Thursday, March 1, 2007

Audi S6 : Sports Car in Sedan's Clothing

Audi is the Rodney Dangerfield of German car companies, irked that it doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Yet the Audi A6 is the best-selling midsize luxury car in the world today.

The S6 is a super-powered, sporty, driving-enthusiast’s version of that conservative, four-door sedan. True, you’ll be paying an additional $32,720 for the 180 hp extra, taught suspension, larger wheels and tires, high-backed and supportive front sport seats, carbon-fiber interior trim as well as a few other “identity features,” as Audi calls them. Yes, you could get a Mercedes S-Class or BMW 7 Series for that kind of money, but fewer than a thousand U.S. buyers a year — many of them probably new to the Audi brand — will opt for the S6, which discretely marks them as wealthy and discerning enthusiasts. Or so Audi hopes.

The 435-hp S6 is handily out-powered by its two natural predators, the identically sized, monster-engined Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG (507-hp supercharged V8) and BMW M5 (500-hp V10). The S6, however, is about $12,000 less than the E63 AMG and comes in a good $20,000 under the M5.

The S6’s grille is as distinctive and memorable as the semi-exposed radiator of a 1960s Mercedes-Benz or the egg-crate air intake of a vintage Ferrari. It’s a bit coarser — more of a cheese-grater effect — than the standard A6 sedan’s, and whether you find it bold or overbearing can be as much a question as whether Arnold Schwarzenegger is handsome or grotesque.

One feature makes an S6 unmistakable, at least from the front: Two rows of five small, brilliant LED lights embedded in the front air dam serve as daytime running lights as well as auxiliary road lamps at night. The sharp glow of these 10 small jewels uniquely announces the S6’s presence in a car’s rearview mirror.

Brushed-aluminum outside mirror pods are another distinctive S-series “identity feature.” Not so successful is the odd trim at the bottom of the doors, which assumedly is intended to simulate some kind of high-speed aerodynamic aid. Ultimately, the door add-ons seem neither aerodynamic nor decorative.

The design and quality of Audi interiors has in many ways become an industry benchmark. They haven’t varied greatly in design in a decade, at least in part because Audi “got it right” and has resisted change for the sake of being trendy. The S6’s interior is classic Audi, optionally seasoned with a heavy helping of real carbon-fiber trim.

Audi has gone to great effort to ensure that every interior control knob, button and switch feels and sounds identical, if that matters to you. (A competing maker could just as successfully claim to have made each group of controls feel different, so they become readily identifiable. In the hands of luxury-car marketers, automotive “advances” sometimes seem the answers to never-asked questions.)

Among the various attempts at menu-driven controls in German luxury sedans, Audi’s MMI — it stands for Multi-Media Interface — is the most intuitive and easiest to use, superior to both the BMW iDrive and Mercedes-Benz Command systems.

The sport seats are comfortable, even though they’re firmly bolstered to keep the driver and front-seat passenger in place during sporty cornering. Because the headrests are high and fixed — an integral part of the seat back — they do wall off backseat passengers.

Space and comfort back there is ample, however, in every dimension, and the trunk behind those seats is truly cavernous.

The two most immediate impressions of the S6 — one positive and the other negative — are the briskness of the engine’s throttle response and the harshness of the suspension.

Some manufacturers rig their throttles to provide a pleasing jump of acceleration on “tip-in” — initial throttle application — but the power comes on less strongly with increased pressure on the gas. The S6, however, jumps instantly to do your throttle-foot bidding and never relents. The lightweight engine innards, typical of a many-cylinder motor, spin to the redline easily and enthusiastically in every lower gear. The car’s high-tech all-wheel-drive system also plays a part in the sense of superior forward thrust.

Though the suspension is also enthusiast-oriented, it’s hard not to conclude that it’s simply too stiff — uncomfortably firm for any but a truly hardcore driver. The upside is that, as with all Audi S sedans, the S6 feels nimble and can take turns at amazing speed while still feeling completely safe (especially remarkable given its substantial weight — 4,486 pounds). But don’t choose an S6 simply because you want the top of the line without assessing how happy you are with the ride.

Germany makes the finest transmissions in the world, and the six-speed Tiptronic in the S6 is no exception. These new-generation automatics won’t entirely satisfy hardcore driving enthusiasts’ desire for a pure manual transmission, but for less extreme enthusiasts, the steering-wheel paddle-shifters provide all the fun we need on winding roads.

Plumbing the exhaust of a 10-cylinder engine to produce a pleasing sound is a challenge; some sound flabby and awkwardly resonant. Audi, however, has managed to equip the S6 with a nicely muted voice that rises to a discreet but unmistakable multicylinder wail when driven hard. Still, I’d have given the S6 one more unique “identity feature:” five exhaust outlets to match the number of cylinder pairs rather than the S6’s symmetrical but clichéd four.

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