We spend 99.97001% of our motoring hours peering from, trashing up and hanging out in the insides of automobiles. Yet attention is paid only to outsides when we're whining over scraped fenders or watching our tin god waddle out of a car wash.

If God didn't want us to be preoccupied with exteriors, She wouldn't have invented the chamois. And when was the last time we desired someone at first sight because of all the wonderful stuff we saw on the inside? Same thing with fried chicken.

Even thoughtful car builders are guilty of inside-out priorities, devoting most of their new model energies to radical cab-forward designs, dashing lineal sculptures and brighter twinkles from larger headlights set in revised grilles. Interiors usually get a new gearshift knob and a fabric change.

But at Audi--a company bulling its way back into the American market and throwing some serious blocks at BMW and Mercedes-Benz--there's as much concern for within as without.

With the audacious Audi A6 for 1998 comes a choice of interiors the German manufacturer describes as "atmospheres . . . interior environments to match a buyer's individual style."

The moods are "Ambition . . .Ambiante . . . Advance," a terrible trio of geeky words presuming more spiritual times. Or access codes to big-time channeling.

Still, it's an ingenious concept.

To better visualize "Ambition," think symbols of riches. A boardroom. The paneled lounge of a London club. Because this interior can come in oxblood leathers and fabrics. Walnut trim is the color of old cognac and brushed aluminum the gray of a fine pewter tankard.

Even the interior stitching is vertical and in narrow ribs to suggest the pinstripes of executive ambition.

But we might have called it: Nasdaq.

"Ambiante" is Italian for our milieu and, in this case, the ambient colors and vitality of the Italian Riviera. Leather and Leatherette upholstery are available in vanilla or taupe, contrasted by royal blue exterior paint. By no accident, those are colors of big yachts and their canvas awnings.

Wood trim is light and amber, suggesting alfresco strolls, with aluminum brushed to the pearl-gray ambiante of dusk in Tuscany.

Yet we might have called it: pasta.

"Advance" implies a peek into the next millennium by any means of your choice. Shamanism. Crystals. Sensory deprivation creating astral travel, with friends flying free.

So these interior colors--the leathers, fabrics and woods--are heavy with terra cotta and earth tones. Textures are roughened slightly and hint at adobe. Think of the New Mexico desert as your advance to the future.

Although we would have gone out on a mesa and called it: saxifrage.

No matter your choice of interior, it costs no extra.

But enough of this. As millennium-motivated as the insides are, consider them a perfect match for the A6's equally innovative outs ides--exteriors well worth examining on a daily basis.

Audi has gone wonderfully overboard on styling, borrowing heavily from the round-shouldered bubble shape of the Audi TT sports car that culled a million approving nods at last year's global auto shows. Hence a silhouette that's a perfect parabola, with a shortened snout set lower than a snubbed tail that's almost a fastback.

Market aim of the A6 is as obvious as the four rings on its front: BMW's 528i and Mercedes-Benz's E320. But the A6 is priced so wisely, equipped so well, and will command so much admiration for thorough engineering and preoccupation with safety, that you can expect it also to start filching customers from Lexus, Acura and Infiniti.

* At a base of $33,750, it is $6,000 less than the Bimmer and $11,000 less than the Mercedes and not that much more than the beginner cars of Lexus, Cadillac, Infiniti, BMW's 3-Series or Mercedes-Benz's C-Class. Watch out, guys.

* It is 4 inches longer than the BMW 528i, 3 inches longer than a Mercedes E320, and that translates to about the same interior room but with more trunk space than either.

* Although a genuine five-passenger car with four doors, the A6 has the tidier, more compact look of a coupe.

* At 200 horsepower, its 2.8-liter, five-valve V-6 puts out more power than the BMW, although not the Mercedes. On the other hand, the Teutonic competition cannot offer Audi's optional Quattro all-wheel drive (constantly shifting 65% of available torque to the wheel with the most grab) and an automatic with sequential, Tiptronic shifting.

* The A6 has an endless list of standard equipment typically optional on other mid-size luxury cars. Dual zone climate control. Twelve-way power seats. Headlight washers. Rear fog light. Puddle lights in doors to prevent you from stepping into--what else?--puddles. Rear reading lamps. Lights for glove box, trunk, lighter, ashtray and front and rear footwells.


Plus: Grab handles over all doors. Eight-speaker sound system. Wood inlays. Embroidered floor mats. Tie-down eyelets in the trunk. Retained accessory power that allows operation of windows and sunroof that you forgot to close before switching off.


And now, crank in Audi's impeccable three-year warranty, which includes free maintenance. Although the high cost of replacing wiper blades and putting air in the tires is still your problem.

All these systems and stuff, unfortunately, weigh a ton. Literally. And a Quattro-equipped A6 is heavier than the opposition--in fact, more than 200 pounds heavier than the BMW 528i--and it shows in the performance.

Initial acceleration is capable, but 9.5 seconds is no bargain when running from rest to 60 mph. That's slower than anything in its class. And the A6 sustains that dignified passage when climbing to higher speeds.

Despite a chassis-flattening, multilink suspension and liberal use of aluminum for additional stiffness and strength, the A6 shows a little more flop and body roll than we like.

Oh, handling is all very predictable, and the car makes no sudden moves that might alarm the timid. But on interesting byways where black-and-white Crown Vics rarely prowl, enthusiasts will find they're not quite so able in the corners as they thought, and certainly not as capable as they would be in a BMW 528i.

The rationale for all this, of course, is that the A6 is a full-blown luxury car, not a quasi-sports sedan. Its charm is with superb, unique looks in a largely faceless automotive society; total affordability for those within its buyer envelope, and a quality of construction, fittings, comfort and conveniences that certainly are mainstream ultimates.

This is a car that has, in a word, panache.

What a great name for an interior.

1998 Audi A6

The Good: Best-looking thing to leave Bavaria since the German shepherd. Less expensive alternative to comparable mid-size luxury cars from BMW and Mercedes, but with the same quality, value and safety. Nobody pays attention to interiors the way Audi is paying attention. And standard maintenance is included in the three-year warranty.

The Bad: Handling could be tightened a notch, and city gas consumption is a little naughty.

The Ugly: Just the dirty looks that Audi will be getting from Lexus, Acura and Infiniti.

Cost Base: $33,750 (includes dual, second-generation air bags; anti-lock brakes; dual air-conditioning and heat, with rear ducts; eight-speaker sound system; power steering; cruise control; tilt and telescoping steering; power doors, windows and mirrors; alarm system; rear reading and four puddle lights; sunroof). Price as tested: $39,425 (adds Quattro all-wheel drive and traction system, leather upholstery, 16-inch alloy wheels, power sunroof and heated front seats).

Engine 2.8-liter, 30-valve V-6, developing 200 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, front- or all-wheel drive, five-passenger luxury sedan.

Performance 0 -60 mph, as tested, 9.5 seconds with Quattro and five-speed automatic. Top speed, manufacturer's figure, 142 mph. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 17 and 26 mpg.

Curb Weight 3,704 pounds (with Quattro).