The Audi A6 rises higher than any model before it and is now a real contender in the mid-size exec market

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The roots of the Audi A6 can be traced to 1968 and the original Audi 100, then launched as a flagship rather than a mid-range model. That name endured through four distinct generations for 26 years. 

It was replaced in 1994 by the first A6, although this was simply to bring the car into line with Audi’s newly adopted naming policy; the car itself was no more than a facelifted 100. The car you see here is the fourth generation of A6.

The A6 is a car of which Audi can be proud and, should you be in the market for a large saloon, one to consider carefully

It has a lot to prove, too. We’ve been driving cars bearing this badge for many years and, low-volume esoteric spin-offs aside, haven't previously driven one we even really liked, let alone one that got anywhere near rival offerings from Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

Audi says this one is different, and points to its impressive on-paper statistics, steel and aluminium hybrid construction and imposing new looks to support its case. But some things never change: unlike its best rivals, the base A6 remains chiefly front-wheel drive, a configuration that has yet to provide a car from any manufacturer with the blend of ride and handling that the best rear-drivers appear able to offer year in, year out.

2016 saw the Audi A6 get a much needed facelift which saw an increase in equipment and technology fitted to the large saloon, while the front got redesigned air intakes and the rear a tweaked bumper and diffuser.

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Is this really the A6 to break the habit of its lifetime? Or is it just another in a long line of mid-size Audis that talks a good game but ultimately fails to deliver on the road? 

Whether you opt for the saloon, Audi A6 Allroad or Avant estate, the most important A6 is the entry-level 2.0 TDI SE Executive ultra which will most likely account for more sales than all other variants combined. Three other diesels are available, two 3.0-litre V6s, one with 215bhp and front-wheel drive, the other Audi A6 with 268bhp and quattro four-wheel drive. The third Audi A6 diesel offering is a potent 3.0-litre BiTDi, which musters 315bhp and drive all four wheels. There’s only one petrol engine available – a turbocharged 4.0-litre V8, which is available in three guises powering the 444bhp Audi S6, the 552bhp RS6 and the outrageous 596bhp RS6 Performance.

The fourth generation Audi A6 is set to be replaced with 2018 earmarked as the earliest we will see the overtly sportier saloon and estate. Not much is known about the new A6 at this point, other than first glimpses of Audi's new design language will be come apparent by autumn 2017, and the A6 will contrast stylistically from the conservative BMW 5 Series and the 'Russian doll' concept of the Mercedes-Benz range.



Audi A6 rear

Any car like the Audi A6 that bucks the trend towards increasingly and needlessly overweight design and actually proves substantially lighter than the one it replaces will always start on the right foot with us. It bears repeating: a light car will be easier to stop, quicker to accelerate, faster through the corners, more frugal and less environmentally destructive than a heavier one. All other things being equal, it will also be more fun to drive.

Although we tend not to dwell too long on looks during the formal evaluation process, the shape is not only more purposeful than before but, with those trademark daytime running lights, also more distinctively Audi than ever. The 2016 facelift did very little to alter this look, with larger intakes and tweaks to the rear diffuser the largest exterior changes.

The A6 comes with all the basics, but many items that should be standard appear on the options list

Under the sleek, modern bonnet remains the oddity of a north-south engine which, for the bulk of sales, is powering a front-drive car — a unique feature in the class.

Slim C-pillars and effective rear quarterlights provide impressive over-the-shoulder visibility. In spite of the wide rear screen, the boot aperture is relatively small, but the boot’s 535-litre capacity is just 10 litres less than the Mercedes Mercedes-Benz E-Class’s and 10 litres more than that of the BMW 5 Series.


Audi A6 interior

Audis tend to be defined by their interiors and that’s the case with the Audi A6.

Indeed, it was Audi’s realisation around 20 years ago that this is where the vast bulk of an owner’s perception of quality lies (and producing a series of world-class cabins as a result) that helped to create the enviable reputation for style and luxury that it enjoys today.

The cabin is so good, it could tempt some buyers away from the more expensive A8

The A6 builds further on these standards. In the class, it is second to none in terms of the calibre of materials used, where you can see and might commonly touch them, and also where you won’t.

The A6 saloon also offers enough cabin space for models at the top of the range to pose a serious threat to the entry-level and not notably roomy Audi A8, which may not have been what was intended. In even saloon form it also has a bigger boot than the A8. The Avant's boot space lags behind the class-leading Mercedes Mercedes-Benz E-Class's, but is big enough for most people's typical needs.

But for two separate and distinct reasons, it is held back from achieving the kind of rating you might expect any Audi to be capable of earning.

First, although the cabin is genuinely attractive, ergonomically it is remarkably similar to the old A6, and the game has moved on. Audi’s MMI control system once represented the state of the art, but now Mercedes has at least caught up and BMW’s iDrive is clearly ahead. The graphics now look rather last generation, even if (commendably) the navigation system itself is standard, and the facelift brought about the inclusion of smartphone integration.

Moreover, you have only to look inside an E-Class to know what a sense of occasion can now be achieved in this class. Svelte and stylish though the A6 cabin is, it feels one stop short of true luxury.

The second problem is more serious and concerns the pedals of the manual car. They are offset so far to the right that the clutch pedal is directly beneath the steering column. Some drivers will never notice it, but others will resent this fault daily. 

All important with any executive saloon is the equipment fitted as standard. There are three trims to choose from with the entry-level SE Executive coming equipped with bi-xenon headlights, 17in alloys, cruise control, front and rear parking sensors, and auto lights and wipers. Inside occupants are treated to four-zone climate control, acoustic glazed windows, leather upholstery, Bluetooth and multimedia interface and DAB radio.

Upgrade to the mid-level S-line models and you'll find sporty details added to the A6 including firmer suspension, a rear diffuser and sports front seats, while there is also classy additions such as LED headlights, and a Valcona leather and Alcantara interior. The range-topping Black Edition trim adds gloss black details to the exterior, larger alloys and a Bose sound system to the package.

If you opt for one of the monstrous Audi Sport A6 models, then expect a dedicated trim level to go along with the 4.0-litre V8 TFSI engine. The Audi S6 comes with a wealth of technology including cylinder deactivation technology and active noise cancellation from the engine bay, air suspension and Audi's quattro system fitted with a sports differential. Inside there is a pair of super sports seats with heating function and the optional lighting pack fitted as standard.

The RS6 and RS6 Performance get a beefy bodykit giving the Avant a very aggressive stance and some RS adaptations to the suspension, four-wheel drive and braking systems. The main differences are the RS6 Performance come with 21in alloys, rather than the RS6's 20's and the style of the seating, as well as the difference in power.


Audi A6 side profile

The Audi A6 2.0 TDI is the most popular choice among saloon and Avant buyers. It does not offer the best blend of performance and economy in the class, but when that class includes the BMW 520d, that is no disgrace. And it runs the 5 Series extremely close and has the measure of all other selected rivals, Mercedes included. It shows how far Audis have come from the day when almost all their draw came from their showroom appeal.

The four-piston motor may be an entire litre shy of anything else you’ll find under the bonnet of an A6, but in no way does it feel like a poor relation. Far more refined than an equivalent Mercedes unit, again it bows only to BMW for the civility of its operation. It sounds a little rattly first thing on a cold day, but that’s the only time you might wish there was something other than diesel in the tank.

The 2.0 TDI is so good, it asks serious questions of the rest of the engine line-up. Few cars can do that

Strong acceleration is available from 1600rpm, and the car stays in the thick of the torque curve until nearly 4000rpm. In fact, the opportunity for a near-perfect flow of power is there to be taken and denied only by its gear ratios. Even as it is, the A6 will motor promptly to 60mph in 8.9sec and, if you keep your foot buried, not stop until it’s showing the far side of 140mph. 

The 3.0 TDI’s V6 engine starts with a gentle shudder; once you’re cruising you’ll barely hear it. That’s partly because Audi’s twin-clutch gearbox is quick to change up, keeping revs low whenever possible, but mainly because Audi’s done a stunning job of insulating this car’s powertrain. Wind insulation is very well suppressed too, thanks to a low drag coefficient of just 0.26.


Audi A6 rear cornering

If the looks and powertrain choices of the Audi A6 can best be described as evolutionary, nothing less than a full-scale revolution has been visited upon the suspension. We’re not sure having selectable damping on every model is much more than a gimmick, because if you just let the car get on with it, it will supply both ride and handling like no comparable A6 before it. 

Almost all the time, the ride is genuinely very good – not Mercedes good, perhaps, but competitive in a class of unusually fine-riding cars. Our experience of A6s on air springs suggests that the steel set-up might be preferable, because it provides impressive body control on most surfaces while dealing with the low-speed urban bumps that so often confound air systems. 

The A6's suspension is possibly the single biggest achievement

Here is a large, base-spec, front-drive Audi saloon with grip, balance and poise, a car you might choose to drive with some spirit down a decent road. What it lacks is the fluidity of steering response that you find in its best rear-drive rivals. It has a slightly numb feel as you go off centre, which doubtless does wonders for autobahn stability but drives a wedge between the car and a driver wishing to feel in touch with its operation. 

The S-line quattro models ride motorway expansion joints noisily and fidget over minor surface imperfections that equally focused rivals might have ironed out. The trade-off, however, is commendable body control and handling composure on testing roads. Wider tracks front and rear and Audi’s latest quattro drivetrain (equipped with that fast-acting crown gear centre differential) give the new A6 deep reserves of traction and handling precision.

Progress has been made with the brakes, too. They now have a more meaty pedal feel in place of the overly assisted system of its predecessor.


Audi A6

The lower-powered, non-quattro V6 diesel A6 misses the 2.0-litre’s official average economy figure of 57.6mpg by just 3mpg, while slicing a second and a half from the 0-62mph time.

Whether that’s worth the extra price premium is a moot point; we don’t think so. The extra the Audi TDI quattro diesels cost over the 2.0-litre buys you a 0-62mph time of 6.1sec, while the official average mpg drops to 47.1mpg. That’s still 13mpg better than the 3.0-litre petrol, though. Topping the diesel range, the BiTDi achieves an official 44.1mpg, but is the most expensive car in the A6 line-up. 

Think hard before spending a fortune on the 1200W B&O sound system upgrade. The basic system is extremely good

Pricey, yet tempting, options include an upgraded navigation system with Google mapping, an in-car wi-fi network and an excellent Bang & Olufsen stereo system.



4 star Audi A6

The Audi A6 is very good in every department - but never exceptional. This tells you much that you need to know. Equipped with a decent chassis, the A6 sets impressively high standards across the board without once threatening to blow the class out of the water.


Choose steel springs, rather than air-suspension if you can - its much better

Audi A6 2011-2018 First drives