Despite a continuing trend for buyers to select their cars from an ever increasing range of niche and specialty vehicles, the traditional four door saloon remains an important car in almost every manufacturer’s line-up. The credit crunch and ever tighter household budgets may have forced lots of people to downsize, but there remains a significant market for the large family “executive” saloon. Long gone are the days when this class was defined in the minds of UK buyers by Ford, Rover and Vauxhall, as now it is the German triumvirate of BMW, Mercedes and Audi that totally dominate. . Mercedes presented their latest E Class in 2009, BMW the new 5 series in 2010 and in 2011, it was Audi’s turn to have the newest class competitor when the 7th generation of the A6 appeared. The stakes are high for this sort of car, so none dares to deviate far either from convention or indeed their outgoing product. Audi’s new car was presaged by the fastback A7 model which was launched a few months earlier, and so the latest A6 surprised no-one, with its slightly edgier styling which looks more like a smaller A8 than a slightly larger A4, a new interior incorporating some of the latest technologies and a carry over of much of the engine and engineering. With global sales of the A6 amounting to over 200,00 cars a year, it is Audi’s second best selling model after the A4, and hence an important vehicle to get right.
Although all three of these fierce rivals are offered with an array of different petrol and diesel engines, many of them delivering tantalising performance figures, changes to the tax regimes across Europe have meant that it is the 2.0 diesel cars which constitute almost all the sales. In the UK, the majority of cars sold in this class are company lease purchases, so a low emissions rating is vitally important as this affects not just the cost of the annual tax disc, but the percentage of the list price calculations for Benefit In Kind tax charges. In addition, many companies now feel the need to contain or reduce their costs as well as appearing to be more environmentally responsible, so neglecting the buying policies of the UK’s company car market is not a route that many can afford to pursue. It is no surprise to find that not only has a lot of work been done to increase the levels of efficiency in cars of this class, but that the results are truly amazing, with the 2.0 TDi unit that was fitted to the test car developing 177 bhp, and in manual form spitting out just 129 g/km CO2 with the automatic only slightly more at 132 g/km. These are impressive numbers, and mean that the Audi is more than competitive with the BMW 520d and “beats” the Mercedes E220CDi, but it would be a pretty pyrrhic victory if the rest of the car was actually no good. Having recently sampled an A7, and been mightily impressed, my expectations were pretty high that the broadly similar A6 would also hit the mark. So, did it?
Thanks to continued improvements and refinements made by VAG to their diesel engines, this is no longer the powerplant that you would not actively choose. Almost all trace of diesel noise and roughness has been completely eradicated, so the engine is quiet at start up and remains that way once you set off. It’s never going to excite you, for sure, but nor will it annoy you in a way that its predecessors only a few years ago probably would have done. The test car was fitted with the optional automatic gearbox, which in this model means the Multitronic continuously variable transmission. Despite constant advances by all the manufacturers who use these, they are rarely quite as satisfactory as a conventional gearbox with definite ratios, as although the theory says that you are always in the right ratio, the reality is that they can be less smooth especially when braking sharply and the transmission is slow to adjust to the change in speed. Interestingly, Audi quote a slightly higher top speed, but a 0.5 second penalty for the manual version of the car, along with identical official fuel consumption figures. My test distance was nothing like far enough to be able to calculate the fuel consumption, as I was given the car with some fuel in it, and put a bit more in it in accordance with the request from the supplying dealer, and then I returned it with the fuel gauge having barely moved . The official figures are certainly impressive, helped no doubt by the standard stop/start system which cut in and out more briskly than some systems I have encountered. 2 litres and 177 bhp are not a massive amount for a car of this size and so it is no surprise that the car comes across as brisk but certainly not as fast. Audi will sell you a 3.0 TDi for that, and having sampled that engine in the A7, I would want to see if I could manage the finances to get the extra power and the smoothness of the V6. For those who cannot, though, it is far from a disaster, as this car would convey its driver and occupants with quiet efficiency to their destination. One other discernible difference from my test A7 concerned the steering, which I thought felt noticeably lighter. As there is less weight at the front of the car, it could well be the case, and if so, this would be another reason for upgrading to the 3.0 as I found it, I am sad to report, a bit too devoid of feel, though it was nowhere near A3-type woolliness. I did not get the chance to take the car out on country roads, so cannot comment on the handling, but would guess that it would be little different from the A7: safe and predictable, but not something which would appeal to the tail-out rear wheel drive loving brigade. From what I could tell, the suspension in this S-Line form and on standard 18″ wheels does not destroy the ride characteristics, as the test car was fine on the varied surfaces of the roads around Bristol where I drove it. There were no issues with the brakes, and the fact that the test car was an automatic meant that the cursed electronic handbrake was a non-issue. All round visibility is generally good, and to help the driver in confined spaces, the Park Assist feature would not just beep, but project a graphic on the Sat Nav display screen.
The interior of this car is identical to that which I experienced in the A7. It sports the latest in Audi interior style thinking which tries to reduce the bulk of the main dash moulding, although it does not deviate far from the trademark style that has characterised vehicles from this marque for the past 20 years or so. It is beautifully finished, leaving you in no doubt that this is a quality product. Chrome surrounds to the instrument dials, and around the air vents are complemented by a brushed aluminium trim inlay which looks classy. If you don’t like this, there are plenty of other less tasteful wood options you can choose instead. For the driver, everything is a paragon of clarity. There are two large dials, for speedometer and rev counter, as well as smaller ones for fuel level and water temperature, grouped together under a single binnacle. An area in the middle of this grouping is used to display not just the odometer but also selected information concerning selected audio channel, a digital display of current speed as well as fuel range and a myriad of other possibilities, A small button, one of a number to be found on the steering wheel allows the driver to cycle through the options. Column stalks for indicators and wipers, as well as the lights switch on the right of the dash are from the VAG parts bin. There are now separate buttons for the front and rear fog lights, so there is no longer the need as on the previous generation cars to go from “auto” to an explicit “lights on” setting to illuminate these extra lights. The centre of the dash contains the audio unit, and below this, the climate control system. Most of the audio unit functions are operated from the MMI system, whose buttons are in the centre console, and are now familiar and relatively intuitive. Here you also find the electric handbrake, and hill-holder buttons, as well as the engine start/stop. As well as the paddles for the gearchange, mounted behind the wheel, there are lots of buttons on the 3 spoke steering wheel, which provide functions such as changing the radio channel and volume, as well as the info display in the instrument cluster.
Although the C7 generation of the A6 is slightly smaller than its predecessor, it is still a roomy car. Rear seat passengers are well endowed with plenty of space, with generous levels of legroom, headroom will not be an issue and three adults should fit across the width of the car. There is a commodious boot, which is very deep from back to front. There is a small cubby area behind a flap on the left hand side and you could also put a few odds and ends around the space saver spare wheel which sits under the boot floor. More space can be created by dropping the rear seat backrests onto the cushions. A ski flap through the central armrest area is a cost option. Inside the cabin, there is a reasonable sized glovebox, door pockets and some oddments space under the hinged central armrest. The twin cupholders in the centre console will win no prizes with the Americans, as they would only accommodate relatively small bottomed drinks containers,
As with its competitors, there is a vast list of optional equipment which can be specified to make exactly the A6 that you want. Indeed, the majority of the thick brochure is used to describe the lists of different colours, trims, dash inlays, wheels, electronic toys and other convenience features that can be added if the pockets are deep enough. Once upon a time, German “luxury” cars were far from well specified, and it was not even a joke that everything bar the steering wheel cost extra. No longer is this true, and indeed the standard S-Line spec has most of the things that one would expect and demand for a car of this price. As well as the S-Line style front and rear bumpers, and badging which appears on the front wings, the steering wheel and the door tread plates, this spec includes twin spoke 18″ alloys, S-Line sports suspension, sports front seats trimmed in valconna leather with electric adjustment, and matt brushed aluminium inlays for the dash and centre console, along with xenon lights with headlamp washers. This is in addition to the items that also feature on the cheaper SE models, which includes Audi MMI Radio Plus with a retractable colour screen which is powered out of the top of the dash when the car is started, which offers not just the Audi Sound System, but also an SD card based Satellite Navigation system, bluetooth phone preparation and Parking System plus which uses ultrasonic sensors in front and rear bumpers. Cruise control is standard, as is dual zone automated climate control, a tyre pressure monitoring system, sensor-based lights and wipers, a leather trimmed steering wheel and stop/start. From what I could deduce, not much of the options list had been applied to the test car, apart from its Phantom Black pearlescent paint.
Although the test distance was shorter than I would have liked, I learned enough to be sure that this is a supremely competent car, and anyone who chooses one is likely to be happy with their purchase. It is not a huge advance from the outgoing model, with which I am more than familiar, and personally I am not convinced that the new styling is “better”, but all the other changes are worthwhile. The new interior is particularly nice, and the latest 2.0 TDi unit is more refined than the engine in the previous car. And yet, I had this nagging doubt at the end of the test. I think it is because I had sampled that 3.0 TDi A7. Whether you like the styling of the A7 or not – and I do – and can justify the rather significant price premium that Audi charges for it, the other thing about that car was its lovely 3.0 TDi engine. In S-Line trim the purchase price hike to a 204bhp version is £2570, and the CO2 figure is just 1 g/km more, Of course the more potent 245 bhp model, sold only as a quattro would be even more desirable, but that lists at £41,460 rather than the £34,140 of this 2.0 TDi. And that’s before I even contemplate the newly announced Bi-turbo 3.0 engine, which I am sure is sensational. Whilst Audi would doubtless be delighted to read this, Fleet Managers would not, and you can just anticipate them feeling a need to restate and strengthen their cost containment policies, with the reminder that the 2.0 TDi is indeed a very nice car and is perfectly fit for purpose. Slightly grudgingly, I have to concede that they are, of course, correct.