With More Power and a New CVT Transmission, Audi Makes a Bid for a Bigger Slice of the Luxury Sedan Pie
D. John Booth, Contributor
Pundits have regularly proclaimed Audi's A6 2.8 a great car in search of an engine. Possessed of graceful design, excellent road-holding and a comfortable cabin, it has been consistently let down by a base engine lacking in torque. Said engine has been, until 2002, a 2.8-liter 200-horsepower V6. It has double overhead cams and five valves per cylinder to maximize efficiency. Nonetheless, its oomph (207 pound-feet at 3,200 rpm) has always felt inferior, ranking near the tail end of the luxury sedan class in thrills per mile.
To help rectify this situation, Audi recently added new engines to the A6's coterie, namely a turbocharged 250-horse 2.7-liter V6 (A6 2.7T) and a stout 300-hp 4.2-liter V8 (A6 4.2). Both generously solved the A6's power deficit, albeit for a serious wad of cash, but also served to amplify the power deficit of the base engine.
Audi obviously got the message, because for 2002 the base engine benefits from an extra 20 ponies thanks to an increase in displacement to 3.0 liters. Maximum torque is marginally increased to 221 lb-ft, peaking as before at 3,200 rpm. Audi claims that the new car is nearly a second faster to 60 mph than the old 2.8, slipping through the traps in 7.9 seconds when just the front wheels are doing the acceleration deed.
On the road, the A6 still doesn't feel quite as fast as its primary competition, at least when saddled with quattro all-wheel drive and the standard five-speed Tiptronic automanual transmission. Nonetheless, the 3.0-liter is a step in the right direction. The A6 3.0 feels adequate, whereas the previous version was definitely anemic. While trying to accelerate the previous 2.8 version required much downshifting and a flurry of revs to get anything remotely resembling meaningful acceleration, the 3.0 is able to move the A6 without so much drama.
Adding to its power advantage is that in completely redesigning the engine, Audi's engineers cast the new block in aluminum, saving some 44 pounds of unwanted weight. While they were at it, they slipped a balancer shaft into the V6, to better quell vibration caused by its unusual 90-degree V layout. Audi says that increasing the displacement by lengthening the stroke (rather than adding larger pistons) made it crucial to add the balance shaft. And indeed, the new motor is admirably vibration-free, though no 90-degree V6 is ever going to match BMW's inline six for smoothness.
As worthwhile as the new engine is to the A6's performance, it pales in comparison to its new multitronic transmission. Multitronic is one of the new continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) that promise to render the current crop of automatics obsolete. The Audi's tranny uses a set of pulleys and a "belt" (Audi's system actually uses a linked chain) to offer an almost infinite number of ratios, completely eliminating internal gears.
Multitronic's feel has been tailored for easy acceptance by North American drivers without compromising the CVT's advances in efficiency. When accelerating, traditional CVTs immediately increase rpm to a steady point and then increase speed by continuously varying their gear ratios. Because the engine's rpm is held close to its torque peak, a CVT is actually more efficient than a manual transmission. Indeed, Audi says that an A6 3.0 with multitronic is slightly faster to 60 mph than a Euro-spec car equipped with a manual transmission.
The downside is that since the motor is held at a constant rpm, there's less sensation of acceleration, something, says Audi, which has prevented universal acclaim for CVTs amongst focus groups that have tested the cars. Audi gets around the problem by engineering in a few attributes of a traditional automatic. Key is that, unlike a pure CVT, Audi's multitronic system increases engine rpm as speed increases, only there's no sensation of the gears shifting. Another feature engineered with the goal of consumer acceptance is "creep." Unlike traditional automatics, a CVT will not move forward at idle when you release the brake. Because they were adamant about gaining acceptance in our conservative market, Audi's engineers actually built some "creep" into the multitronic CVT so that it would feel more like a normal automatic.
Whatever the compromises made in the name of addressing the conservative tastes of the American consumer, the multitronic transmission is an absolute revelation, indeed, a revolution. For example, an A6 3.0 with multitronic actually accelerates better and gets superior fuel economy in comparison to its manual counterpart. It even feels sportier, responding to matting of the throttle with an almost immediate increase in rpm and instantaneous acceleration. And because a CVT can offer a much wider spread of "gears" than a regular transmission, the multitronic's top ratio is much taller, revving the engine 1,700 rpm at 60 mph compared with the manual version's 2,600 rpm. That's why the multitronic gets better fuel economy than the manual. It also means the multitronic-equipped A6 feels much smoother and is significantly quieter at cruising speeds.
Additionally, the multitronic CVT is superior to the A6's current Tiptronic automanual tranny. Since there are no gears, there are no harsh shifts. It also "kicks down" more quickly for better acceleration. Most of all, it feels "normal," which means it's likely to gain mainstream acceptance. The only bummer is that enthusiast drivers can't choose their own gears, but who needs that when multitronic runs quicker than a true manual gearbox?
In fact, the only downside to the multitronic CVT is that, for the foreseeable future, it's only available on the front-wheel-drive A6 (multitronic will also be available on the upcoming redesigned 2002 A4, but again only with front-wheel drive). Quattro versions of the A6 3.0 will soldier on with the five-speed Tiptronic automanual. In comparison to multitronic, Tiptronic feels crude and slow (it's nearly 1 second slower to 60 mph).
Other changes to the A6 for 2002 include stiffer dampers and additional aluminum suspension components. Despite these modifications, the A6 3.0 doesn't feel quite as composed as a BMW 3 Series at higher speeds. Those looking for better road-holding will find it in the form of the A6 2.7T or 4.2, which offer 17-inch wheels and a lowered sport-tuned suspension. There's also revised steering that gives the A6 3.0's wheel a firmer feel. Audi has also installed ESP (Electronic Stability Program) on all A6s.
Slight modifications have been made to the front fascia and different lighting clusters debut, front and rear. But differences in appearance are slight. Inside, altered color schemes and different leather are available as well as new gauges with aluminum accents. Thicker side windows with better seals reduce wind noise.
Which brings us to the radio.
Not that it has more power. Or even better sound reproduction. Nope, Audi has made an improvement of far greater importance. It has finally rid the center console of the daunting array of buttons that have confused thousands (before and sometimes even after they waded through countless pages of the owner's manual). Now fewer buttons and improved ergonomics make the new radio one of the A6's most significant improvements.
For years, Audi's claim to excellence has, deservedly, been its groundbreaking quattro AWD system. For 2002, there's another advantage to owning an Audi and a good reason to opt for the formerly inferior front-drive A6, other than price. It's called CVT.
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