- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

Understated is out. Bold is in.

It’s a trend in automobile design, epitomized by cars such as the new Chrysler 300, with its gross, in-your-face grille. Now comes the 2005 Audi A6 from Germany, which does the Chrysler one better with a trapezoidal grille so imposing it seems to be scraping the highway. It is bisected by a horizontal bar that, in Europe, carries one of those squeezed and stretched license plates.

The look is different with American front plates, but it doesn’t change the A6’s aggressive face. “It’s important for a premium brand to have instant recognition,” says Audi’s Achim Badstubner, the chief designer. Well, the A6 certainly has it now. Redesigned to be bigger and stronger, it was crafted to go up against its German rivals, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the BMW 5-Series, and, to a lesser extent, against the new Acura RL, the Jaguar S-Type, the Volvo S80 and the Lexus GS.

In 2003, that crowd accounted for slightly fewer than 170,000 sales. But the prognosticators believe it’s a growing segment of the market, and Audi figures to capture a chunk of the growth, to the tune of about 20,000 sales annually.

Like the new Acura RL, the new A6 comes standard with all-wheel drive. It is a sophisticated system, called quattro, that makes use of a center differential to apportion the engine’s power between the front and rear wheels.

Among the Audi’s other competitors, only the Mercedes E-Class offers all-wheel drive, and there it’s an option.

The A6 also arrives with two new engines: a 335-horsepower, 4.2-liter V-8 and a 255-horsepower, 3.2-liter V-6. As with other cars in this midsize luxury class, Audi expects most of the A6’s sales will be with the V-6 — in this case, about 80 percent.

For most buyers, the V-6 offers plenty of power, as well as a lower price that starts at $42,620, compared with $51,220 for the V-8. Of course, as is typical of German luxury cars, there is a long list of options.

The tested 3.2 V-6, for example, had a $3,000 premium package, with a motorized glass moonroof, high-intensity headlights, wood interior trim and an upgraded audio system; a $1,000 convenience package that included memory controls for the power driver’s seat and day/night folding outside mirrors; $350 for rear seat side air bags, and $750 for performance tires on 17-inch alloy wheels.

All that brought the suggested sticker price up to $46,720 — not an insignificant amount but near par for a luxury sedan in this class. For that money, you get a sport/touring machine with flowing lines and one of the classiest interiors anywhere. The interior includes Audi’s multimedia interface, which allows the driver to control many functions with a single knob and a few buttons.

Though it takes a bit of practice, the interface is far more intuitive than similar systems such as BMW’s I-Drive and the Mercedes COMAND system. Once familiar with it, the driver can operate the system without looking down at the controls.

Adaptive headlights also are a new feature. They can rotate up to 15 degrees right or left to lead the A6 around corners. Other new equipment includes programmable daytime running lights and a high-performance braking system that also maintains slight brake pad pressure to keep the rotors wiped clean.

The V-6 engine uses a new technology that injects fuel and air directly into the cylinders, which Audi says improves engine performance while boosting fuel economy. The 3.2 has an EPA rating of 19 miles per gallon in the city and 26 on the highway, and its 255 horsepower is enough to run the nearly 2-ton A6 to 60 mph in just over seven seconds.

However, if you must have bragging rights, another $9,000 or so gets you the 4.2 V-8 engine, which gets the A6 to 60 mph about a second quicker.

For most drivers, the V-6 should be adequate. Acceleration feels strong, and the new six-speed automatic transmission shifts crisply. For the sporty set, there’s also a manual-shift mode. No manual gearbox is offered.

As might be expected of a German sport/luxury sedan, the A6 has a tightly snubbed suspension system that keeps the tires tight to the pavement and the A6 tracking true through curves.

The downside on the test car, which came with the optional 17-inch wheels, was a harsh ride in which rough pavement came through to the passenger pod as a series of jolts. Prospective owners should test the different tire, wheel and suspension options to suit their particular tastes. In addition, harsh wind buffeting through the open sunroof needs to be corrected.

Where the A6 shines is in the serenity department. Buttoned up, it is a truly quiet car, with virtually no wind noise at highway speeds and only muted road and engine sounds. Even the climate-control blower motors are located outside the passenger area to keep the noise level low. Bigger than before, the A6 boasts generous accommodations for four.

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