- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

A relentless imperative has descended upon the manufacturers of luxury cars.

When luxury was its own reward, all a manufacturer had to do was pump up the plush with exotic materials and avant-garde design to pamper the owners in the style to which they were accustomed.

While that’s still true, ever-higher performance also has become inextricably entwined with the fine leathers, jeweled lighting and hand-rubbed woods that are lavished on these posh mobiles.

That is the reason for the existence of such cars as the new Audi S6 and S8. They represent the pinnacle of luxury and performance at one of Germany’s premier automobile manufacturers.

“We build cars as indulgence,” says Johann de Nysschen, executive vice president of Audi of America.

Yet Audi is only one competitor vying for the dollars of the wealthy and the pseudowealthy who believe they can manage the payments. BMW has its M series of high-performance luxury cars; Mercedes-Benz weighs in with its AMG variants; America’s Cadillac offers its V series, and Jaguar its R class of high-performance machinery. Even Japan’s luxury makers have tentatively entered the fray with the Lexus hybrid GS450h and the Infiniti M45 Sport models.

While many luxury car customers are blissfully unaware of the high-technology engineering and design built into the cars they buy because they are interested mainly in cachet and reputation, a small number of cognoscenti appreciate the refinements that can knock tenths of a second off acceleration times or improve lap times around a race track.

The biggest numbers of those savvy customers are in the United States, and that has posed a problem for Audi, which has yet to develop the same recognition on these shores as it has in Europe and elsewhere. One of the tasks of the new S6 and S8, therefore, is to enhance Audi’s reputation.

Over the years, Audi has differed from its major competitors because it has concentrated on front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, which Audi calls quattro. The others have stuck mainly to rear-wheel drive, which works better with massive power than front drive, although in recent years they have been adding all-wheel drive as well.

Both the S6 and S8 have quattro, the better to handle the horsepower and torque of 5.2-liter V-10 engines driving through six-speed automatic transmissions, which also can be shifted manually to further enhance performance. Of the two, the S6 is all new, where the S8 is a second-generation model.

The S6 is a midsize car, with comfort for four and room for a fifth who doesn’t mind being squeezed uncomfortably in the center-rear position. It has a base price of $74,020, which includes such amenities as so-called silk nappa leather upholstery, bi-xenon headlights, gray birchwood trim, 12-way power seats and heated outside mirrors in addition to the expected automatic climate control and safety enhancements such as stability and traction control, antilock brakes and brake force distribution.

The test S6 had an optional $3,900 technology package, which included a navigation system with voice recognition, Sirius satellite radio and a rear parking-assist camera. It also had an optional motorized sunroof. Though the A6 boasts a state-of-the-art sound system, it lags behind in placing the six-disc CD changer in the glove compartment. Most competitors now have the changers more conveniently located in the instrument panel.

Some of the technology in the S6 is remarkable, though nearly invisible. One of them is a system that automatically alternates which way the windshield wiper blades are skewed when they park. Usually, the blades park one way and eventually wind up skipping their way across the windshield. It’s that sort of attention to detail that Audi believes will lure new customers.

You can’t mistake the S6 coming at you, with its vertical chrome strips in a massive grille and 10 white light-emitting diode running lights under the front bumper. Inside, in typical Audi fashion, the accommodations have an elegant look that comes from simplicity of design and high-quality workmanship and materials. The front bucket seats, in particular, cosset the driver and passenger with wraparound bolsters.

The appeal of the S6, of course, is in its exceptional performance, though it goes about it unobtrusively. With 435 horsepower driving a car that is admittedly heavy at 4,486 pounds, the S6 manages a zero-to-60 acceleration time of less than five seconds, with crisp shifting from the six-speed automatic. It does this with a nice exhaust bark from the V-10 engine, though highway cruising is commendably quiet.

The quattro all-wheel drive distributes the power 60 percent to the rear wheels and 40 percent to the front wheels under ordinary circumstances. But depending on conditions, it can send up to 85 percent to the rear wheels and 65 percent to the front wheels.

That makes for confident, point-and-shoot handling on twisting roads.

This is definitely a car for the well-heeled enthusiast, not club-oriented senior citizens.

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