Two pieces of welcome-to-the-future gadgetry really tickled me in Audi's new A6.
It was dark. I was following another A6, like mine fitted with a pair of widely spaced exhaust pipes. On the display panel between the main instruments was the night-vision system.
Displaying a miniaturised replica of your view ahead, it uses thermal imaging to highlight things you might not otherwise see at night. It recognises human shapes, too, and surrounds them with a red rectangle so you'll be sure to spot pedestrians in the murk. But what a different view of other traffic it offers. The A6 ahead appeared to have its afterburners on full reheat, such was the brilliance of infra-red output from its exhaust pipes. Even the back bumper was aglow.
Then there's the WiFi hotspot. The sat-nav/stereo/multimedia interface/etc has a permanent internet connection, enabling it to use Google Earth imaging if you want to make the maps especially realistic. And the built-in WiFi means you can use your laptop in the A6 and be on the internet. Your iPod Touch can use it, too.
True, none of this is unique to the A6. Nor is it standard equipment. But I have not encountered these systems in anything less than the grandest, most luxurious cars. The A6 is quite a large car but it is a couple of stages short of supremacy in the Audi model hierarchy. It brings Audi A8 gizmology to the class below.
It also brings a very A8-like interior design, with lush leather as standard, and a very similar design of sleek, wraparound dashboard. There's much aluminium detailing, and the bonnet, boot, doors and front wings are also made of the lightweight metal. So is much of the suspension and the structural parts to which it is attached.
All this means that the new A6 weighs around 80kg less than an equivalent previous one. But if you saw those two A6 generations, would you immediately tell them apart? The nose is the giveaway, more assertive and angular, with fierce-looking headlights and a welcome reduction in overhang, while elsewhere it's really just a sharper reinterpretation of what went before.
Of course there's plenty more (optional) techno-wizardry. LED headlights with speed-variable beam patterns, various lane-departure and blind-spot warnings, automatic braking, clever electric power-steering able to self-correct a lane wander, multiple settings for steering, optional air suspension and automatic gearchange alertness, can all be found here. All of which makes it harder to discern the core personality of the car beneath.
I'll try. Four engines will initially be offered in the UK, three of them diesels and all fitted with a stop-start system which is the chief reason for claims of up to 19 per cent improvements in fuel economy. I began with the petrol A6, a 3.0-litre V6 with a supercharger, a seven-speed double-clutch gearbox, 300bhp and the S-Line pack of "sporty" suspension and wheels. Costing from £41,620, it was fast, felt planted on the road, was a touch too firm over bumps, and seemed to be a car in which natural responses had been neutralised and synthetic ones inserted in their place.
Next came a 3.0 TDI V6, in the lower of two engine outputs (204bhp rather than 245) and driving the front wheels only via a continuously variable automatic transmission called Multitronic. This car officially emits just 137g/km CO2, and the whole combination is effortlessly effective if a touch aloof.
Finally, I drove the 2.0 TDI, now with 177bhp and a 129g/km CO2 rating. And at last I could feel what the A6 is all about, helped by a slick, easy manual gearchange, less weight over the front wheels, and a lightness on its feet missing in the V6-engined cars. It rode well, it steered accurately, it felt natural instead of over-electronicised. This least-expensive A6 (from £30,145) proved to be the most pleasing of all – an Audi with which you can properly bond. With modern cars, "less is more" is a maxim which often holds true. It's certainly true of this new Audi.
BMW 520d SE: £29,430, 184bhp, 129g/km.
Not the "ultimate driving machine" of the past, but there's green tech for a low CO2 rating. Not as covetable as a 5-series once was.
Mercedes-Benz E220 CDi SE: £30,645, 170bhp, 150g/km.
Latest E-class brings back proper Merc values of solidity and rational functionality. It's a delightful car to drive. Recommended.
Saab 9-5 2.0 TiD Vector SE: £26,995, 160bhp, 139g/km.
A handsome, very Swedish saloon. Engine is gruff, but 9-5 is good to drive if you avoid "sports" suspension and wheels.