Not afraid to step out of the box.
by John Matras
Base Price (MSRP) $35,400 As Tested (MSRP) $41,955
The Audi A6 has a funky Bauhaus style that makes it stand out from its German rivals, while competing on merit with the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and BMW 5 Series models. While the Mercedes and BMW models are “safe” choices, the Audi buyer is more of a psychological risk taker, more on the cutting edge and more willing to be different.
In addition to distinctive styling, Audi A6 models offer all-wheel drive, selected by the majority of owners, or front-wheel drive. (BMW and Mercedes models use rear-wheel drive except for a few all-wheel drive models.)
For 2002, Audi lives up to its avant garde image with a unique-at least for this class of automobile-transmission: Audi's multitronic continuously variable automatic transmission is the first to be able to handle the torque of a 3.0-liter V6 engine. That 3.0-liter V6 is new for 2002, up from last year's 2.8-liters. The multitronic transmission, available only with front-wheel drive, replaces the gear ratio steps of a conventional automatic with a computer-controlled steel belt and pulley system for smooth, shift-free operation. Model Lineup
Audi A6 is available in a variety of models, each with a distinctive personality. These include: A6 3.0 ($35,400); A6 3.0 Avant ($38,350); A6 2.7T ($39,750); A6 4.2 ($49,650); S6 Avant ($58,700).
A6 3.0 comes standard with the multitronic transmission, traction control (called ASR for anti-slip regulation), antilock braking (ABS), electronic rear brake pressure regulation, an electronic differential lock (EDL), and automatic climate control with filter. It comes standard with front-wheel drive.
Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system can be added; instead of the multitronic, quattro comes with a conventional five-speed automatic transmission equipped with Tiptronic, which allows the driver to shift manually when desired. A6 3.0 quattro retails for $37,150.
A6 3.0 Avant, is the station wagon version. (Avant means station wagon at your local Audi dealer). It also comes powered by the 220-horsepower 3.0-liter V6. Equipment level is similar, but for now it's only available with the five-speed automatic and all-wheel drive.
A6 2.7T is the rowdy member of the A6 family, equipped with a 250-horsepower turbocharged V6. It's the only model offered with a manual transmission, a six-speed gearbox. It's also available with a five-speed automatic for the same price. Sport seats are available as an option.
A6 4.2 borrows the V8 engine from the mighty Audi S8. Stuffing this big 300-horsepower V8 into the A6 required Audi to stretch the nose slightly. While they were at it, they expanded the fender flares to cover wider tires.
S6 Avant, a unique luxury sport wagon, is powered by a V8 that produces a rousing 340 horsepower. With that much power, the Avant's rear will be familiar to other drivers who try to keep up. The S6 Avant has, of course, the highest level of equipment standard, including heated front sport seats with 12-way power lumbar supports, gray birch wood trim, an in-dash six-CD changer and a 200-watt Bose audio system, and much more. Walkaround
To say the A6 is handsome is an understatement. Its rounded forms are coherent and harmonious, the parts melding into the whole. There was a clear and consistent vision in the design of the A6, apparent in the curve of its hood line, the sculpting of the tail and the arch of its roofline. There's nothing that looks out of place. Even Audi's four-ring logo looks as if it were designed for this car.
New for 2002 are visible dual-exhaust tailpipes for all A6 models, differing for each. The taillights have new cylindrical back-up lights and turn signals with red outer lenses that flash amber. Up front the A6 has clear glass headlamps, with high-intensity Xenon headlamps optional on all A6 models. Not as visible but significant nonetheless are improved door seals and thicker glass for a quieter cabin; Audi claims added insulation reduces tire noise by 40 percent.
A second and closer look at the Audi's exterior reveals the tight fit of panels and doors, contributing a richer look and reduced wind noise. Interior Features
Audi dropped its Atmospheres interior design program for 2002, but never fear, the interior of even the base A6 is sumptuous and worthy of this class of automobile. Not only are the shapes pleasing to the eye, everything touchable feels like it belongs in a luxury-class car.
The front seats are well cushioned, but not deeply bolstered. Non-sporting drivers will prefer these seats, as they provide all the lateral retention they'll need for comfortable everyday driving while not requiring a climb over the side bolsters. The rear seat is contoured for two, though it will accommodate three adults even if cross-country trips would result in more intimacy than usually desired.
The dash-with its nicely finished splash of wood (also in the center console and door panels)-is well laid out, with controls that are easy to operate. Driver and passenger can set the temperature of their choice, and even the sound system is easy enough to operate without a college degree in computer programming. Instruments are white-on-black in daylight, but at night illuminate in a jet-fighter cockpit red. It looks high-tech, and is theoretically better for night vision. Quality touches include over-door assist handles that have a soft-return feature. Front and rear seats have reading lights, and there are footwell lights front and rear as well. The door handles are also illuminated for easy nighttime exit, and a red LED light illuminates the center console area with a soft glow. The A6 interior is a nice place to be.
The trunk is commodious and tall, with articulated hinges that don't enter the trunk itself: no more crushed grocery bags or wasted cargo space. With four cargo tie-downs and a cargo net, there's no reason for stuff to be rolling around the trunk. Driving Impressions
We selected the base A6 for this review deliberately, not because we wanted the cheapest of Audi in this range, but to try out the nifty new continuously variable (CVT) multitronic transmission. I've driven CVT-equipped automobiles before, including the 3-cylinder Subaru Justy with a steel drive belt and several 2-cylinder DAF models that had rubber V-belts. These vehicles had several common features: they all had relatively low horsepower, and they all were primarily mechanically controlled. Step on the gas and the engine would rev up to its power peak and stay there while the car accelerated. To the driver, this felt at best like a speedboat or airplane or at worst like a slipping clutch. Despite their theoretical and practical advantages-better performance and fuel mileage, their odd driving characteristics as well as their small size prevented these vehicles from gaining popularity in the U.S.
With that background, the multitronic-equipped A6 had one strike against it. The shift lever doesn't look unusual, however, with the PRND selector flanked by a Tiptronic “+” and “-” slot. Placed in “D,” the A6 accelerates much like a car with a conventional transmission. Audi uses computer controls to set the ratios in the CVT, and whether at light or heavy throttle, the engine gains rpm satisfyingly as the car accelerates. It's not the one-to-one relationship that a conventional automatic provides, but the ear and eye agree that the engine and the car are both accelerating. The transmission never shifts gears, of course. However, it mimics a conventional automatic in feel. Slam the throttle down while cruising and the CVT feels like an automatic transmission downshifting, only quicker.
If the driver wishes, the computer control of the CVT allows the driver to shift “gears” just as if it were a Tiptronic-equipped conventional transmission. Just move the lever into the “+” and “-” slot and the multitronic will fix the pulleys in five selected gear ratios, shifting up or down as the lever is moved forward or back. The shifts themselves are much quicker than a conventional automatic shifted with Tiptronic. Overall, the CVT is more responsive than a conventional automatic. It delivers marginally quicker acceleration performance, according to Audi. Because it lacks a traditional automatic's power-sapping torque converter, the CVT also delivers better fuel economy; EPA estimates 2 mpg better in city driving.
That's all well and good, but the A6 is more than the new transmission. The new 3.0-liter V6 gives the base A6 energetic performance in just about any driving situation. We drove the A6 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge in northern Virginia, where the engine performed eagerly on uphill grades. Yet it was like a silent partner on the expressway. With the multitronic, the A6 3.0 was responsive to all merging and accelerating needs.
The brakes were progressive and strong, and the steering crisp and accurate. The suspension was on the soft side of sporty, providing the comfort that most buyers of this four-door sedan desire, while still maintaining the driving control one would expect from a German car. We didn't have the opportunity to use the stability control, as the pavement was dry and there was no opportunity to devise an artificial test, but knowing it's there provides extra peace of mind. Nor did we have the heavy rain that often leaves deep puddles on the pavement that can give ordinary front-drive vehicles conniptions, but we know from earlier experience that Audi's complex front suspension yields absolute control in such situations. Indeed, even in dry conditions, the front-drive Audi A6 has none of the torque steer common with high-powered front-wheel-drive automobiles.
The Audi A6 is peaceful at highway cruise, with only the slightest ruffle of wind noise around the A-pillars, noticeable only because the rest of the car was so quiet. Final Word
The Audi A6 provides the ego enhancement one expects from driving a luxury car. Indeed, the average household income of the A6 buyer is expected to be about $150,000. It is a worthy reward for someone in that income bracket, and is not just another Benz or Bimmer.
For those who want the advantages of all-wheel drive, multitronic is not yet available with quattro, though it can be expected in the future. The A6 is an exceedingly competent commuter and highway car for the professional or entrepreneur who doesn't lust after the speed of the performance-tuned A6 models, but relishes being a little different.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.