Audi's handsome A6 hasn't exactly languished in showrooms since its 1998 introduction, but it hasn't won the hearts of the buyers the company would most like to capture. Those would be the folks who pop for such premium sport sedans as the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. As good as it was, the A6 just didn't have enough punch in its 2.8-liter V6 to raise pulse rates and thus send hands darting for checkbooks. I think that's likely to change during the 2000 model year. Judging by a week of all-weather holiday driving around the Eastern seaboard in the A6 2.7T, heightened pulse rates are as close as the driver's right foot or the next set of S-bends. And the package includes the insurance of Audi's Quattro all-wheel drive system, a $1,600 option for the basic A6 but standard equipment with this model. The standard transmission is a six-speed manual, always a plus in precise control of power delivery, as well as enhanced driver involvement. Although the suspension is tweaked toward sporty-firm, the biggest difference between the standard A6 and this new variant, as you might suspect, lies under the hood. The 2.7-liter, V6 engine is essentially the same as the base version, but the addition of turbocharging really wakes this baby up. The standard engine generates 200 horsepower. The turbomotor makes 250. Can you imagine what an increase of that magnitude does for acceleration, particularly with a manual transmission to help make the most of it? An all-wheel-drive A6 is no lightweight, but even so, the turbo lends impressive urgency to forward progress, and Audi's engineers have tuned the whole system to virtually eliminate turbo-lag, the interval between driver demand (pushing down on the throttle) and the turbocharger spooling up to force-feed more fuel and air into the cylinders. I should add that Audi offers an even more muscular version of this car for 2000, the A6 4.2. It's propelled by the same 4.2-liter, V8 engine employed in the company's top-of-the-line A8 sedan, rated at 300 horsepower. That's certainly a compelling combination, but it starts at about $50,000, and it's automatic only. I find the 2.7T, with the six-speed manual transmission, more entertaining to drive. I also found it to be a sure-footed companion during a couple of near-blizzard episodes in eastern Pennsylvania and western New York. Although weather in the East was generally benign during the end-of-year holidays, I encountered heavy snowfall one evening as I was hurrying along I-84 east of Scranton, Pa. Where Audi falls short To make it more interesting, my test car was equipped with tires designed for maximum performance and grip on dry pavement, which made them a little less than ideal on snow and ice. Although the car communicated just how slick it was underfoot, and there was some subtle slipping and sliding, I had a comfort level I wouldn't h ave enjoyed in one of this car's rear-drive competitors. Like most suspensions tuned to reduce body roll, a key to responsive handling, this A6 -- equipped with a $750 sport package -- is distinctly firmer than the more garden variety version, stiff enough, in fact, that some might find it too firm. While I'm comfortable with this setup, I also think BMW still holds the edge in balancing a reasonably supple ride with brisk responses. Further, it wouldn't hurt for Audi's chassis guys to study BMW's approach to steering. The A6's steering, though precise, is a bit light in terms of feel, particularly at lower speeds, and takes some getting used to before the driver has an accurate sense of what the front wheels are doing. But these are relative niggles. Compared with most sport sedans, the A6 stacks up well, and is a gratifying machine to drive. As reported before, the A6's interior is roomy, attractively laid out, handsomely finished and generally use friendly. I was particularly impressed by the power-adjustable front bucket seats, which have extra-deep side bolsters as part of the sport package. These are rather firm perches, but I've found that firm is better than soft for long-distance driving. Like so many luxury cars these days, the A6 includes as standard equipment side-impact air bags for front seat passengers. My test car also was equipped with new curtain air bags, which lend head protection in side impacts, as well as side airbags in the rear, all of which added $800 to the bottom line. As you've probably noticed, that bottom line was hefty. With a base price just over $39,000 including destination charges -- some $4,500 more than the basic front-drive A6 -- the A6 2.7T isn't cheap. And mine was loaded with extras, including $1,550 worth of leather, a $1,650 convenience package (power glass sunroof, HomeLink remote transmitter, memory settings for seat mirrors, auto-dimming mirrors, steering wheel audio controls), a $1,000 warm weather package (solar glass in the sunroof, power rear window shade, side window sun shades), a $625 cold weather package (heated front and rear seats, ski sack) and a $1,280 CD/GPS navigation system. Satellite positioning Because the navigation system in the test car was set to the heartland rather than the East Coast, I wasn't able to make much use of it, although I was amused when I got it to tell me my precise location in longitude and latitude. Extras aside, the issue with this car is how well it challenges its prime rivals from BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz. Although Audi's manual transmission isn't quite as snick-snick precise as those offered by BMW, at least it's available, which can't be said for the Jaguar S-Type or the Mercedes E-Class. While I think BMW still rules this midsize sport sedan segment, Audi has become more of a contender than ever before. SPECS Rating: 3 stars Vehicle type: Front-engine, midsize luxury sport sedan Key competitors: BMW 5-Series, Jaguar S-Type, Mercedes-Benz E-Class Base price: $39,075 As tested: $49,375 Standard equipment: ABS, all-wheel-drive, side air bags, automatic climate control, AM-FM-cassette audio, trip computer, power windows with one-touch up and down, keyless remote entry, power mirrors, power locks, tilt steering, cruise control, aluminum alloy wheels Specifications (Manufacturer's data) Engine: 250-hp, 2.7-liter turbo V6 EPA fuel econ.: 17 mpg city, 26 hwy. Curb weight: 3,900 pounds Wheelbase: 108.7 inches Length: 192 inches Width: 71.3 inches Height: 57 inches Where assembled: Germany
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