The new Audi A6 is entering a market that is all but dominated by its direct German rivals, yet even in this increasingly competitive class, the new luxury sedan is likely to redefine the segment in its own right.
Not destined for Australian showrooms until early 2019, we took a trip to Portugal to find out if the A6 is worth waiting for over the popular Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the recently updated BMW 5 Series.
From the outside, the 2019 Audi A6 looks pretty much like any other Audi. That's a good thing because it strikes an imposing stance that screams sophistication and class, yet at the same time it does run the risk of being confused with other, and specifically lesser, models like the A4.
Styling and design have always been subjective matters for car buyers, and in the case of the A6 that remains unchanged. However, we would say that admired in person, the Audi looks very well defined with great proportions and overhangs.
Look closely at the front grille and you’ll find an incredible number of radars and sensors. If optioned with all the assistance packages, the new A6 carries five radar sensors, five normal cameras and one additional infrared camera, 12 ultrasonic sensors and a laser scanner. That’s an incredible number of devices designed to take in the environment around the car. Now feel free to go up to the next Tesla Model S you see – which claims to have the means for full autonomous driving – and try to find half of that much hardware.
What all that means is the A6 can all but drive itself on the highway, at least in Europe. The car is now smart enough to adjust your speed based on the speed signs it scans, maintain distance to the car in front and keep in its lane – even with your hands off the wheel for about 30 seconds before legislative requirements kick in to ask for driver assistance.
None of this is new or unchallenged in this segment, but what is great about the A6’s ability is how smooth it is in the process and how easy it is to engage these systems. Literally, a single button to turn on cruise control will also enable all the other assistance systems. So, for example, if you quickly need to reply to a text (not that you should be, let’s be realistic here), you can turn on the system and have it take over for 30 seconds. It remains to be seen how much of this technology makes it to our over-regulated market.
All that aside, what we love the most about the Audi A6 is the interior. It is a marvel of modern engineering, both in its technical-gadgetry prowess and build quality. It’s worth remembering that this is now a segment where high-tech and gadgets are the norm, which explains why Mercedes is no longer holding back technology from the E-Class to remain exclusive in the S-Class.
Jump inside and you are greeted with three giant screens. Almost in a game of one-upmanship against the E-Class’s two. There is the enormous 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit that we’ve all come to know in other models, but gone is the outdated centre infotainment screen with rotary dial. In its place sits a 10.1-inch navigation screen pointed at the driver and an 8.6-inch unit just to control functions like air-conditioning and heated seats.
Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that all three of these screens are of incredible quality, not just in terms of high digital resolution – which looks to be on the same level as a modern iPad Pro – but also in the speed at which they operate and the smoothness of how they display and manipulate the graphics. We also found them to be incredibly easy to read and view, even in direct sunlight.
We generally would always prefer actual physical buttons for climate control, but the implementation of the digital ones in the A6 are first-rate. Everything is touch-sensitive but with great haptic and audible feedback, so pressing and holding in the climate temperature setting means you can easily scroll up to make it hotter or scroll down to make it colder.
The other awesome factor is you can move things around in the top screen, much like your iPhone. If you don’t like where a function is located, you can drag it and drop it somewhere else. In the bottom screen, you can add up to 27 individual shortcut buttons, and that can also change for each driver (up to seven driver profiles are available). The Virtual Cockpit allows for the most important information to be displayed, which can be manipulated rather easily to suit the driver’s needs.
Of course, you also get Apple CarPlay, but this must be one of the very first cars we’ve jumped into whereby the infotainment system was so good that we almost felt CarPlay to be superfluous. Though we did enjoy the wireless phone-charging system on offer, which extended to wireless CarPlay like that offered in the BMW 5 Series.
Ignoring the actual wow factor of three high-resolution screens inside the A6, the interior itself is incredibly well designed. It’s very black, with a ton of aluminium and brushed-metal finishes, but it all gels rather well with the other surfaces at hand. There is no part of the A6 that feels cheap or poorly thought out.
In saying that, we found the coarse leather used in the base-model A6 to be a little rough, not to mention the seat quality itself not offering the levels of support we would hope for in this segment. The higher-spec cars with the optional seats solved both issues. But the lack of standard electric power seats on the cars we drove was surprising, considering the insane level of high-tech otherwise. That may change for Australian models, as the specification for our market is yet to be confirmed.
Jumping to the back, there is no more room than before, with 12mm more leg room than its predecessor. And having spent a good hour in the second row being driven around, we don’t think your passengers will ever really complain about the hospitality on offer. The boot offers 530 litres of luggage space, but it certainly looks a lot bigger than that, and we easily fitted two big suitcases inside with a lot of room left over. Audi claims it can fit two golf bags.
Press the start button and the A6 comes to life with little fanfare. It is a very refined vehicle, and part of that means a very limited amount of NVH. We tested both the 2.0- and 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engines, as well as the 3.0-litre petrol, all of which proved very polished and quiet on the road.
The 2.0-litre TDI we drove, likely to be a popular choice for the diesel lover, provides 150kW of power and 400Nm of torque passed through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission via Audi’s quattro system. Although it’s likely that we will see the engine in Australia offered as a front-wheel-drive model, the car felt well balanced and up to the task of moving the A6’s roughly 1750kg weight (to be lower in FWD form), but step up to the 3.0-litre TDI with 170kW and 500Nm (or 210kW and 620Nm, depending on the engine tune) and things get far more exciting.
Interestingly, the two bigger diesel engines make use of an eight-speed conventional automatic, rather than Audi’s S-Tronic dual-clutch system. That's no doubt a result of having to deal with a higher level of torque, but the conventional system also felt very smooth in its shifts. They are also only available with quattro.
The other aspects of the higher-powered cars are the options of air suspension and rear-wheel steering. In the case of the former, it provided an astoundingly smooth ride over Portugal’s old and very unloved roads. While you may think the air suspension would take away from the car’s dynamic and sporty character, it seems to find the perfect balance between ride comfort and dynamic ability, depending on which mode the A6 is put in using the Audi drive-select feature.
In Comfort, it’s exactly that – a little floaty, but very comfortable and ideal for the daily commute. It absorbs the bumps and settles very nicely in stop-start traffic, but switch it over to Dynamic and it firms up a bit, and the steering becomes heavier and more progressive to provide an ideal package to have a bit of occasional fun. It may not be up to the new 5 Series’s super focus on a sporty drive, but it’s a good balance between the multiple requirements of a car in this segment.
You can also raise and lower the height of A6s fitted with air suspension, making some of those nasty driveways we have in Australia an easier task to conquer.
Where it has its competitors on the run is the all-wheel steering feature, which sees the rear wheels turn against the front at speeds of up to 60km/h, and then with the front at higher speeds with a turn of up to five degrees. We found this to be incredibly useful at slow speeds, and Audi says it cuts the turning circle by up to a metre, making parking and low-speed manoeuvring much easier for a car that measures 4939mm in length, 1886mm in width and sits 1457mm high.
But even at higher speeds, the A6’s turn-in and bite were very much on point, with confidence-inspiring levels of grip. It’s not the sort of car you will push all that hard – wait for the new S6 and RS6 to do that – but if the time ever came, you won’t be disappointed. A lot of that has to do with the new and far more progressive steering system now in use, which takes away that dead or wooden steering feeling of Audis of old, and replaces it with a more linear and communicative system that provides far more feedback than its predecessor.
An interesting feature in the new A6 is the 48V mild-hybrid system, now employed across the six-cylinder range. Using a belt alternator starter system in combination with a 10Ah lithium-ion battery, the A6 can coast with its engine off at speeds of between 55–160km/h (mainly downhill), and when it comes to start-stop, the car can switch off the engine from 22km/h while maintaining all other systems. It’s almost impossible to tell when this is happening given how smooth the car is in general, which is a good thing, and Audi says it helps save about 0.7L/100km of fuel. It’s a great feature, but we do have to wonder about the complexities of such a system to save such little fuel.
It's obvious that Audi is going for the technical lead in this segment when it comes to the new A6, whether that’s the interior, the driver assistance systems, or the mild-hybrid technology. Whichever way you look at it, if you love having the latest and greatest technology and gadgets in your car (and tend to be one of those people that talks about it at dinner), this will have a lot of appeal.
Audi Australia will likely start the range with multiple diesel variants for the new A6, and the car will embrace the new Audi naming system that sees the engine capacity replaced by numbers. In the case of the diesel models, that now means 40, 45 and 50 TDI, which represents a 2.0-litre and two tunes of a 3.0-litre turbo-diesel. It might seem a strange naming convention at first, but as it will launch with the new A8 in July and then the A7 before the year’s end, it will soon become the norm at Audi. The idea being that capacity is no longer relevant, though we are not entirely sure about that.
There will be a petrol model also destined for the A6 in the form of a 2.0-litre TFSI, but whether that will be available at launch remains to be seen. We will likely see that available with a quattro, leaving the base diesel as a front-wheel-drive variant.
Australia will also miss out on the A6 wagon (Avant), but there is some hope for the all-road models and, of course, the upcoming RS6 will continue the tradition of ridiculously fast wagons.
There are still a lot of specification and finer details about the new Audi A6 that we do not yet know, making a finite score a somewhat difficult task. However, our first impressions of the car are highly positive, and we feel confident in saying that the new A6 is more than likely to redefine the segment in terms of technology and comfort.
If Audi Australia can get the specification and pricing right (unlikely to change too much from the current model’s starting point of around $80,000), it will prove to be a very competent contender against its two German rivals.