What's New for 1998
Stretch an A4 platform, add rounded styling with plenty of edges for character, toss in a sumptuously comfortable interior available in several "atmosphere" styles, blend it all with traditional Germanic handling and what do you get? The excellent new Audi A6 sedan. Our only quibble is with the taillights, which appear to have been inspired by the Chevrolet S-10 pickup. The wagon is carried over from 1997.
Sedan: Remember Audi a decade ago? Of course not. Nobody does. Back then, Audi was changing numerical model names almost daily, and some half-assed reporting by 60 Minutes had almost killed the marque. Claiming to drive an Audi negatively branded you, and the old 80, 90, 100, and 200 model designations registered nothing on the social acceptability meter at the country club. Audi? Isn't that a fancy Volkswagen?
Audis are still fancy Volkswagens, but who cares. The A4 and A8 are simply superb examples of automotive engineering. This all-new A6 is more of the same, adding new corporate styling themes from recent show cars to the mix.
Under the hood is a 2.8-liter V6 engine making 200 horsepower. The five-speed automatic transmission features Tiptronic shifting controls, just like a Porsche. This powertrain will get the A6 from rest to 60 mph in a somewhat leisurely 8.8 seconds. Opt for the $1,650 quattro all-wheel drive system, and it will take an extra half-second to get to freeway merging velocity. Not stellar, but the old A6 was no speed demon either. Want to go fast? Get the A4 2.8 or A8 4.2.
While a manual transmission is definitely missing from the equipment roster, plenty of other standard goodies are included for the $34,000 tariff. You've got your alloy wheels, heated windshield washer nozzles, headlight washers, puddle lamps on each door, dual-zone climate control system with air filter, heated exterior mirrors, retained accessory power, power front seats, real wood trim, trip computer, 140-watt sound system with 10 speakers and side airbags. You've also got quite a suspension holding it all in place.
A four-link front suspension lifted from the A4 virtually eliminates torque steer under hard acceleration. We haven't driven the new A6 sedan, but if recent experiences with the A4 and A8 are any indication, the new A6 should provide a smooth, well-damped ride without filtering out vital information from the underpinnings. Steering should be light, maybe even a tad too much so, but will communicate effectively what's happening with the front tires.
The new styling is unmistakably Audi, with a swept greenhouse and muscular fenders. However, this new A6 isn't a stunner like the A4. The rounded sheetmetal and sharply creased trim detail don't blend well to our eye, and the taillights appear to have been lifted from Chevrolet's lowly S-10 pickup. From some angles, the car looks great. From others, it appears somewhat dumpy and jumbled. Front overhang can appear especially out of balance. Fortunately, a graceful arcing greenhouse lends a touch of class and elegance to an otherwise characterless profile.
Despite nitpicks, we believe the new A6 will prove enticing in the hotly contested entry-level luxury class. But there's plenty to choose from at this price point. Select carefully.
Wagon: Despite a recent freshening, the A6 Wagon is growing old. Sitting next to the outstanding A4, the brand new A6 sedan, and the sophisticated A8 in the showroom, the only Audi that looks more geriatric than the A6 Wagon is the Cabriolet. Still, this midlevel model is attractive, solid, roomy, and comfortable, with just the right amount of luxury and European flair to make it a viable alternative to other entry-level makes.
The A6 Wagon's major shortcoming is its powerplant. A 172-horsepower 2.8-liter V6 engine is expected to motivate as much as 3,847 pounds when installed in an unloaded A6 Quattro Wagon. This just isn't enough power, and acceleration can be called leisurely at best. Handling is another matter. Steering is crisp with excellent feel, though too light with overboosted power assist. Brakes are outstanding, bringing the heavy A6 wagon to a stop smoothly and surely.
Passengers in an A6 wagon are certain to be comfortable, perched on Audi's traditionally supportive seats. Jacquard cloth upholstery is standard, and Kodiak leather remains optional. Interior ambiance is rich with burled walnut inserts and a no-nonsense gauge layout that features soothing red backlighting at night. Some controls are difficult to figure out at first, but owners quickly adapt.
Audi's quattro all-wheel drive system is available as a stand-alone $1,600 option or as part of the Quattro Value Package that includes a power glass sunroof, larger wheels, and bigger tires for less than $900 more. Currently, Audi is pitching the A6 Quattro Wagon as an alternative to truck-like luxury SUVs. The marketing doesn't seem to be working. Sales have stagnated, while Subaru sales skyrocket thanks to all-wheel drive station wagons, and Lincoln can't build enough Navigators to satisfy demand.
Regardless, the A6 Wagon is a unique type of car. Nobody else sells this kind of luxury in this kind of package. But soon, a Volkswagen Passat Wagon with Synchro all-wheel drive will be available. At that point, the A6 Wagon becomes a moot point. If you want the Audi, get it now.