Lifestyle

An Audi That Pampers and Protects


A6_2006
Editor's Rating: star rating

The A6 Quattro grips the road in the worst weather and doesn't skimp on luxury. All in all, a nice alternative to a high-end SUV

The Audi A6 Quattro is a wonderful set of wheels. It's a midsize luxury car with a slightly softer feel than a BMW, but it still has the unmistakable handling characteristics of a German "driver's car." It's also safe, practical (with a spacious trunk and fold-down rear seats for hauling stuff in a pinch) and, with the all-wheel drive option, handles well in any weather. If you're looking to trade in a gas-guzzling luxury SUV for something a little more fuel-efficient, the A6 is definitely a model to consider.

My test A6 had the powerful 4.2 liter, 335-horsepower engine, and sometimes I found myself doing 90 mph on the highway when I thought I was doing 70. The six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission is very smooth, and the car has a manual-shifting mode if you want to use it. The engine emits a pleasing growl when you push it a little.

TIGHT STEERING.

My only caution: the optional sports-suspension system on my test car made the ride harder than some luxury buyers might want. On the open highway, you could feel every crease and tiny bump in the pavement, so forego that option if a luxurious ride is your priority.

I drove the test car in rain, snow, and sleet, as well as on dry pavement. The A6 really hugs the road when you throw it into curves. Speed-sensitive power steering comes standard, but the technology doesn't diminish the driving experience. Steering is tight for a luxury car, and the all-wheel drive grips the pavement when you hit patches of wet road.

My test car had the spoked alloy wheels, and I was worried that the low-profile, all-weather tires that came with them would reduce gripping power. But the A6 performed well. It's bigger and heavier (4,200 lbs) than the other sporty, all-wheel drive European sedans I've driven in this series of reviews, the Volvo S40 and the Mercedes c350, so it feels even more solid on the road under winter conditions (see BW Online, 1/25/06, "A Hot Volvo for a Cold Road"), and 1/11/06, "A Mercedes That Grips the Road").

NO GUZZLER.

I threw my test car into a spin on glare ice during a rainstorm, and the tires caught as soon as there was the slightest bare road for them to grasp. I swerved and braked hard on the highway in wet, newly fallen snow with the temperature hovering just above freezing and couldn't make the car slide out of control. I even took A6 on a short off-road jaunt on a logging-style unpaved road in three inches of snow. The car doesn't have the ground clearance of an SUV, but it made it.

For a luxury car, the A6 is relatively fuel-efficient. Even with the big engine, it's rated to get 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 on the highway. During one stretch of 332 miles of mainly highway driving, I got 22.1 miles mpg. The downside is that, like other luxury cars, it uses expensive premium gasoline.

One of the A6's real strong points is its tasteful, well-appointed interior. Leather upholstery; wood inlays on the dash, console, and doors; heated and 12-way power-adjustable front seats; a power-adjustable steering wheel; and Bose surround sound are all standard. As a person with back problems, I found the sporty driver's seat, which costs an additional $500, very supportive and comfortable. And the rear seats -- wonder of wonders! -- actually are fairly roomy, though there isn't space for three adults to be comfortable.

STUDY REQUIRED.

The A6 has numerous thoughtful design touches. For instance, the controls to open the gas-tank cover and hood are on the driver's door, where they're easy to find. And the glovebox is a marvel. You open it by pushing a button on the dash, and the mechanism is damped so the lid comes down with a slow, luxurious movement. One problem: the CD changer is in the glovebox, which doesn't leave much room for storage.

This car even has a full-size spare tire. No monkeying around with kits to reinflate a flat tire or run-flat tires that only get you to the nearest garage!

Much has been written about how annoying it is to use the navigation system, trip computer, or and even tune the radio on German cars. In my view, luxury cars now have so many functions built into them that you have to break open the thick owner's manuals and study up before you can operate one.

SECURE FEELING.

That said, Audi's system for dealing with this complexity -- which combines a central control knob that manipulates commands on a seven-inch screen with old-fashioned manual buttons -- falls somewhere in the middle in its ease of use. It's less cumbersome than BMW's, and more cumbersome than the controls on Cadillacs and Japanese luxury cars. I figured out how to do a lot of basic things before I looked at the owner's manual.

The A6 is very safe. It comes loaded with airbags, including a side curtain system that reduces head injuries in side-impact collisions and active head-rests to reduce whiplash injuries in rear-end collisions. Rear side airbags only cost an extra $350, and my advice is to definitely get them. The car's crash-test results are excellent.

Measured by overall performance, the A6 holds its own against all competing models. Indeed, Automobile magazine rated the A6 No. 1 in a face-off with the BMW 5-Series and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedans (the models it most directly competes against), as well as the Cadillac STS (see BW Online, 12/7/05, "Caddy's STS: From Zero to Wow!"), Infiniti M45 (see BW Online, 12/14/05, "Infiniti M45: Almost a Giant Killer"), Acura RL, Jaguar S-type, and the Lexus GS-430.

RELIABILITY ISSUE?

The A6 also earns a mid-range three-star quality rating from J.D. Power, though Consumer Reports rates its predicted reliability as ?disappointing.?

The A6 costs less than its German rivals, but it's far from cheap. The A6 Quattro with the big, 4.2-liter engine of my test car starts at $54,490, and the price rises fast as you start adding options. A technology package -- which includes a navigation system, satellite radio, parking assistance to keep you from running into things while backing up, voice-activated commands, and a push-button starter -- goes for $3,800.

Another package that includes wood interior trim, spoked wheels and performance tires, sport-tuned suspension and headlight washers costs another $2,800. Other options include adaptive cruise control ($2,100), heated rear seats and a ski sack ($400), a heated steering wheel ($200) ,and adaptive air suspension that slightly increases and decreases ground clearance according to speed and driving conditions ($2,300).

LUXURY ALTERNATIVE.

For those who want to pay less, the '06 model year offers a four-wheel drive A6 with a smaller, 3.2 liter six cylinder engine that comes in a sedan version. This car starts at $44,690, and a wagon has a starting price tag of $47,590 (see BW Online, 12/27/05, "2006 Audi A6 Avant 3.2 Quattro). If you don't live in an area with severe winters, the basic A6 front-wheel drive sedan with the smaller engine and standard traction control might do just fine for winter driving. It starts at just $41,540.

The bottom line is that with all-wheel-drive, this car is a decent alternative to a luxury SUV. SUVs are "what if" purchases: What if I'm ferrying the kids to soccer practice and we get in an accident? What if we go skiing for the weekend and get caught in a snowstorm on the way up the mountain? The A6 handles all those what-ifs nearly as well as an SUV. And the other 95% of the time, it's a lot more fun to drive.


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