Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
The introduction of the 2005 Audi A6 will go down as a seminal event in Audi's U.S. history. Not for what it started — a serious attack on BMW's throne — but what it ended, namely the career of its U.S. leader Axel Mees who was fired just days after the press launch.
Seems as though Herr Mees was a bit too frank when asked what he thought about Volkswagen's push into Audi's territory with its Phaeton sedan, an awkward thrust championed by Volkswagen's chairman Ferdinand Piech. Mees told journalists that VW overestimated its brand value and that Chairman Piech had ignored the marketing aspects involved in selling luxury cars. It seemed like a perfectly rational assessment given the Phaeton's miserable sales, but Piech was not amused and Mees got canned.
Too bad for Mees, really. Had he been around longer he would have been able to enjoy more upbeat headlines that describe Audi's reinvigorated lineup as teeming with competitive new models. Last year saw the introduction of the revamped Audi A8 flagship, and a reskinned version of the compact Audi A4 is on the way for 2006. Slotted between the two is the all-new midsize Audi A6, a sedan that up until now has received trifling attention thanks to middling performance and superstar competitors.
That invisibility is apt to wear off quickly, however, as the revamped A6 is the first U.S.-bound model to wear Audi's distinctive new grille treatment. It moves the Audi A6 from nearly invisible to unavoidably obvious with one fell swoop of the designer's pen. Quick glances reveal shades of the Ford Five Hundred in the A6's basic shape, but the addition of the gaping jaw up front assures that no one will mistake this product of Germany for anything Midwestern in origin.
As much as the look of the Audi A6 may distinguish it from its predecessor, it's the less visible details that elevate this luxury sedan from stealth status to heavy hitter. Chief among them is a consolidated engine lineup that consists of just two power plants: a base 3.2-liter V6 and the top-of-the-line 4.2-liter V8. While the larger V8 is pulled straight from the current Audi S4 super sedan, the V6 is an all-new design that utilizes direct injection to deliver the often contradictory combination of added horsepower and better mileage.
That desirable feat is accomplished by firing fuel directly into the cylinder as opposed to mixing it in further up the line. This allows for more precise control of the burn and gives the brilliant engineers who can actually understand this kind of stuff the ability to fine-tune combustion with previously unattainable precision. The result is a modest displacement V6 that churns out 255 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque along with mileage ratings of 19 in the city and 26 on the highway.
Our test car drove under the power of this technological marvel, and although the complexity of its operation was well over our heads the results were easy enough to comprehend. Hooked to a standard six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission (no manual is offered) and the latest quattro all-wheel-drive system (also standard), the new V6 propels this new Audi along with the kind of strong and flexible motivation that makes it equally at home on the highway or twisting through the sticks. Its sound is virtually undetectable at speed, but open up those butterflies and it responds with a quick pulse of power and a slight growl that adds a hint of personality.
Audi aficionados will note that the twin-turbo V6 available in the previous A6 offered equivalent levels of power and torque, but said power was delivered complete with dead spots and turbo surging that made it less than the sum of its horsepower. Whether it was a consequence of less intelligent transmissions or its need for spooled-up turbos, the old 2.7 never mustered the kind of on-demand torque necessary to make the Audi A6 feel as fast as it was. The new 3.2 hardly instills quickness, as we measured a best track time of 7.9 seconds to 60 mph, but the drivability factor has been improved enough to consider it an appreciable upgrade.
Mileage is excellent, too, as we managed to get from San Francisco to L.A. (just over 400 miles) on a single tank, averaging about 22 mpg. Bear in mind that we took the scenic route along the way and spent a significant amount of time slinging it through corners while pegged in third gear. It was at about that time that we discovered the abilities of the A6's new suspension components, most of which are drawn directly from the Audi A8 well. It doesn't feature the flagship's air adjustable setup (not yet at least), but we found little reason to want to fool with the ride quality.
Firmer than you might expect but not sharp enough to make you wince, the A6's underpinnings deliver a confident feel that's unfailingly predictable. There's moderate body roll and it plows a bit when pushed, but it's light enough on its feet to feel sporty even without the sport package. The steering is solid at speed but dial back the velocity and the A6 turns into a Park Avenue thanks to an overly aggressive variable boost system. The car's overall setup won't get old the first week you commute to work in it, nor will it leave you bored when you finally make some time on a weekend to wring it out a little.
Contributing to its likability are several design elements that aren't obvious at first but important in the long run. For one, the cabin is eerily quiet. Wind noise off the mirrors is almost nonexistent and road noise is only obvious because there are no gusts of air to conceal it. There aren't many cars that strike you with their silence — the A6 is one of them.
Driver comfort is another element that impresses with every mile behind the wheel. We spent nearly an entire day at the helm and fatigue always seemed like another exit away. Finding a comfortable driving position takes little fiddling and the sightlines are good to all sides. Well-designed steering wheel controls keep your hands on the wheel and the gauges are easy on the eyes despite an elegant appearance that implies form over function. Although we prefer the more aggressive bolstering of the optional sport seats, the standard chairs proved capable of warding off a sore back better than most. We didn't sample the rear seats for long, but with slightly more room than either the BMW 5 Series or the Mercedes-Benz E-Class they seemed equally adept at providing long-range comfort.
Like the A8 flagship, the A6 now uses Audi's Multi Media Interface (MMI) system to control the car's various functions from one central push-and-turn knob, and like the A8 we still find it more trouble than it's worth. The learning curve isn't as steep as BMW's iDrive system, but the fact that there's a curve at all is annoying. To Audi's credit, the look of the system's menus is futuristically slick and the attention to detail is impressive, but we long for the day when a luxury car's controls need no explanation and "less is more" is the obvious design philosophy.
As frustrating as the MMI can be, it's not enough to dull the shine of the A6's dazzling interior. We've come to expect such perfection from Audi and you would be hard-pressed to find much wrong with the look and feel of the A6's cabin. From its first-class materials to its snug panel fits, nothing seems out of place or in need of improvement. The optional premium package adds handsome wood accents that wear bands of metallic trim to further set them off against the surrounding panels. It's so tastefully done that you wish the furniture in your home was so richly detailed.
At night the cabin has fewer illuminated switches and knobs than last year's Audi A6 so there's less of a cockpit feel than before. It retains Audi's subtle overhead lighting while adding additional indirect illumination in the footwells and underneath the outside mirrors. Also included on our premium package-equipped car was a set of surprisingly effective bi-xenon adaptive headlights. With their ability to swivel from side to side to light up dark turns, they proved invaluable on a late night run through a desolate set of sweepers. Combine this feature with the crisp, white light of the xenon beams and the Audi A6 makes for an excellent nocturnal companion.
With as many features as our Audi A6 offered, we fully expected its price tag to come in a little over the hill like our last BMW 5 Series. But therein lies another one of the A6's more endearing features — a base price nearly $6,000 less than a BMW 530i automatic. Even with a $3,000 premium package and a $750 set of 17-inch wheels, our A6 still came in $2,000 less than that base 530i. And that's for an A6 with 30 more horsepower, quattro all-wheel drive, a top-shelf audio system and one of the most elegant cabins in the business.
After years of nipping at the heels of its cross-country rivals, Audi appears to have concocted a midsize sedan that you simply can't ignore. Whether that's due to its inimitable looks is one thing, but its satisfying performance and verifiable value proposition is quite another. The fact remains that the 2005 Audi A6 bests the competition in more ways than one, and if he were still around, we're sure Axel would be proud.
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says: There seems to be an inexorable force that requires me to like Audi products more and more every year. I'm already a big fan of the A8, A4 and TT, now comes the new A6, and I find myself again thinking it is the best car in its class. I was never a fan of the old A6's look, but this new one has been refined just enough to give it some character without looking desperate for attention (à la 5 Series). The interior is sumptuous, from the slick MMI graphics to the supple leather on the steering wheel to the comfortable and supportive seats. And of course, the A6 offers both a premium and performance-oriented driving experience. The all-wheel drive made it a blast on canyon roads, and in our slalom testing, but the car can just as easily provide a placid and pampering ride on long stretches of freeway.
Looking at the price/content equation of this car makes me question why anyone would spend the extra money on an E-Class or 5 Series. Both of those cars are similarly impressive in terms of ride, handling and premium amenities, but they both cost considerably more than the A6 while offering either inferior interior materials (E-Class), inferior ergonomics (5 Series) or inferior value (both). I'll take the A6, thank you.
Senior Content Editor Erin Riches says: Audi is once again selling a sanely priced, winter-friendly alternative in the midsize luxury sedan segment. While I might prefer the driving dynamics of the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class, going with the A6 would spare the buyer the discomfort of paying upward of $50,000 for premium transportation — without forcing him to give up an ounce of luxury. As in other Audis, the cabin materials are beyond reproach, but the designers' treatment of the wood inlays is really something special in the A6. Not only is the wood itself gorgeous, but the fillets in the dash are framed in chrome — an elegant touch that sets the Audi apart from its competition costing thousands more. The driver seat, meanwhile, provided perfect comfort during my two-hour stint behind the wheel. And in the backseat, I was pleased to find that the A6 offers more legroom than either the 5 Series or E-Class.
Ride quality is just about ideal, as the Audi quietly absorbs any ripples in its path without feeling unnecessarily soft or floppy. When driven more aggressively around turns, the A6 does a fair impression of a plus-size A4 but doesn't feel as athletic as a 5 Series or even as buttoned down as an E-Class. The steering disappointed me. It's certainly not a sloppy setup, but the wheel doesn't firm up enough at higher speeds and the connection to the road is faint. The average driver wouldn't complain, but enthusiasts looking for a BMW substitute won't find it here. Maybe I shouldn't even be looking for such a thing, but after experiencing the taut-handling A4 and the surprisingly nimble A8, I expected a sporty A6. So I didn't get my wish, but if luxury and comfort are your top priorities, this Audi should be high on your list.
System Score: 9.0
Components: Our test car featured the optional Bose audio system that's only available as part of the premium package. In terms of speaker count, the front doors house 1-inch tweeters, 3-inch midrange speakers and a 5.25-inch woofer while the rear doors swap out the woofers for 6.5-inch low/midrange speakers in addition to an identical tweeter and midrange setup. There's also a 3-inch midrange center channel in the dash and two 3-inch midrange speakers in the rear parcel shelf. Controlling the system is a digital amplification unit that includes Centerpoint and SurroundStage signal processors, Audiopilot noise compensation and a total of eight amplifiers. The system is controlled through the MMI system while the CD changer is housed in the glovebox.
Performance: We've found the Bose name a hit or miss proposition over the years when it comes to premium factory audio systems, but there's no denying that this is one of its finest systems to date. Utilizing nearly every tool in the Bose arsenal, this system serves up sound quality that will have you looking forward to the drive home. Between its simulated surround sound and the nearly perfect tonal separation, this system lets you hear every note. Vocals come through with a warmth and clarity that you rarely hear in an automobile while bass notes are reproduced with a strong kick and little or no distortion. Backing vocals that get lost on lesser systems sit just off to the side with this setup, filling out songs with details that you've probably never even heard before. No matter what your favorite genre of music is, it will sound outstanding coming through this system.
Best Feature: Unrivaled sound quality that lets you hear every note.
Worst Feature: Lack of an in-dash CD changer.
Conclusion: Easily one of the finest factory audio systems on the market today, this system will satisfy even the most discerning audiophiles. If not for its lack of an in-dash CD changer, this system would be a 10. — Ed Hellwig
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