Bankers. They’re the kind of people you expect to see driving an Audi. Or barristers. Fine, upstanding pillars of society, I’m sure you’ll agree. Trouble is, they are a little, well, boring.
That’s Audi’s problem, too. All too often thought of as the quiet reliable type that stands in the corner at parties, Audi wants to inject some added sport appeal into its latest offerings.
The most obvious attempt at this is the new corporate snout. The full-face grille first shown on the Nuvolari concept has since made its way on to the front of the new A8, A3 and next year’s A4. It works best on the A6, in our opinion, although it continues to divide opinion amongst potential punters.
The panels retain Audi’s trademark large radii, continuing the impression that the car is constructed from particularly heavy gauge steel, but there’s a definite move away from the slab-sided look of the previous generation, with more creases and swage lines.
It’s still a conservative look, however, but Audi is no doubt hoping to pick up conquest sales from those offended by the new BMW 5-series. To do that, the A6 will need to deliver far greater levels of driver involvement than it has in the past.
In the cabin, the centre console is angled towards the driver the way BMWs used to before Chris Bangle arrived in the design studio, and the quality of materials is generally higher, too. Trim that looks like metal is, indeed, metal and the rotary controls used on the MMI (Multi Media Interface) and the climate system operate with a wonderful ratcheted feel.
There are some weak areas. The reading light switches in the overhead console feel cheap and crunchy, the column-mounted stalks are incredibly flimsy, and none of the multitude of buttons dotted around the interior could be described as tactile.
They’re not intuitive, either, with many of them sporting obscure icons that offer little in the way of clues as to their function. Whilst pressing each button in turn will help you eventually discover what each one is responsible for, there’s a feeling that it’ll take many hours behind the wheel before you’re fully up to speed.
We thought the idea of systems like Audi’s MMI and BMW’s iDrive was to remove the plethora of buttons and switches that had begun sprouting from modern-day dashboards. This doesn’t seem to be the case in the Audi, which has 15 buttons relating to the MMI system alone. Luckily, this arrangement makes the MMI far less obtuse than BMW’s iDrive. It’s still based around a central rotating dial, but crucially has four surrounding buttons that correspond to options presented in the corners of the screen. In addition, there are dedicated buttons for navigation, radio, CD, telephone, etc, making it easy to jump from one menu to another.
We still think these systems are far from intuitive, and much prefer the touch-screen solutions offered by Lexus and Jaguar.
The seats are comfortable, if a touch firm, and you’ll have to adjust them yourself unless you stump up for one of the electric options. The adjustable steering column has insufficient travel, too, and even in its lowest position is far too upright. The central armrest is a little too high, too.
Cabin space in the rear is quite exceptional. With the driver’s seat adjusted for my 6ft 4ins frame, I could still sit comfortably in the seat immediately behind. Plenty of headroom, too.
The boot has a practical 546 litre capacity, which can be increased for long loads thanks to the split-fold rear seats – unusual in a saloon.
We chose to test the A6 with Audi’s 3.0 TDI engine, picked to compete directly with BMW’s acclaimed straight-six of the same capacity. The 3.0-litre V6 uses dual charge air coolers, a variable geometry turbocharger and piezo injectors to cultivate 225 bhp from its tractor fuel, with a useable 331 lb/ft of twist developed at a lowly 1,400rpm. All that power would be a recipe for a torque-steering disaster if channelled through the front wheels alone, so the 3.0 TDI sees Audi’s quattro four-wheel drive system fitted as standard.
The torquey nature of these big diesel engines suits a modern automatic transmission perfectly. Audi is of the same opinion, and marries up the 3.0 TDI to their six-speed tiptronic gearbox as standard. Despite what would appear on the face of it to be a power-sapping driveline, the big Audi manages to haul itself to 62mph in 7.3 seconds, and on to a 151mph top speed.
On start-up, there’s the characteristic diesel wobble, but the noise from the engine room quickly settles down into a pleasingly gruff six-cylinder note. It’s still recognisably a diesel, but there’s somehow a sporting edge to it, with vibration through the controls well isolated.
The six-speed tiptronic gearbox features the same selections as any normal automatic transmission, together with plus and minus tip functions and, depending on the steering wheel you choose (there are no less than 10 on the options list), gearchange paddles mounted to the column.
Slip the ‘box into D, flick the switch for the electronically-operated parking brake, and the A6 glides gently forwards as you release the foot brake. There’s a sense of power under control that’s missing from the grabby Mercedes E320 CDI.
On the move, power delivery is surprisingly urgent. The transmission is eager to kickdown, and swaps cogs imperceptibly. Manual changes activated through the paddles come with little delay, and the system is equipped with a decent amount of intelligence. The system will change up at the redline – but not before – and will downshift when you approach traffic lights, even though there’s enough to torque to pull away in practically any gear. Leave the paddles alone for any period of time while driving normally, and the system will return to Drive.
Many paddle-shift transmissions are little more than a gimmick – fun to demonstrate to your friends, but then forgotten. However, it can be quite rewarding to click the downshift paddle a couple of times prior to an overtaking manoeuvre.
So it’s got the engine and transmission required of a sports executive saloon, but what about the chassis?
Sadly, no. Chief culprit here is the ride quality. The suspension does a poor job of absorbing bumps at low speeds, leaving you and your passengers visibly shaken in their seats by even minor imperfections in the road’s surface. Cat’s eyes make their presence felt in the cabin with a great crash, so it’s probably no surprise that our test car’s interior was full of rattles.
Things improve at speed, thankfully, although the ride could never be described as supple. We should highlight that our test car was fitted with standard suspension. Order the harder sports suspension at your peril.
Of course the advantage of the stiff suspension is that this Audi now knows how to go round corners. It’s not entirely successful at disguising the fact the A6 is a big car, and the quattro system is still configured to provide understeer for safety’s sake, but hustling through the twisties is far more rewarding than your average bank manager will expect.
The steering is still lifeless, with very little in the way of feedback. It’s wonderfully light for parking, however, but does leave the driver with a distinct feeling of being detached from the action.
The A6 3.0 TDI is a touch more expensive than the BMW 530d SE, priced at £31,930 on the road. Standard equipment includes electrical mirrors and windows, CD changer, cloth upholstery, climate control, quattro four-wheel drive, traction control, cruise control, multiple airbags, ABS, EBD, ESP, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, MMI Basic Plus (Multi Media Interface control system with 6.5″ monochrome screen), remote locking and seven-spoke alloy wheels.
We added electric sports front seats in Alcantara/leather, acoustic parking system (front and rear), folding door mirrors, electrically adjustable steering column, DVD-based satellite navigation (which forces you to add an additional CD changer) and metallic paint, bringing the total on-the-road price to £37,765. That’s nearly £800 more than a similar-specced Beemer. It’ll retain slightly less of that value over three years (51% vs. 54%), too. Servicing should prove reasonable, fuel economy is rated at 33.2mpg on the combined cycle, and insurance is group 16.
Audi’s new A6 is certainly a very competent saloon. It’s a little more expensive than its rivals, but generally feels well put together and not engineered down to a price. The quality of materials is well above that selected by the Bavarian competition, although there are some exceptions and overall assembly may not be to the exacting standards we are led to believe.
The drive-train is well matched, with a smooth-shifting tiptronic transmission working in harmony with the new 3.0-litre diesel engine to provide accessible urgency and refined cruising in equal quantities. There’s even a sporty growl to be enjoyed, too.
However, that all goes to further highlight the poorly resolved steering and suspension. While the helm answers faithfully enough, it conspires with the limited adjustability of the column to remove any incentive to become emotionally involved in the experience. The worst crime is committed by the suspension; body control is promising, but bump absorption at urban speeds is easily beaten by rock-hard ricers like Subaru’s Impreza STi.
The VW Group are masters of the perception of quality. By using soft-touch cabin materials and silicon-damped grab handles, customers believe the same attention to quality extends to the hidden parts of their vehicle. Of course surveys such as J. D. Power show us that this isn’t necessarily the case.
Faced with the task of injecting sporting charisma into a previously staid executive saloon, Audi may have instead settled for the perception of sportiness.
It’s a particularly disappointing concept, given the competency of the rest of the package. With further refinements to the suspension, the A6 is a car any bank manager would be happy to approve a loan against.
New single-frame grille is at its best on the A6. Cabin and luggage space is excellent. Interior quality is usual Audi (i.e. good, but not that good). New 3.0-litre diesel an excellent power unit, and well matched to six-speed tiptronic and quattro 4wd. However, it all falls down on the steering and suspension. The low-speed ride is particularly poor, and the steering is still lifeless.