BMW heads for perfection but the next Audi could give it a rough ride

The new 5-series is almost too flawless, says John Simister
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BMW 523i

AUDI A6 2.6 SE

Audi's 5-series rival has emerged from the shadows to be a major threat, and there's a new one on the way. BMW should worry...

Unlike BMW's 5-series, the Audi A6 is anything but new. It's the current incarnation of the car launched as an Audi 100 five years ago and renamed A6, to suit Audi's new nomenclature, in 1994. With the re-christening came tidier detailing and a tougher stance, and thanks to some suspension improvements the A6 proved a considerably more satisfying drive than the rather dull 100.

This rebirth has been so successful that people have all but forgotten about the Audi 100, and view the A6 as a young and desirable alternative to the fellow-German opposite. This has caused some bemusement at Britain's Audi dealers, who will have a new A6 to sell next year yet are quite happy with the still-rising sales of the current one. So what is the appeal?

There's a feeling of chunky indestructibility to the A6. And while the 2.6 SE version is neither as fast nor as smooth-riding as its rival, the V6 engine is serene, with a firm pull from low speeds. Bumps that a BMW would smother are felt as a brief, rubbery shudder in the Audi, but it is comfortable enough and corners with confidence. You'll have more fun in the BMW, because its rear-wheel drive involves the driver more in its actions and reactions, but the front-wheel drive Audi is taut, grippy and sticks well to your chosen trajectory.

This is not the only A6, of course. There are estate cars, lower-powered engines, a pair of excellent turbo-diesels, and now a 2.8-litre V6. This is the optimum A6, with strong performance, impressive handling and a high entertainment factor. At pounds 29,950, it's worth the extra cost although the equivalent BMW (the 528i SE) is, again, a car of more even ability. The A6 sits easily with its new role as a sensible status symbol. It's a much older design than the BMW, so it feels less honed. But you'll find it nearly as satisfying to own.

Last week's Road Rivals, credited to John Simister, was written by Roger Bell.

THE VERDICT

It has to be the BMW. It does everything admirably, with no real flaws apart from the same slightly uncertain steering response just either side of the straight-ahead position that used to trouble the old 5-series. This is an unexpected failing, because the new rack-and-pinion steering system should have fixed the problem.

Otherwise, the 523i is a great car. But while its overall ability cannot be held against it as a personality defect, because that would be perverse, it does point to problems ahead for car design in general. If all cars end up near-perfect, they will be harder than ever to tell apart and using them will cease to be interesting.

We have yet to reach that stage, and the Luddite in me hopes we never shall. For now, though, BMW has regained the best-in-class slot it customarily occupied with the old 5-series, a position it will consolidate as 2.0- litre, V8 and diesel-powered versions join the range. As for whether its status will be as secure when Audi's next A6 arrives, we'll just have to wait and see.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Alfa 164 3.0 V6 Super, pounds 24,305 .......................................................................... Looks good, sounds great, feels dated

Mazda Xedos 9, pounds 24,995 ............................................................ Forgotten by many, highly rated by those in the know

Mercedes-Benz E230 Classic, pounds 26,000 ....................................... Only four cylinders, but a brilliant, bullet-proof Benz

Volvo 850 CD 2.5 20V, pounds 24,850 ............................................................. Boxy looks, but a rounded driving experience

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