By Lawrence Ulrich
THE NEW YORK TIMES
The new Audi A6 has arrived. And from its debut on the luxury stage until the end of its days, this sedan will be the William Mapother of the Audi lineup.
Never heard of him? Well, you may know his first cousin and fellow actor, one Thomas Cruise Mapother IV.
As with the Mapothers, Audi has a pair of performing cousins in the A7 hatchback and A6 sedan. One is matinee-idol handsome. The other may be just as talented, yet seems destined for such cast credits as “Second Banker in Bar” or “Allergic Florist.”
Reversing the usual timing – workaday sedan first, fantasy offshoot second – Audi brought out the slinky, coupe-roofed A7 first. Now the A6 pulls up to the curb for its premiere and draws little notice; all the paparazzi are crowding around the dashing A7.
Fortunately for fans of conventional sedans, there’s virtually no discernable gap in luxury, performance or features between these midsize Audis. Choose the A6 and you get a back seat that can handle three passengers in a pinch, but you give up the versatility of the A7’s sweetly integrated hatchback.
Choose the A7 and you get that spacious cargo hatch, but the back seat can handle only two people, who get 1.2 less inches of headroom. But you will enjoy a pleasurably swelled head from the longing looks that come your way.
Style and layout aside, the A6 3.0 quattro and the A7 share their chassis and suspension, their supercharged V-6 and their eight-speed automatic transmission. The cabins are nearly identical.
But only the A6 offers a more affordable 2-liter turbo four-cylinder with 211 horses and a continuously variable transmission, starting at $42,575.
Riding on a 2.7-inch longer wheelbase, with a body 0.8 inch wider, the redesigned A6 grows a bit roomier inside. Yet the V-6 model’s unloaded weight (4,045 pounds) is down 78 from last year, thanks partly to a body structure that’s 20 percent aluminum. Fuel economy has improved a bit, to 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway.
The 4-cylinder model does better, at a class-topping 25/33 mpg.
And the four-cylinder A6 Hybrid, which may arrive next year, should easily top 30 mpg in combined city and freeway use.
With its big wheels yanked to the corners, the Audi looks tasteful and well proportioned. But for a company whose coupes, crossovers and sports cars are reliably alluring, Audi’s sedan bodies have become rather passionless.
Its dramatic grille aside, the A6 takes its complacent styling cues from the latest A8 flagship. Together, they’re the Dull and Duller of high-price German sedans, casting some doubt on Audi’s self-mythologizing as the edgy, hipper alternative to the luxury establishment.
Certainly two other rich competitors, the BMW 5 Series and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, remain understated, yet they carry themselves with striking Teutonic authority. And if you’re really looking to upset the suburban order, the Jaguar XF is the British glam rocker of this class. In contrast, the Audi is about as edgy as a caramel latte at Starbucks.
Fortunately, the A6 is just like the A8 in another regard: Once you hop inside and press the start button, the Audi demands high placement on any midluxury shopping list.
I drove the Audi from New York to Detroit for a family vacation. And while Interstate 80 is no autobahn, the Audi lapped up 1,300 miles as pleasurably as a run through Europe. And the A6 sipped fuel at a frugal 27 mpg.
The old A6’s interior had seemed increasingly dour, and the new cabin elevates design and features to Audi’s current standards. From the flowing instrument panel and its pop-up navigation screen to the yachtlike shifter and enveloping wood trim, everything looks fresh, contemporary and welcoming; it’s like stepping into one of those ridiculous dream kitchens in Hollywood romantic comedies. Diane Keaton or Meryl Streep would be at home in the A6, zipping to Whole Foods for some Scottish salmon.
The front seats add a cushion-length adjuster, a boon to taller drivers. The Audi was also impeccably quiet on our road trip. Audi says the side mirrors contribute only 3 percent to aerodynamic drag, versus 7 percent for a typical car.
The A6’s cabin is now a Wi-Fi hotspot, at least if you shell out $30 a month for Audi Connect (after getting a free trial for six months). The cellular-based system connects up to eight wireless devices. Its navigation unit relies on Google Earth images with a limited local search function that lets you call up photos and information about destinations, along with real-time gas prices, traffic reports, news headlines and weather. Audi Connect is part of an optional $6,880 Prestige package that also includes 18-inch wheels, a Bose audio system, four-zone climate control and xenon adaptive headlamps.
Stroking a fingertip across a drawing pad on the console, drivers can scrawl the first letters of phone contacts or destinations, which are called up while you keep an eye on the road. The on-screen graphics of Audi’s MMI infotainment system set an industry standard, overlaying traffic data and Google Earth images on top of standard map views.
The Google data is impressive in a beta-stage way. Yet it must be said: Seeing brown hills from above in Google Earth, or the roofs of surrounding buildings, doesn’t help you navigate. In fact, the looming physical features often obscure what you need to see, which are streets and street names. One gain would be street-level views of an unfamiliar block; Audi says the system will add those up-close views, perhaps in 2012.
The Audi needs no gimmicks to perform like a champ. The power of the V-6 has grown to 310 horses, up 10 from last year, and 325 pound-feet of torque, a gain of 15.
The A6 reaches 60 mph from a stop in just 5.4 seconds, Car and Driver reports, in a zesty dead heat with the six-cylinder BMW 535i. All-wheel-drive is standard, with 60 percent of power directed to the rear wheels under normal conditions, mimicking the feel of a rear-drive sport sedan.
The new electric steering isn’t the most tactile on the road, but it’s accurate and confident. Nothing breaks the A6’s commanding stride, not bad weather, broken pavement or a sudden maneuver.
The standard Drive Select system lets drivers adjust steering, throttle response and transmission, but not the suspension, to settings for comfort or firmer control. The eight-speed transmission is smooth and crisp, though it occasionally lurched or hesitated at slower speeds as it figured out which gear to grab.
Compared with BMW’s sonorous turbo six, let alone the eight-cylinder engines available from BMW, Mercedes, Infiniti and Jaguar, the Audi V-6 soundtrack is flat and unremarkable. And for traditionalists, BMW also offers a six-speed manual transmission.
But with or without a stick, the Audi is as formidable as anything in its six-cylinder class. If that’s not enough, a redesigned S6 is arriving as a 2012 model. The S6 will switch from a 10-cylinder engine to a twin-turbocharged 420-horsepower V-8.
So, will it be the A6 or A7? The window sticker reveals another difference: The price of style, which Audi pegs at an eye-opening $9,350. The A6 3.0 starts at $50,775, the A7 at $60,125. (Smartly equipped, my A6 test car reached $60,130).
Despite that arguably cynical price spread – are the A7’s hatchback body, larger standard wheels and fancy headlamps worth nearly 10 grand? – Audi’s strategy neatly separates and affirms two types of customers. A6 buyers can feel practical and savvy. A7 fans can feel stylish and exclusive, but they’ll pay for the privilege.
If the A7 cost a mere $3,000 more than the A6, I could imagine the conversations and consternation at Audi dealers: “You mean I can have this boring sedan or that sexy thing in the corner for three grand more? Where do I sign?” Suddenly, Audi wouldn’t be able to build enough A7s, and the A6 would gather dust in the showroom.
That leaves the four-cylinder A6 buyer, who will plop into luxury’s lap, get 30 mpg and save thousands. Is he the smartest Audi fan of all, or a Volkswagen cheapskate on the make? That depends. Are you familiar with William Mapother?
By Lawrence Ulrich