Audi A6

The revamped A6 is dramatic and handsome with some delightful engines and considerably improved performance. But is it, as Audi claims, the sportiest executive saloon on the market? John Simister has doubts, but still gives a thumbs-up to an in-your-face upgrade
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Indy Lifestyle Online

SPECIFICATIONS

Price: £30,225 (range starts at £24,175), on sale June

Engine: 3,123cc, V6 cylinders, 32 valves, 255bhp at 6,500rpm

Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive

Performance: 155mph, 0-60mph in 6.8 seconds

Fuel economy: 29.1mpg average

CO2: 233g/km

The face. Not the style magazine currently suffering under the fragmentation of the culture it reports upon, but the visage now visited upon all new Audi designs. It centres around a bold, even brash, front grille which heads right down to bottom-of-valance level, an in-your-face face supposedly dimly redolent of a pre-war Auto Union racing car designed to give Audis a presence thought lacking hitherto.

But was that not the point? An Audi is/was meant to be the epitome of understated Teutonic designer-cool, the car for those who found BMWs a bit flashy, and now Audi is gilding its own lily. The object in question is the new A6, the replacement for a car whose design has aged less than that of any other 1990s car. I was slightly shocked that the old one even needed replacing, but then I realised how quickly the last seven years have passed.

The new A6 is about much more than just the face, however. It is longer (by a hefty 3.25 inches in the wheelbase), wider and roomier than both the old one and its immediate rivals, and Audi boldly claims it to be the sportiest and most dynamic of all these so-called executive saloons. If so, it would be a major leap from the previous model whose crisp design and delightful interior were not matched by its driving feel.

A revised engine range helps here, and in a signal of a move upmarket (when did a maker ever move downmarket, Rover and arguably Mercedes-Benz excepted?) there are no four-cylinder engines at launch. A 2.0-litre turbodiesel with that cylinder-count will follow, however.

The range consists of 2.4 and 3.1-litre (Audi calls it 3.2) petrol V6s, both of them much improved, plus a 4.2-litre V8 and a 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel. They are housed in a car of clearly Audi-esque styling but sharpened up with the influence of Audi's ex-Alfa design chief Walter de'Silva. The old car's stark simplicity has gone, replaced by an aura of trying a little too hard, but the result is both dramatic and handsome. Naturally, an Avant estate version will follow.

Inside, access optionally achieved with a keyless entry system. Again, the straight-lined aesthetic has given way to an all-happening grandeur. The wood -- for which SE trim is necessary -- spills over the centre tunnel almost voluptuously, and is repeated with bright-metal edging on the doors and across the fascia's passenger side.

The instrument panel is a complex, hooded construction, flowing into a centre console angled towards the driver. In the centre of the steering wheel is that grille shape again, bounding the Audi badge.

It is beautifully constructed and finished out of high-grade materials, but it is also a busy, cluttered cabin. Part of that clutter is a modified version of the "Multimedia Interface" (MMI) launched on the larger A8 as a riposte to BMW's iDrive. In some ways it is better than the A8's system because the screen is permanently visible instead of needing to be persuaded out of its hiding place, but the buttons are far back on the centre tunnel, well out of the line of sight. It is, to be frank, awkward to use.

Rear seat space is impressive, and Audi has incorporated shallow cut-outs in the centre pillars to give more clearance for entering feet. The boot is similarly generous. But is it, as Audi claims, the most rewarding driving experience in its category?

First, the 3.1 V6. This is a direct-injection engine designed for clean, economical running, and featuring nearly every variable device known to modern engines. It is powerful too, with 255bhp delivered with a crisp edge to a creamy centre.

This is a delightful engine, whose responsiveness is especially enjoyable when matched to the six-speed manual gearbox. The automatic (continuous gearing-change in auto mode, seven steps in manual mode) will probably find more buyers. Alternatively, if you go for a quattro four-wheel drive system, a six-speed automatic with Tiptronic manual over-ride is the compulsory adjunct.

Next, the 3.0 TDI. New, quieter and more accurate piezo-electric injectors help disguise the mode of combustion. Only the tickety idle gives it away. Lots of pulling power (332lb/ft of torque, plus 225bhp -- from a diesel!) and fine economy are as expected, and this will surely be one of the most popular versions. I finished with the 4.2, a mix of sportiness and refinement with 335bhp and a muted V8 beat, sported-up suspension, 10 per cent quicker steering response and a six-second 0-60mph time.

Yes, yes. But are these A6s the sportiest saloons in the business class? I cannot answer that definitively, owing to traffic-choked test routes which defied all attempts at escape. What I can say is that the A6 felt smooth and stable when briefly given its motorway head, that the old car's acceleration tail-squat and braking nose-dive have gone, that the ride is supple and that the whole car feels as solid as the 34 per cent increase in body stiffness suggests it should.

There is a clue in the steering response, however. It is keen, helped by the less nose-heavy weight distribution, and there is a mechanical precision lacking in the previous A6. But, as ever, it is too light at speed and consequently feels aloof from the road. This is not how the sportiest executive saloon should be: it needs to involve its driver more in the sensations of driving dynamics.

I can recommend the 3.1 V6 manual as the most pleasing version of a promising range. But, for now, the definitive accolade eludes us. The optional retracting towbar and steerable headlights are neat, though.

THE RIVALS

Alfa Romeo 166 V6, £28,000

In a circle of risky residual values, the 166 is actually a characterful car, well built and sonorous. Facelifted with a 3.2-litre engine, a more handsome nose and a better ride.

BMW 5301 SE, £31,055

Everyone has an opinion on the new Five's styling, but it is the driving fan's choice. Variable-ratio Active Steering option is worth trying, but optional run-flat tyres spoil the ride.

Mercedes-Benz E320, £34,065

Here at the conservative end of the styling continuum is probably the best all-round executive car of all. Age will wither it the least, too, helping to offset the price premium.

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