While debate rages over whether there are too many distracting features in cars today, automakers continue to roll out increasingly connected models, like the redesigned Audi A6 midsize luxury sedan. With features like real-time news updates, Google Earth navigation integration and in-car Wi-Fi, it's enough to make U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood break out in a cold sweat.
In this relentless quest for enhanced connectivity, does anything remain for the Luddites who just want a luxury car that's engaging to drive? With the new A6, the answer is yes — albeit a half-hearted one.
The 2012 Audi A6 has the high-tech gadgets and style to attract luxury shoppers, but it lacks the dynamic driving experience of the BMW 5 Series, the benchmark of the class.
The A6 starts at $41,700 and comes with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive. We tested the optional supercharged V-6, an all-wheel-drive model that goes for $49,900. Loaded with features, though, our as-tested price climbed to $60,130. To see how the A6 compares with the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Infiniti M, click here.
The A6's design represents a welcome evolution of the themes introduced on the Audi A8 full-size sedan. Up front, there's the latest iteration of Audi's single-frame grille, which has a much flatter appearance than the outgoing A6's, flanked by aggressively styled headlights that make the A6 look agitated. Full LED headlights are optional, as are LED daytime running lights that switch from white to amber when a turn signal is active — a neat, completely unexpected trick.
From certain angles, one might mistake the new A6 for its predecessor, but a closer look reveals many differences. The 2012 has a low-slung stance with a less bulbous greenhouse. Newly styled LED taillights accent a pronounced trunk crease. It's a design that impresses when you see it in person, but all of Audi's sedans now look remarkably similar to each other.
Going & Stopping
The supercharged V-6 engine never left me wishing for a V-8, which the prior generation offered at one time. The V-6 has good low-end power that makes it feel like a bigger engine, but what impressed me most was its eagerness on the highway. It still has good reserve power for high-speed passing if you stand on the gas pedal, as the eight-speed automatic transmission swiftly drops a few gears and the A6 lunges forward with authority.
All that happens without much supercharger noise; the engine has an appealing growl, but it's refined and not overwhelming. There is, however, a fair amount of tire noise. (Our test car was fitted with 19-inch summer tires.)
Putting the automatic gear selector in Sport mode made me appreciate the supercharged V-6 drivetrain even more. The Drive mode is tuned to keep engine rpm low, but Sport holds the transmission in its lower gears longer before upshifting. The result is enhanced responsiveness in city driving, but without the annoying habit some Sport settings have of holding gears too long.
Considering its performance, the supercharged A6 still gets respectable EPA gas mileage estimates of 19/28 mpg city/highway. Choosing the front-wheel-drive four-cylinder model improves gas mileage to 25/33 mpg.
The A6's disappointing brake-pedal feel is a drag on the driving experience. It feels mushy and doesn't yield predictable, linear braking.
Ride & Handling
When equipped with the optional sport suspension, the A6 rides firmly, responding sharply to bumps and potholes. Audi's standard Drive Select system adjusts steering, throttle and transmission settings, but it doesn't tailor suspension damping like some systems do.
The available Quattro all-wheel-drive system has a rear-biased torque split — 40 percent to the front wheels and 60 percent to the rear ones under normal conditions — for improved handling.
The A6 corners well, keeping its line as you accelerate out of a turn, and the sport suspension keeps the car flat. In spite of that, the A6 doesn't connect the driver with the driving experience the way a 5 Series can. Part of the problem is the steering, which has a light-effort smoothness that's characteristically Audi, but also isolates you from the driving experience. It's as if you're turning a steering wheel connected to a video game — without the force-feedback on.
Some automakers rely on a driver's smartphone to enable in-car internet connectivity and the advanced features that use it, but Audi has turned the A6 itself into an internet-enabled device with the optional Audi Connect system. Audi Connect includes a six-month free trial subscription, but after that you'll have to pay for a data plan to support most of its features. Those include Google Earth satellite image overlays for the navigation system; weather and gas price information; and the ability for up to eight devices to use the A6 as a Wi-Fi hotspot. T-Mobile is the data provider, and after the trial it costs $30 per month for unlimited 3G data, or $25 per month if you sign a two-year contract.
Audi Connect integrates with the MMI system, which is Audi's version of the knob-based control systems — like BMW's iDrive and Mercedes' Comand — that have swept the luxury-car market in recent years. Audi Connect's screen graphics aren't as refined as the rest of the MMI system, which changes menus and makes selections with an appreciated snappiness.
A digital scratchpad is optional for MMI. Dubbed MMI Touch, it's located near the knob controller and can be used to "write" letters — when entering a destination address in the navigation system, for instance. It works as advertised and is a better entry method than the rotary knob, but it's still not as easy to use as a touch-screen system.
The power-adjustable leather front seats are comfortable for taller adults. I'm 6-foot-1, and the driver's seat cushion had acceptable thigh support, while the seat's side bolsters weren't particularly confining. The left-side B-pillar limits visibility when checking to see if it's clear to change lanes, but thin front roof pillars improve forward views.
The A6's backseat feels about as roomy as the one in Audi's compact A4, even though the A6 has a 4-inch longer wheelbase. With the A6's front seat adjusted for me, my knees were nearly touching that seat when sitting behind it. You sit low on the rear bench, too, which isn't very comfortable. Headroom, meanwhile, is good, and I like that the standard 60/40-split backrest — an uncommon standard feature among midsize luxury cars — folds flat with the cargo floor, revealing a big opening to the 14.1-cubic-foot trunk. Audi's attention to detail here makes this nice-to-have feature even more useful.
The 2012 A6 received a 2012 Top Safety Pick designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, reflecting Good overall ratings in the frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests, roof-strength test, and rear-impact neck-protection evaluation.
Standard safety features include antilock brakes and an electronic stability system, which are required on all new vehicles as of the 2012 model year. Additional standard safety features include side-impact airbags for the front seats, front knee airbags and side curtain airbags for both rows. Rear-seat side-impact airbags, front and rear parking sensors, and a backup camera are optional.
A number of high-tech safety features are bundled in the optional Innovation Package. Available on Prestige models, the package includes adaptive cruise control, a blind spot warning system, night vision with pedestrian detection and a collision warning system dubbed Audi Pre Sense Plus. Pre Sense Plus can ready the brakes and cinch the seat belts and, in certain cases, automatically apply the brakes.
For additional safety-feature information, check out the Standard Equipment & Options page.
A6 in the Market
If you've seen any of Audi's recent TV ads, you already know the brand is trying to position itself as the modern luxury alternative to so-called traditional brands like Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Combined with futuristic-looking models like the A6 and A8, the strategy seems to be connecting with luxury shoppers; Audi's U.S. sales growth through November 2011 is outpacing Mercedes and BMW. The fact that the Audi brand isn't weighed down by luxury stereotypes at a time when people across the country are railing against the highest wage earners doesn't hurt, either.
Image aside, Audi delivers a lot of substance with the new A6. That's bound to appeal to luxury-car buyers — no matter how much they earn.
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