Audi's change of heart

Don’t think Audi’s radical makeover of the A6 is confined to the styling. One glance and we can all see the smooth-as-soap Bauhaus look of the past decade has given way to baroque complexity, as portrayed by a massive trapezoidal grille and a style that, with its exaggerated longitudinal lines, reeks solidity, rather than the simple elegance of old.

A few minutes behind the wheel and it’s patently obvious that Ingolstadt’s transformation also embraces the driving character. Audi’s sixth-generation executive saloon takes on a more sporting personality, one that’s now aimed squarely at BMW, rather than Mercedes-Benz. Aesthetically, and in its dynamics, the A6 signifies a bold shift in emphasis. Yes, a brave change, but it is successful?

I miss the graceful beauty of the old car, but happily admit that Audi’s right: on each viewing my misgivings regarding the heavy snout diminish. No way is the A6’s appearance as polarising as any of the Bangle-era BMWs, yet it’s still instantly recognisable.

There’s no dispute regarding the excellence of the new, direct-injection 3.2-litre V6 that provided our first active experience of the new A6, though. Don’t confuse this engine with the totally different, 15-degree Volkswagen V6 of the same capacity as used in the A3. It’s taken over a decade, but Audi’s thoroughly revised and now FSI V6 is finally up there with BMW’s in-line six in terms of performance, economy and that hard-to-define silkiness that separates the great from the merely good.

The numbers are impressive: 252bhp at 6500rpm and 243lb ft of torque at 3250rpm. Variable intake and exhaust camshafts mean an almost turbodiesel-like 90 per cent of twist on tap between 2400rpm and 5500rpm. Smooth, even at the 7200rpm cut-out, tractable and crisp in its responses, this is a terrific engine that endows the A6 with truly impressive performance.

Our test front-drive (quattro four-wheel drive is an option) A6 belted off the line, ESP working overtime to contain wheelspin, and hit 62mph in 6.9sec (matching BMW’s rear-drive 530i) and on to a limited 155mph top speed. You learn to drive around a hint of shunt on gearchanges at slow speeds and quickly become aware that the drivetrain’s fluency increases the faster you drive.

Nor is the A6 let down – as so often in the past – by poor body control or mushy steering. By adjusting the weight distribution, finally giving the front-drive A6 the same multi-link rear suspension as the quattro models and playing with the chassis tuning, the engineers have produced an executive express that enthusiasts are (mostly) going to enjoy.

You can throw this A6 into corners knowing the handling won’t descend into chronic understeer and excessive body roll. Instead, it stays flat and tidy, the old nose-heavy feeling replaced by real agility and the capacity easily to adjust the car’s attitude merely by momentarily lifting off. The A6 can be driven very quickly and is at its neatest with the ESP functioning. Turn it off and time-wasting wheelspin becomes an issue in tight corners.

The trade-off for such handling ability is a firm, slightly restless ride, especially at town speeds. Don’t mistake this for the criticism of the old A6’s softer, less controlled ride. The chassis’ settings feel deliberate and intentional in the way they emphasise the car’s taut sportiness.

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But, even on the test car’s comparatively modest 225/50 R17 rubber, it means that the Audi still doesn’t quite match the supple, absorbent low-speed ride of the E-class and 5-series. The A6’s improved behaviour over long-wave undulations, however, highlights the benefits of the 15 per cent increase in suspension travel. Tyre noise is also better controlled.

Audi’s gone the electro-hydraulic route for the speed-sensitive power steering. Weirdly, given their diverse layouts, the A6’s steering reminds me of the Ferrari 612’s. Both are super-light at low speed, the perception being that they become quicker and more meaty the faster you drive. Despite the impressive power, torquesteer is reduced to a hint of tugging at the wheel, even in a full-blooded take-off. The result is a lack of any real steering feel, despite the accuracy around the straight-ahead and a quick turn-in. The brakes have also been included in the transformation. Forget Audi’s traditional sponginess: this pedal reacts so instantly they take learning.

Inside, too, the impact of the revolution is obvious. The A6 borrows the more open, driver-oriented dashboard theme from the 1999 Avantisimo concept (and from BMW of yore). The speedo and water temperature gauge are now housed in one elliptical grouping, rev counter and fuel gauge in another, while the dash hood sweeps across to incorporate the centre console. The ignition-key slot has moved from the steering column to the dashboard, the steering wheel boss now wears the outline of the new grille and Audi offers three levels of configuration for its MMI multi-function controller.

Audi being Audi, build quality and ergonomics are superb and the choice of materials extensive but, based on the sombre interior of our test car, the warmth of the previous A6 has been replaced by a colder, techno-look that some customers may not like.

This is a big car – the A6 jumps from smallest to biggest in class with the new model – with a roomy interior, terrific seats and a huge boot (at 546 litres, bigger even than the A8’s). By adopting aluminium for the bonnet, bootlid and firewall, it has kept the weight increase to 45kg, though the 3.2’s 1540kg is 45kg over the BMW 530i.

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To be competitive in this class you need a wide variety of engines and Audi is no exception: at launch the line-up will include the £24,175 2.4, £42,775, 4.2 V8 petrol and £31,680 3.0-litre TDi diesel. A 2.0-litre TDi will join the range shortly after deliveries begin in June. Early in 2005, the Avant arrives to stir estate buyers who’ll welcome the A6’s drivetrain refinement, build quality and handling prowess. It’s how they will react to the new saloon’s firm ride and the touchy subject of styling that’s keeping Ingolstadt nervous.

Peter Robinson

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