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Kicking S: Audi S6 - The Best of S

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The Audi RS4 that I detailed in Part II is in its own category. Of the three strictly S-version cars, I like the S6 ($72,000 base, $78,320 as equipped) the most. First, it has the version of Quattro all-wheel drive that’s used in the RS4 but not in the regular A6 with Quattro. By sending 60 percent of the power to the rear wheels, the S6 offers more balanced handling, as I elaborated on in Part II. The S cars are clearly moving in this direction; only the S4 still has a 50/50 split between the front and rear wheels. Overall, it seems that all the so-so characteristics of the other S cars are markedly better here in the S6.

Most important is accelerator response; the car always responds relatively quickly. Not so the S8 — and the 4 series cars could and should be better. One of the great underreported stories in automotive journalism: The popularization of by-wire (electronically actuated) throttles has introduced a response lag in many cars. At times it’s atrocious, and combining it with an automatic transmission often makes it worse.

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Though I only tolerate automatics, a six-speed with sequential shifting is the S6’s only choice. As automatics go, this one behaves very well — with minimal lag and efficient downshifting when it’s time to pass. When it’s in neutral, the pedal makes the tachometer needle jump immediately, and whether the trans is in Drive, Sport (which lets the engine rev higher before shifting) or under the driver’s control by means of the gear selector’s up/down gate or the steering wheel shift paddles, the shifts happen and the car moves when you ask it to.

When the 5.2-liter V-10 engine gets the message, it gives the car an impressive launch from a standing start. When you consider that the RS4’s smaller V-8 makes 420 horsepower, the larger, heavier S6’s 435 hp might seem thin. However, the V-10 cranks far more torque: 398 pounds-feet compared to the RS4’s 317, with that peak coming early, at 3,000 rpm and holding firm to 4,000 rpm. Audi says the car hits 60 mph in 5.1 seconds and covers the quarter mile in 13.4 seconds.

These aren’t the best numbers in the S-car family, so why do I think this model is the best? Numbers alone don’t do the trick. The S6 is the car in which all the systems and attributes work together harmoniously. The power and gear ratios feel right. The handling is well matched. The power-steering assist isn’t as overboosted as it is in the S4, and the brake pedal is better than the others. All of the cars stop well, but the pedals are numb and don’t give fine enough control over the deceleration rate. (The A6 is better, mind you — not good.) The S6 even has the lowest gas-guzzler tax, $1,300. The worst is $2,100 for the RS4, which gets slammed for its 14 mpg city gas mileage rating. Apart from this figure, all the cars discussed in this series rate 15/21 mpg (city/highway) in EPA gas mileage estimates.

I also like the LED accent lights low in the front bumper, which appear only on this model.

It might be too big for you, or too small, or not quick enough for your tastes, but the 6 was the S car that most felt like an extension of me, the driver. That’s something you never tire of. Coming up is the last installment, covering the largest S car. In my estimation, the S8 ain’t so great…

Photo of Joe Wiesenfelder
Former Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, a launch veteran, led the car evaluation effort. He owns a 1984 Mercedes 300D and a 2002 Mazda Miata SE. Email Joe Wiesenfelder

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