Audi's A6 offers subtle virtues
Audi impressed me last summer with its redesigned compact A4 - a rare intersection of elegance and driver-friendliness among entry-level luxury cars - but I can't get fired up about the A4's larger sibling, the midsize A6. The elder Audi has no shortage of clever innovations, and its styling is vintage Audi: unassuming at first, then desirable in all its subtleties a day or two later. Alas, for a number of reasons - most of them related to the driving experience - it can't combine driving thrills with cabin quality like a number of its competitors do.
The A6's last full redesign was for the 2005 model year, so 2009 brings a number of late-cycle updates: new lights, revised equipment packages, tweaked underpinnings and a new supercharged 3.0-liter V-6. The supercharged six, included on the inaptly named A6 3.0T - in Audi parlance, "T" normally stands for turbocharging - comes with standard Quattro all-wheel drive in both sedan and wagon body styles.
New on the sedan this year are wider taillights that closely resemble those on the A4 sedan and A5 coupe. Premium trims get 17-inch alloy wheels, while Premium Plus and Prestige editions add 18-inchers, silver exterior trim, and LED daytime running lamps, similar to those offered on the A4 and Audi's R8 supercar.
On most trims, you'll have to push a button on the key fob to unlock the doors; only the Prestige includes keyless access, with a remote that stays in your pocket and push-button ignition.
Audi's latest direct-injection engines aren't lacking for low-end power, so you won't have to wait until higher revs before the cavalry arrives. The A6 3.0T is no different: Rated at 300 horsepower and 310 pounds-feet of torque its supercharged V-6 delivers surefooted thrust whether you're passing trucks on the interstate or overtaking slower traffic before your lane runs out. It feels more authoritative, especially at the low end, than Infiniti's M35 or Cadillac's V-6 STS; I drove a Jaguar XF a few days after testing the A6, and its V-8 couldn't deliver the same low-end power. Despite the all-wheel-drive A6 3.0T's hefty curb weight - 4,123 pounds - Audi says it hits 60 miles per hour in 5.9 seconds, a figure that beats the Mercedes-Benz E350 and nearly ties the Lexus GS 350 and BMW's twin-turbo 535i.
I question why anyone would buy the less fuel-efficient A6 4.2, whose 350-hp V-8 hits 60 mile per hour just 0.1 seconds quicker. Perhaps Audi somehow quelled accelerator lag in that version - which brings me to my chief complaint, something that sapped the drivetrain's thrills so much it was an outright deal-breaker for me: gas-pedal lag. Encouraged in part by the auto industry's migration toward drive-by-wire electronic throttles, this annoyance is rampant in competitors like the E-Class, but it's especially vexing here, in part because of its inconsistency. From stop-and-go driving to highway passing, the A6 exhibits as much as a full second of delay between pressing the accelerator and, well, accelerating. The depth of the pedal has little effect on the outcome: Whether barely prodded or given a concerted stab, the delay emerged - but not always: I didn't notice it early in the week, and one colleague took the A6 home and discerned no major lag. Two others who drove the car reported noticeable lag.
The base A6 3.2 and the 4.2 version might behave differently - though all three engines employ electronic throttles. Audi spokesman Christian Bokich looked into the issue and said the automaker's quality teams have found no throttle failures with the 3.0T.
"There is some lag" at low speeds, he said, "but the engine is behaving quite well for an all-new setup." I wish I could agree.
Audi's six-speed automatic does its best to iron things out. It's a fairly responsive gearbox, particularly in Sport mode, and it delivers swift kickdown and smooth upshifts. There's a manual mode for clutchless shifting, and the Prestige trim gets steering-wheel shift paddles if you're into that sort of thing.
Power ratings for the lineup range from 255 hp in the base A6 3.2 to 435 hp in the V-10 S6. Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard, with beefier discs in the A6 3.0T and 4.2. The pedal in my test car elicited strong but touchy braking, making it difficult to stop smoothly even after practice.
Combined EPA city-highway gas mileage works out to 21 miles per gallon in the A6 3.2 and 3.0T - meaning the latter, considering its standard all-wheel drive, is particularly efficient - and 18 in the A6 4.2.
Roominess is not a strength in the A6. The front seats lack the space to spread out that other cars in this class - particularly the M - provide, and the rear bench sits too low to the ground for adequate adult thigh support. In both rows, headroom is merely adequate.
The trunk is Audi's biggest asset: It measures 15.9 cubic feet, tying the E-Class and besting the M (14.9 cubic feet), 5 Series (14.0), and GS (a paltry 12.7). The A6 also has a standard 60/40-split folding rear seat, a feature that's optional on the E-Class and largely unavailable elsewhere. The S6 adds a center pass-thru. Either way, the folding seatbacks are well-executed, with a wide, ledge-free opening and no seat belts hanging in the way.
The dash looks the part of most Audis, with simple, soft-touch textures rather than the leather-wrapped surfaces in vogue in today's luxury cars. It mostly works, in large part because the finishes feel consistently high-rent, from eye-level to thigh-level. This isn't the case for all $50,000 cars; the Cadillac STS has glaring inconsistencies, and even Mercedes' redesigned 2010 E-Class has some spotty finishes here and there.
In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the A6 received top scores for front, side and rear impacts. Accordingly, IIHS named the A6 a Top Safety Pick for 2009.
Standard safety features for the A6 include dual front airbags, side-impact airbags for the front seats, and side curtain airbags for both rows. Antilock brakes, traction control, and an electronic stability system are also standard. Rear-seat-mounted side airbags and a blind spot warning system are optional.
Reliability for the current generation is so-so, with Consumer Reports rating V-6 models average in predicted reliability. Neither the V-8 A6 4.2 nor the V-10 S6 has been rated. Among popular competitors, Audi ranks midpack: The 5 Series and E-Class both rank average to below average in CR's reliability ratings, while the Lexus GS is generally above average. The Infiniti M boasts the group's best reliability by a fair margin.
The A6 3.2 Premium starts at $45,100, right in the thick of its competition. Standard features include 12-way power front seats, leather upholstery, a moonroof, and dual-zone automatic climate control. The 3.0T Premium costs an additional $5,000 - $8,210 if you want the wagon - but throws in heated front seats, which are just an option with the lesser engine. The $1,500 S-line sport package, available only on the 3.0T, includes a sport-tuned suspension and 19-inch wheels.
Premium Plus models - an extra $1,320 to $1,800, depending on drivetrain and body style - add aluminum exterior moldings (sedan only; the wagon has them standard), xenon headlights with the aforementioned LEDs, larger wheels, and a memory driver's seat.
The Prestige edition, which runs $5,100 more than the base, Premium A6, has Premium Plus equipment plus steering-wheel paddle shifters, a power-adjustable steering column, keyless access, a navigation system, and a backup camera. The A6 3.2 doesn't come in a Prestige version, while the A6 4.2 comes only in Prestige.
Heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, rear side airbags, and the blind spot warning system round out the list of features available on any trim. Load up an A6 4.2, and the price will run about $62,000; a similarly equipped A6 3.0T costs about $6,000 less. Considering their near-identical performance, I see little point in getting the V-8.
Behind Mercedes's E-Class and BMW's 5 Series, the A6 is one of the most popular cars in its segment. I have a hard time understanding why, considering Infiniti has a compelling alternative in the M, Jaguar has the XF, and Lexus has the GS.
If you're doling out this much money, a car ought to be free of drivetrain issues like those the A6 suffers. Give the A6 an honest workout on your test drive, and if you really find no fault with the driving experience - accelerator lag, touchy brakes, highway wind noise, or otherwise - then perhaps its strengths deserve a closer look.
I can't summon enough enthusiasm to overlook such issues, and for 50 large, there are plenty of competitors with serious strengths and fewer compromises. Audi has a contender in the A4, but the A6 still needs some work.