some might have of this engine is that it lacks any real aural presence. The only way we could get a rise out of it was slapping off some rev-matched downshifts with the seven-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch gearbox, but U.S.-market cars won't have that transmission; instead our 3.0T will use an eight-speed automatic. With two more ratios than the current car's six-speed automatic, the new transmission helps the 3.0T improve its EPA ratings from 18/16 to 19/28 mpg (city/highway).

We also had a chance to take a turn in an A6 with a 3.0-liter TDI. Again, this European-spec model wasn't exactly what we'll get in the States, but Audi is planning to add this engine to the U.S. lineup, with output expected to fall somewhere between that of the two European variants' 204-245 hp, and 295-369 lb-ft of torque. The diesel is responsive and extremely well-mannered-its quietness is really astounding. North American buyers won't get the auto stop/start feature nor will we get the A6 hybrid, which pairs the turbocharged 2.0-liter four and an electric motor for an impressive 245 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque.

Chassis changes
The A6 catches up with its siblings by finally switching to the rear-biased Quattro system with a 40/60 default torque split. Additionally, an optional sport rear differential can send power to the outside wheel in a curve. The new A6 also switches to electrically assisted power steering. Although this aids the cause of efficiency, electric power steering is rarely the enthusiast's choice. The good news here is that the A6 steering system remains precise and well calibrated. Efforts can be fine-tuned via the standard Drive Select system, which also offers choices in powertrain responsiveness (altering throttle and transmission mapping), damper firmness, and the aggressiveness of the sport rear differential and the seatbelt pretensioners. In addition to the familiar comfort, automatic, dynamic, and individual (custom mix-and-match) modes, there's a new efficiency mode. The latter all but snuffs out throttle response, and we can't imagine wanting to drive in this mode. We preferred the dynamic mode for its meatier steering efforts, although even comfort mode isn't too overboosted. Neither made much of a difference in handling or ride quality. The new A6 corners eagerly, with less understeer than you'd expect. Credit the rear torque bias and the less nose-heavy powertrain layout-speaking of heavy, the new A6 isn't; it's actually a bit lighter than its predecessor (78 pounds lighter in the case of the 3.0T Quattro). The car also rides well, as long as it's not rolling on twenty-inch wheels, which telegraph every crease in the road; the nineteens are noticeably better (eighteens and seventeens are also available depending on the trim level).

Why drive when you can surf?
Speaking of available features, the 2012 A6 adds some notable new ones. Topping the list is the car's ability to be a wireless hot spot, supporting up to eight web surfing devices (you'll need a data plan with a yet-to-be selected wireless provider). Cars with that service can do Google searches via the standard MMI with the results sent to the navigation system; the wireless data service also enables the navigation system to use Google Earth images together with the road maps. This new navigation unit also features the touchpad (seen already in the A7 and the A8), which allows drivers to make entries by drawing letters and numbers on the pad with their finger.

Other new tech toys include a head-up display, active cruise control with pre-collision warning (from the front and the rear), night vision, adaptive headlights (with the bi-xenon headlamp only, not the LEDs), lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist, blind spot warning, and the ultra-expensive Bang & Olufsen sound system (figure $6000 or so).

What's in, what's out
When it arrives this fall, the new A6 will offer higher tech spec, a somewhat bolder interior design, an enhanced driving experience, and improved fuel economy. What will be diminished will be the model choices. In addition to the aforementioned V-8, the Avant departs the lineup, as does the mighty V-10 S6. The S6 will return (likely in 2012), but the Avant is probably gone from our market for good. -Joe Lorio

On sale: September 2011
Base price: $50,000 (est.)

L x W x H: 193.5 x 73.8 x 57.8 in
Wheelbase: 114.6 in
Track, f/r: 64.1/63.7 in
Engine: 3.0-liter supercharged V-6
Power: 300 hp @ 5250-6500 rpm
Torque: 325 lb-ft @ 2900-4500 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Curb weight: 4045 lb
Cargo volume: 18.7 cu ft