First Drive: 2019 Audi A6
The unexpected hero
DUORO VALLEY, PORTUGAL — When I was first given the assignment to attend the Audi A6 press launch, I was feeling more than a little cynical, paradisiacal location notwithstanding. (Seriously, globetrotters, you need to put Porto, Portugal on your bucket list. It's movie-set Europe come to life.) There was a time when the A6 was one of Audi's best sellers, but for the last couple of years it's been gathering cobwebs. I knew Audi had great things planned for the 2019 A6, but however good it might prove to be—and it turned out to be quite good—it would still lack the prestige of the A8, the practicality of the A4, the appeal of the A5, and the raw sexiness of the A7. The A6 would always be a large-ish luxury sedan, and in today's market, large-ish luxury sedans are on the outs.
So my hopes for the A6 weren't high and yet, as you can probably guess from this insufferably long setup, I found myself mysteriously won over, even if I didn't quite understand the attraction.
Let's back up and cover the preliminaries: The A6 is all-new for 2019, though the pattern is relatively unchanged. The new A6 is roughly the same size as the old one on the outside, but slightly larger on the inside and bears a stiffer structure. Styling-wise, there are no big surprises, except perhaps for the big ugly radar sensors that interrupt the chrome lines of the grille and the fake exhaust ports out back. (Seriously, Audi? Fake exhaust ports? You had to go there?)
On the powertrain side, the 2.0-liter turbo-four has been dropped, though Audi hints that it may return, possibly with a hybrid drivetrain. When US-market A6s go on sale this fall, all will get the familiar 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6 plus a standard "mild hybrid" system. Horsepower is unchanged at 340, but the 369 lb-ft of torque represents a noteworthy 44 lb-ft increase. A seven-speed twin-clutch automatic transmission replaces last year's eight-speed conventional automatic, and Quattro all-wheel-drive distributes power all four corners.
The delightfully twisty and distressingly narrow roads around Portugal's Duoro Valley proved to be a good place to test out the A6's agility. The V-6 had no problem with the steep hills; after the obligatory pause for the turbo to wake up, the engine delivers a broad brand of largely silent thrust. Upshifts and downshifts are prompt and smooth, even at take-off—so much so that I had to double-check the spec sheet to verify that this was, indeed, a twin-clutch transmission and not a traditional torque-converter automatic.
Steering is nearly one-finger light and doesn't get much heavier when Dynamic driving mode is selected. If I was writing this review five years ago—which, I suppose, would require a time machine—I would have dinged the A6 for that, but the older I get, the more I appreciate light steering. Feedback isn't a strong suit, but as I tossed the A6 through the near-constant string of bends, I felt like I was in perfect control. I was also grinning like the proverbial idiot.
Audi only had German-spec cars for us to drive, though they tried their best to keep them as close to US-spec as possible. One place where they failed was the suspension: They teased us with both air- and steel-sprung cars, though the air suspension reportedly won't make it to the US. I am a huge fan of air springs, as they provide the best possible mix of comfort and handling, but after sampling both setups on the same roads, I can honestly say we aren't missing out on much. The air suspension did a slightly better job of damping out small bumps and seemed to transmit less road noise into the cabin, but handling was pretty darn near a toss-up.
Speaking of road noise, that's another big change for the A6: It's incredibly quiet on the open road. Part of that is down to the lightweight hybrid system, which allows the engine to shut down for a few minutes at a time at highway speeds. I never noticed the tach dropping to zero, but I may have been too busy marveling at the scenery with my drive partner. Still, even with the engine online, the A6 is as quiet as a Buick, thanks largely to double-pane glass and improved door seals that block out wind and road noise.
I've yet to touch on what may be the biggest news in A6-land: A tech package to beat the band. The 2019 A6 will (finally!) offer Audi's Virtual Cockpit as an option. VC is a wide-screen dash panel that, among other tricks, allows you to shrink the gauges and display a full-width moving map with Google Earth imagery. This remains the coolest dashboard I have ever seen.
I'm not quite so enamored of the new Multimedia Interface (MMI), also found in the 2019 A7 and 2019 A8. It uses two touch-screen monitors, a 10.1" panel up top and an 8.6" screen below for the climate controls. (Low-end A6s will get a slightly smaller screen up top.) This is Audi's first touch-screen display, and it responds to touches with haptic feedback (a slight vibration of the screen) along with a muted click from the speakers. Basic navigation functions are no more complex than any other German car; one nifty addition is that you can write out letters or even entire words on the lower screen (say, for programming a destination), as you used to do on the Audi's old touch-pad.
But aside from its use as a writing tablet, I'm less fond of the lower climate-control screen. I must interject that I think the new A4 and A5's climate controls—which use dials for the temperature, metal toggle switches, and monochrome display icons that enlarges as your fingers get near the buttons—are the pinnacle of perfection. The A6's touch panel requires a long glance away from the steering wheel to find the right spot, and while it's supposed to let you tap or swipe to change temperature or fan speed, it's way more finicky than it ought to be.
It also adds additional layers of complexity. Let's say you want to fiddle with the rear A/C. First, press one of the icons on the lower screen, which brings up a menu on the upper screen. Next, press "REAR", which brings up the rear A/C controls on the lower screen. Now you can make all the adjustments you want, but you also need to manually close the menu on the upper screen. And if you think my explanation is needlessly complex, try using it while darting down narrow, curvy roads and dodging oncoming Renault panel vans driven by young men more interested in their phones than avoiding head-on collisions.
Audi has a great system in the A4, so why make it more complex? Audi's answer is that they expect most buyers to use their voice-response system, not just for the A/C but for all secondary controls. At one staffer's urging, I tried pressing the voice button and saying "I'm cold"—but instead of turning up the heater as he expected, it attempted to give me directions to the nearest courthouse.
That said, the plethora of screens all go dark when the car is shut off, and the effect is exceptionally cool. This brings me to another nifty A6 feature: The ambient lighting package, which includes light-piping on the doors and center console and a backlit Quattro badge on the passenger's side of the dash. The colors can be changed, and if you select Dynamic mode, the lights on the center console go red or blue as you turn the temperature up or down—a feature almost cool enough to make me want to use the A6's overly-complex A/C controls.
As a guy who spent years writing for car-consumer pubs, I always liked the old A6's value-for-money equation. Audi hasn't announced pricing, but they did tell us that the A6 will get genuine leather upholstery as standard (as opposed to the leatherette used in entry-level Bimmers and Benzes) as well as a panoramic sunroof. It's early days for speculation, but I'd be surprised if the A6 doesn't undercut similarly-equipped 5s and E-Classes by a significant margin.
That said, I don't expect the A6 to be a particularly strong seller. SUVs are where the action is, and Audi buyers seem perfectly content to spend the extra dough for the similarly-sized and significantly sexier A7. If the expected gas-price Armageddon comes to fruition, it's likely the strong-selling Q5 and A5 Sportback will be the beneficiaries. The 2019 Audi A6 is a car whose time, in the US at least, has come and gone. Still, this new version is compelling enough to make me care about it—and considering how little I expected when I first set out on this adventure, that's saying a lot.
2019 Audi A6 Specifications
|ON SALE||Fall 2018|
|ENGINE||3.0L turbocharged DOHC 24-valve V-6/340 hp@5,000-6,400 RPM, 368.8 lb-ft@1,370-4,500 RPM|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed dual clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan|
|L x W x H||194.4 x 74.2 x 57.3 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.1 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||155 MPH|