It isn’t just the Lava lamp, Hot Wheels, Will Smith and Kylie Minogue that turn 50 this year – Audi is going to be blowing out candles, too. To be strictly accurate, the mid-size A6 was actually called the 100 when it appeared in 1968; it took another 26 years to receive the A6 badge.
And now it’s in its fifth generation (or eighth, depending on who’s counting), which goes on sale this summer for delivery in the autumn. It sits on the VW Group MLB evo chassis platform, which also underpins last year’s A8 limousine and this year’s A7 four-door coupé. It’s still a spaceframe, although stiffer than before and mostly constructed of aluminium alloy, but hybridised with steel, carbon-fibre and magnesium alloy.
It’s ever-so slightly larger than the outgoing A6 and it’s a big car, almost five metres long on a near three-metre wheelbase. The bodywork is by Audi’s chief stylist, Marc Lichte, his third car for the marque. Here you’ll need to make up your own mind, but for what it’s worth I think the front is terrific; taut, precise and good looking, but the rear isn’t...
The technology choice is bewildering, with conventional steel suspension, steel with adaptive damping and full air suspension as options. There's rear-wheel steering and four-wheel drive and limited self-driving capability, but the chassis principally drives from the front, unlike the main competition (BMW’s 5-series and Mercedes-Benz’s E-class), which are rear-wheel drive.
There are also 39 driver-assistance systems, available in various packages; the £1,950 Driver Assistance Tour Pack, for example, which includes adaptive cruise control, predictive assistance (which reads the map to give economy tips), lane-departure assistance and traffic sign recognition.
There is a trio of engine choices, each equipped with a mild hybrid system, which allows a coasting function at speed to improve the fuel economy by about five per cent.
The entry-level engine marks the debut of Volkswagen’s utility four-cylinder diesel, which will eventually spread across all the Group’s marques. With an aluminium block, this 2.0-litre unit has a 12-volt hybrid system and delivers 201bhp driving the front wheels via a seven-speed, twin-clutch gearbox. Badged 40 TDI, it will be by far the UK’s most popular A6 model, selling for just above £38,000. Strangely, Audi is remaining tight-lipped about the performance and economy of this highly significant model.
Next is a 282bhp/457lb ft 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel, with its turbos in the centre of the 90-degree V and a 48-volt hybrid system. With a top speed limited to 155mph, 0-62mph in 5.5sec and a Combined fuel consumption of 50.4mpg, this 50 TDI model is also where the technology starts to bite, with optional four-wheel steering system and all-wheel drive. It comes as standard with an eight-speed automatic gearbox and four-wheel drive using Audi’s Haldex clutch-type system, with prices starting at about £47,000.
With no date yet for the RS and S performance models, the top performer of the range will be the 335bhp/369lb ft 3.0-litre V6 petrol turbo of the 55 TFSI, which arrives this autumn. With a similarly limited top speed to the big diesel, this engine delivers 0-62mph in 5.1sec, which is some going for a four-wheel drive, near two-tonne saloon. It’s expected to cost from about £50,000.
The interior is quite beautifully presented and decently spacious for the class. Tasteful fabrics and tactile panels feel technical and expensive, yet the end result is strangely arid, like an ultra-modern hotel where you spend all your time working out how to switch on the lights.
The longer wheelbase releases 21mm more leg room and the rear seats in particular are beautifully comfy and plush-feeling, without that sense of encroaching upholstery which makes the larger A8 limousine feel a bit pokey. The mild hybrid system takes a bite out of the boot space, but at 530 litres it’s more than adequate.
The facia is cleverly designed, offering a plethora of technology, with three screens, which almost manage the difficult business of allowing you to keep your eyes on the road while activating functions. Clearly the thing needs learning, but one team of experienced journalists spent half of the test drive trying in vain to switch off the lane-keeping system that leaves the steering feeling distinctly odd.
There are two central touchscreens, an upper 10.1-inch item, which handles the radio, satnav and smartphone functions, while the lower 8.6-inch screen is for the heating and ventilation. The graphics are terrific and the haptic feedback is clear, but you still struggle to hit the right area of the screen on the move and, in the process, leave finger marks smeared all over the screens.
To be fair, Audi isn’t alone in struggling to offer accessible technology in the form of safety, dynamic, and comfort enhancements. For the most part the A6 is logical and fairly simple to use. You can’t help feeling, however, that as with gadgets like iPhones, most owners will find their own simple route through the systems and never explore the alternatives.
Weighing in at 120kg less than the more complex V6 models, the new four-cylinder diesel is powerful and gutsy, with a decent turn of speed and creditable economy – we achieved 35.3mpg while not hanging around. It’s also eerily quiet and refined. On a gritty Portuguese motorway, the 40 TDI cruised silently at high speeds, with little tyre or wind roar and virtually no engine noise.
It feels agile and light, and on (relatively) simple steel suspension with adaptive damping, the steering has a purity that the more complex (and expensive) cars lack. It rides well and smoothly, while the calibration between gearbox and engine is well worked, although you find yourself dialling in the next gear with the steering wheel paddles slightly more often than you should.
The V6 turbodiesel on air suspension rode just as well, except on cracked and bumpy surfaces where at low speed the ride was abrupt and choppy. Audi’s twin air chamber system on the A8 is remarkable in these circumstances so we’re not sure what’s happened on this smaller car.
Similarly the calibration of transmission to engine is probably the worst I have ever experienced on a production car. The ratios felt wrong, the car was always scrabbling for a gear, sometimes two, and it never let this lovely creamy diesel drive on its considerable torque.
Even with every “sporty” button pressed, there was almost a second’s delay in changing down when overtaking, which was plain dangerous. Additionally the handling felt nose-heavy and stodgy, and the safety emergency braking system cried wolf at least twice at an oncoming car, slamming on the brakes and leaving me and my passengers distinctly un-nerved.
The petrol car rode better and the calibration between its engine and twin-clutch gearbox was improved, but it still lacked fluency when pressing on and I felt the A6 driver would wonder where the Mercedes-Benz E-class and, more particularly, the BMW 5-series driver had disappeared to.
With all-wheel drive and and rear steering this car felt something of a rocketship, but without the purity and communication of the four-cylinder diesel version. There's something a bit weird about the foreshortening effect of the rear steering as you dive into a corner, particularly when it switches from low-speed (steering in the opposite direction to the fronts) to the high-speed set-up (steering in same direction as the front wheels).
I was left with the impression that the 55 TFSI was relying on its safety systems too much for comfort rather than communication with the driver. Oh, and it loved fuel - we saw 16mpg on a twisting part of the route.
As far as the self-driving is concerned, this is a much improved system but its control is confusing, particularly the twin systems for lane keeping and lane centring, which are activated in entirely different places in the car. For the most part, folk will end up with merely the lane-keeping system on, where the car wanders in its lane like a drunk on a bicycle.
Lovely to look at, with a beautiful interior, the A6 should be a quite stunning contender in this market, and if you strip out the endless chassis features and opt for the highly impressive 2.0-litre diesel (as most will do), you’ll have a highly desirable machine.
Start higher up the range, however, pile on the options and take a huge hit to your wallet and you’ll end up with a fussy, stodgy and largely inferior machine, less vorsprung (progress) and more rückwärts (backwards) durch technik...
Audi A6 50 TDI quattro
TESTED 2,967cc, V6 turbodiesel, eight-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE range from £38,000 to £50,000 approx (as tested £47,000)/autumn
POWER/TORQUE 282bhp @ 5,000rpm, 457lb ft @ 1,370rpm
TOP SPEED 155mph (limited)
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 5.5sec
FUEL ECONOMY 50.4mpg EU Combined. On test, 35.3mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS 146g/km
VED £515 first year, £450 next five years, then £140
VERDICT Good looking and ultra hig- tech, but strangely bloodless executive saloon. The cabin is beautifully presented but the technology tricky to master via touchscreens. Stay away from the gormless calibration of the V6 diesel and buy the new four-cylinder diesel with front drive and little of the headline technology and you’ll have a fine car. Spend more and your satisfaction will fall as the price rises.
TELEGRAPH RATING Three out of five stars
BMW 5-series, from £35,835
It still looks like something your dad would own, but this seventh-generation 5 is a lot lighter and a proper, long-legged executive express with an astonishing array of economical drivelines, a lovely commodious cabin and driving dynamics which find most rivals wanting.
Mercedes-Benz E-class, from £36,030
Renewed a couple of years ago with an all-new chassis and good looks. Ride quality is great and the handling isn’t bad, either. New six-cylinder engines are being introduced and the new 2.0-litre turbodiesel is a corker.
Jaguar XF, from £32,515
Jaguar struggles with its image as an old-man’s car in this market and, apart from its four-cylinder diesel and petrol, its drivetrains are quite old compared with rivals, as is its connectivity software. Yet the XF remains an assured presence, good to drive with a first-rate ride/handling compromise.
*Lease price from list price shown in the article is correct as of 20/05/2018 and are based on 9months initial payment upfront. Prices exclude VAT and are subject to change. Ts and Cs and Arrangement Fees apply.