We met as strangers and remained that way. It happens. Sometimes, there is no communication between car and driver. There is a profound disconnect. But that sort of thing often occurs in nondescript economy cars. My estrangement came in the padded luxury of the 2005 Audi A6 4.2 Quattro sedan.
It was a matter of dealing with too much. In its obsessive bid to become a high-end automobile manufacturer, Audi has abandoned simplicity in pursuit of excess. The company says it is offering new levels of convenience in its automobiles. I experienced higher levels of frustration instead.
Take the test car’s ignition system. It’s actually two systems in one. You can start the car the traditional way by twisting a key after inserting it into the ignition lock. That’s simple enough.
But Audi has added a twist of its own — an optional companion push-button starter that requires no key insertion. You keep the ignition key on or near your person. An electronic pulse transmitter in the “advanced key system” communicates with the ignition and steering systems, preparing both for operation at the push of a “Start” button. At the end of your journey, you shut the car down by pushing a “Stop” button.
Of course, push-button ignition is nothing new. Many luxury and entry-level luxury cars nowadays have that feature. But none of the rival systems I’ve used are as complicated and redundant as that found in the new A6 — two ignition modes; and two separate buttons, as opposed to one found in competitive automobiles, to handle the “Start” and “Stop” functions in the “advanced key” program.
And then there is MMI, which stands for Multi Media Interface. Okay, I get it. We’re in the advanced computer age. We no longer write letters. We “e-mail.” We don’t just talk on telephones. We “text-and-photo-message.” And we’re getting to the point where we don’t make love as much as we “interface.” I understand. It’s a new world.
But I still like dials, especially for doing things such as turning on the car radio and adjusting the air conditioner’s temperature setting and fan speed. Dials are simple. They give you a sense of control. You turn them one way, or another, and they generally do what they’re told.
But working with Audi’s MMI system, which displays its various monitoring messages on a seven-inch, color screen in the instrument panel, is more like trying to reason with a smart aleck teenager. You say: “Do this.” It responds: “What do you mean?” It drives me nuts. All you want to do is something simple, basic, such as changing the radio station or CD, or resetting the “climate control system.” Why do I need a degree from MIT to work Audi’s MMI?
It’s not that I don’t appreciate technology. I do. I like technology that makes sense; and, in fairness, the new A6 has ample servings of smart tech. There are, for example, the “Bi-Xenon adaptive light cornering headlights,” standard on the A6 4.2 Quattro. I like those lights. Depending on steering angle and the car’s speed, the Bi-Xenon lights illuminate the road ahead, effectively bending their rays up to a maximum of 15 degrees into corners and turns. That helps vision. That’s good.
I also like the engineering that went into making the A6’s body stronger — 34 percent more rigid than that of its predecessor. The car is tight, solid. You feel secure in its expertly crafted cabin, which is a splendiferous work of fine wood veneers, supple leather, and aluminum accents.
The A6’s standard all-wheel-drive system is excellent. It provides reassuring traction control on wet and muddy roads. In sudden downpours, the car’s rain-sensing wipers, which come on automatically, can be a blessing.
Yet, despite those virtues, I am left unimpressed by the A6. There is something not quite fun-to-drive about it, even with its big 4.2-liter, 335-horsepower engine. It is a car that takes itself seriously, perhaps too much so. It finds comfort in complexity, which is off-putting to those of us who just want the pleasure of an unfettered run.