Versus the competiton:
Audi impressed me last summer with its redesigned compact A4 — a rare intersection of elegance and driver-friendliness among entry-level luxury cars — but I can’t get fired up about the A4’s larger sibling, the midsize A6. The elder Audi has no shortage of clever innovations, and its styling is vintage Audi: unassuming at first, then desirable in all its subtleties a day or two later. Alas, for a number of reasons — most of them related to the driving experience — it can’t combine driving thrills with cabin quality like a number of its competitors do.
The Audi A6’s last full redesign was for the 2005 model year, so 2009 brings a number of late-cycle updates (which you can compare to the 2008 model here): new lights, revised equipment packages, tweaked underpinnings and a new supercharged 3.0-liter V-6. The supercharged six, included on the inaptly named A6 3.0T — in Audi parlance, “T” normally stands for turbocharging — comes with standard Quattro all-wheel drive in both sedan and wagon body styles.
The Audi A6 lineup also includes two normally aspirated engines, both available only in sedan body styles: a 3.1-liter V-6 in the base, front-wheel-drive A6 3.2 (Audi rounds up the engine’s 3.123-liter displacement), and a top-of-the-line 4.2-liter V-8 in the A6 4.2 with Quattro. Three trim levels — Premium, Premium Plus and Prestige — speak to the level of features you’ll find. I tested an A6 3.0T Premium Plus. A high-performance S6 with a 5.2-liter V-10 is also available; I’ll cover some of its specifics in this review, but the S6 is listed separately in Cars.com’s Research section.
Roughly 8 inches longer and an inch taller than the A4, the A6 is one of the longer cars in its class. It doesn’t immediately stand out amid brasher-looking competitors like the BMW 5 Series and Jaguar XF, but I suspect Audi’s design restraint has lasting power. It’s elegant from any angle, and it grows on you.
New on the sedan this year are wider taillights that closely resemble those on the A4 sedan and A5 coupe. Premium trims get 17-inch alloy wheels, while Premium Plus and Prestige editions add 18-inchers, silver exterior trim and LED daytime running lamps, similar to those offered on the A4 and Audi’s R8 supercar. They illuminate when you unlock the car at night, which is a nice touch that suits the car’s businesslike leanings. On most trims, you’ll have to push a button on the key fob to unlock the doors; only the Prestige includes keyless access, with a remote that stays in your pocket and push-button ignition. The Infiniti M, Lexus GS and a number of other competitors include the keyless feature standard.
Nineteen-inch wheels come with an S-line sport package on the A6 3.0T.
Audi’s latest direct-injection engines aren’t lacking for low-end power, so you won’t have to wait until higher revs before the cavalry arrives. The A6 3.0T is no different: Rated at 300 horsepower and 310 pounds-feet of torque — the latter coming at just 2,500 rpm — its supercharged V-6 delivers surefooted thrust whether you’re passing delivery trucks on the interstate or overtaking slower traffic before your lane runs out. It feels more authoritative, especially at the low end, than Infiniti’s M35 or Cadillac’s V-6 STS; I drove a Jaguar XF a few days after testing the A6, and its V-8 couldn’t deliver the same low-end power. Despite the all-wheel-drive A6 3.0T’s hefty curb weight — 4,123 pounds — Audi says it hits 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, a figure that beats the Mercedes-Benz E350 and nearly ties the Lexus GS 350 and BMW’s twin-turbo 535i.
I question why anyone would buy the less fuel-efficient A6 4.2, whose 350-hp V-8 hits 60 mph just 0.1 seconds quicker. Perhaps Audi somehow quelled accelerator lag in that version — which brings me to my chief complaint, something that sapped the drivetrain’s thrills so much it was an outright deal-breaker for me: gas-pedal lag. Encouraged in part by the auto industry’s migration toward drive-by-wire electronic throttles, this annoyance is rampant in competitors like the E-Class, but it’s especially vexing here, in part because of its inconsistency. From stop-and-go driving to highway passing, the A6 exhibits as much as a full second of delay between pressing the accelerator and, well, accelerating. The depth of the pedal has little effect on the outcome: Whether barely prodded or given a concerted stab, the delay emerged — but not always: I didn’t notice it early in the week, and one colleague took the A6 home and discerned no major lag. Two others who drove the car reported noticeable lag.
The base Audi A6 3.2 and the 4.2 version might behave differently — though all three engines employ electronic throttles — so if you experience anything different, shoot me an email. Audi spokesman Christian Bokich looked into the issue and said the automaker’s quality teams have found no throttle failures with the 3.0T.
“There is some lag” at low speeds, he said, “but the engine is behaving quite well for an all-new setup.” I wish I could agree.
The BMW 5 Series has its own acceleration issues — thanks mostly to its fussy six-speed Steptronic automatic — but a slew of other competitors, from the XF and M to the Acura RL and Cadillac STS, have lag-free acceleration.
Audi’s six-speed automatic does its best to iron things out. It’s a fairly responsive gearbox, particularly in Sport mode, and it delivers swift kickdown and smooth upshifts. There’s a manual mode for clutchless shifting, and the Prestige trim gets steering-wheel shift paddles if you’re into that sort of thing.
Power ratings for the lineup range from 255 hp in the base A6 3.2 to 435 hp in the V-10 S6. Here’s how they stack up:
| Engines Compared
| Base price
|| 3.1-liter V-6
|| 3.0-liter supercharged V-6
|| 4.2-liter V-8
|| 5.2-liter V-10
|| CVT auto
|| Six-speed auto
|| Six-speed auto
|| Six-speed auto
| Horsepower (@ rpm)
|| 255 @ 6,500
|| 300 @ 5,100
|| 350 @ 6,800
|| 435 @ 6,800
| Torque (lb-ft. @ rpm)
|| 243 @ 3,250
|| 310 @ 2,500
|| 325 @ 3,500
|| 398 @ 3,000
| EPA gas mileage (city/hwy., mpg)
| Acceleration (0 – 60 mph, sec.)
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard, with beefier discs in the A6 3.0T and 4.2. The pedal in my test car elicited strong but touchy braking, making it difficult to stop smoothly even after practice.
Combined EPA city/highway gas mileage works out to 21 mpg in the A6 3.2 and 3.0T — meaning the latter, considering its standard all-wheel drive, is particularly efficient — and 18 mpg in the A6 4.2. Compared to other popular models, Audi does well:
| EPA Combined City/Highway Gas Mileage (mpg)
| Lexus GS
|| 20 – 22
| Audi A6
| BMW 5 Series
|| 19 – 21
| Infiniti M
|| 18 – 19
|| 16 – 18
| Mercedes-Benz E-Class
|| 18 – 19
|| 16 – 17
Last year’s S-line sport suspension is optional only on the 3.0T; mine didn’t have it. Other drivetrains have the base suspension setup, which Audi retuned this year for quicker shock-absorber response. The previously available adaptive suspension with air springs has been dropped. The A6 I drove in 2007 — a model with the S-line package — proved far too rough for the daily grind. The base suspension is better: Even with the 18-inch wheels’ lower-profile tires, this setup yields little cabin disturbance over bumps and low highway road noise. Wind noise is another story; it’s not overly intrusive, but on a highway trip from Detroit to Chicago it became a constant backdrop to the stereo. In this price range, that shouldn’t happen.
The steering setup should be familiar turf for any Audi driver. The wheel turns with a light touch, rendering easy parking maneuvers; that’s the opposite of the 5 Series’ and the M’s steering, which are heavier, more direct affairs. Audi’s isn’t loosey-goosey, but it gives up something in turn-in precision to those cars. I doubt most drivers will mind; the A6 goes where you point it well enough, with none of the vagueness that the current E-Class and a great many lesser cars exhibit.
Body roll remains reasonably concealed in harder turns, and Quattro’s new rear-biased setup delivers rear-wheel-drive-like handling; it defaults 60 percent of power to the rear wheels, but under hard acceleration it can transfer as much as 85 percent of power rearward, Audi says. The A6 feels more balanced and less nose-heavy than the A4 when you throw it into a turn.
City drivers take note: In tight spaces, the A6’s turning radius measures 39 feet with front- or all-wheel drive. The rear-wheel-drive GS cranks a narrow 34.1-foot circle, while the all-wheel-drive GS comes in at 35.4 feet. Rear- and all-wheel-drive versions of the M, E-Class and 5 Series fall in between that and the A6.
The A6 wagon, which Audi calls the Avant, receives similar updates as the sedan this year, though its rear lights haven’t changed as radically (see photos). It’s available only in Quattro 3.0T form. Compared with the sedan, the wagon packs an extra 132 pounds — enough to bring zero-to-60 mph times up nominally to 6.1 seconds. Its $3,210 premium gets you 33.9 cubic feet of cargo space, which is more than double the sedan’s trunk space.
Fork over $76,000 and you can get the 435-hp S6, which comes only as a sedan. Besides a 435-hp V-10, the S6 adds bolstered sport seats, new bumpers, a sport-tuned suspension, massive 15.2-inch front brake discs — larger than a $194,000 Porsche 911 GT2’s 15-inch discs — and 19-inch wheels with low-profile performance tires. It’s quick, but if you really have the need for speed, $10,000 more will get you a BMW M5 or a Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG, both of which are quicker still — at least until Audi brings the 580-hp twin-turbo RS6 our way (it’s already available in Europe).
Roominess is not a strength in the A6. The front seats lack the space to spread out that other cars in this class — particularly the M — provide, and the rear bench sits too low to the ground for adequate adult thigh support. In both rows, headroom is merely adequate. The trunk is Audi’s biggest asset: It measures 15.9 cubic feet, tying the E-Class and besting the M (14.9 cubic feet), 5 Series (14.0) and GS (a paltry 12.7). The A6 also has a standard 60/40-split folding rear seat, a feature that’s optional on the E-Class and largely unavailable elsewhere. The S6 adds a center pass-thru. Either way, the folding seatbacks are well-executed, with a wide, ledge-free opening and no seat belts hanging in the way.
The dash looks the part of most Audis, with simple, soft-touch textures rather than the leather-wrapped surfaces in vogue in today’s luxury cars. It mostly works, in large part because the finishes feel consistently high-rent, from eye-level to thigh-level. This isn’t the case for all $50,000 cars; the Cadillac STS has glaring inconsistencies, and even Mercedes’ redesigned 2010 E-Class has some spotty finishes here and there.
Most controls operate well enough, but Audi has yet to match the craftsmanship of the GS or RL, both of which are standouts in terms of uniformly high-quality buttons, knobs and stalks. The Audi A6’s Multi-Media Interface controls the center display and, if equipped, the navigation system. It uses a knob below the gearshift but adds plenty of shortcut buttons alongside the knob. It’s easy enough to use, but leading knob-based competitors — Mercedes’ Comand system and BMW’s iDrive — have leapfrogged MMI in usability and graphics quality with recent upgrades. (BMW’s iDrive overhaul in particular has delivered beauty from a beast.) Audi says a third-generation MMI system is due next year, however, so there’s potential for more leapfrogging yet.
The standard stereo — a 10-speaker system with full iPod integration and a six-CD changer — cranks out adequate quality. A 13-speaker Bose stereo is optional; I didn’t hear it, but I already long for the day when the Audi A6 adopts the Bang & Olufsen system from the A4, A8 and R8. It ranks among the best in-car stereos I’ve ever heard.
In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Audi A6 received top scores for front, side and rear impacts. Accordingly, IIHS named the Audi A6 a Top Safety Pick for 2009. Among the A6’s larger group of competitors, that’s a distinction also enjoyed by the RL, Lincoln MKS and Volvo S80. The GS and M scored well in front and side tests, but not rear impacts, while the E-Class and STS earned Acceptable side-impact scores. The 5 Series remains the group’s bogey, with Marginal side-impact scores. IIHS had not tested the XF as of publication.
Standard safety features for the A6 include dual front airbags, side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for both rows. Antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system are also standard. Rear-seat-mounted side airbags and a blind spot warning system are optional.
Reliability for the current generation is so-so, with Consumer Reports rating V-6 models average in predicted reliability. Neither the V-8 A6 4.2 nor the V-10 S6 has been rated. Among popular competitors, Audi ranks midpack: The 5 Series and E-Class both rank average to below average in CR’s reliability ratings, while the Lexus GS is generally above average. The Infiniti M boasts the group’s best reliability by a fair margin.
The Audi A6 3.2 Premium starts at $45,100, right in the thick of its competition. Standard features include 12-way power front seats, leather upholstery, a moonroof and dual-zone automatic climate control. The 3.0T Premium costs an additional $5,000 — $8,210 if you want the wagon — but throws in heated front seats, which are just an option with the lesser engine. The $1,500 S-line sport package, available only on the 3.0T, includes a sport-tuned suspension and 19-inch wheels.
Premium Plus models — an extra $1,320 to $1,800, depending on drivetrain and body style — add aluminum exterior moldings (sedan only; the wagon has them standard), bi-xenon headlights with the aforementioned LEDs, larger wheels and a memory driver’s seat.
The Prestige edition, which runs $5,100 more than the base, Premium A6, has Premium Plus equipment plus steering-wheel paddle shifters, a power-adjustable steering column, keyless access, a navigation system and a backup camera. The A6 3.2 doesn’t come in a Prestige version, while the A6 4.2 comes only in Prestige.
Heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, rear side airbags and the blind spot warning system round out the list of features available on any trim. Load up an A6 4.2, and the price will run about $62,000; a similarly equipped A6 3.0T costs about $6,000 less. Considering their near-identical performance, I see little point in getting the V-8.
Behind the E-Class and 5 Series, the Audi A6 is one of the most popular cars in its segment. I have a hard time understanding why, considering Infiniti has a compelling alternative in the M, Jaguar has the XF and Lexus has the GS. If you’re doling out this much money, a car ought to be free of drivetrain issues like those the A6 suffers. Give the A6 an honest workout on your test drive, and if you really find no fault with the driving experience — accelerator lag, touchy brakes, highway wind noise or otherwise — then perhaps its strengths deserve a closer look. I can’t summon enough enthusiasm to overlook such issues, and for 50 large, there are plenty of competitors with serious strengths and fewer compromises. Audi has a contender in the A4, but the Audi A6 still needs some work.