“How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?” So said the farmer to his wife about the chances that their sons would return home following the end of the First World War. The societal implications aren’t quite so large, but the same might be wondered about the redesigned-for-2012 Audi A6. Now that the sexy A7 is available, why get the staid sedan with which it shares a chassis, powertrain, and interior?
Exterior styling is far and away the largest difference between the A6 and A7. To craft a Mercedes CLS competitor out of the sedan, Audi more dramatically flared the wheel openings, removed the frames from the side windows, lowered the roof a couple of inches, and relaxed the arc of the roofline to flow it all the way to the rear of the car, creating a hatchback. None of the tweaks are eye-grabbingly radical, but together they do yield a considerably more stylish whole. The most beneficial tweak might be the upward sweep of the A7′s beltline over its rear wheel. There’s no such curve in Audi’s sedans, including the new A6, and the rear quarters appear less dynamic as a result. (Though there’s just enough metal between the rear wheel opening and beltline of the new A6 to avoid the poorly proportioned, pinched appearance of the current A8’s rear quarters.) This isn’t to suggest that the A6 is an unattractive car. It’s very tastefully styled and in aesthetic terms easily holds its own against the current BMW 5er and Benz E-Class. The problem is that we’ve now seen the A7. This makes Audi a serial offender: the A4 sedan doesn’t look so good once you’ve seen the related A5 coupe. On top of this, while I’ve never had an inherent problem with the “same sausage, different lengths” German design philosophy, and even believe that a high level of design consistency is good for a brand, the current trio of Audi sedans might carry this philosophy too far. They’re hard to tell apart at a glance.
Some interior details vary between the A6 and A7, but as with those that have too often been relied on to differentiate the sibs within GM’s litters they’re the sort of differences you’ll only notice when directly comparing the two cars. For example, the triangle of wood trim on the front doors has a high trailing point on the A7 but a low trailing point on the A6. Both interiors are attractive in the same tastefully restrained way, especially when fitted with the same trim options (such as the naturally finished wood trim on the tested A7 instead of the glossy timber on the tested A6). Both cars are available with the same impressive electronics, including a nav system that employs Google maps to display a satellite image of your location and front-and-rear obstacle detection systems that display the closeness of nearby objects by quadrant in addition to the typical beep.
Coupes that are more stylish than their sedan counterparts are far from new. But about 30 years ago manufacturers realized that they could craft sedans that looked and drove more like coupes, and coupe sales consequently plunged. Over the past decade there has been a mild revival in coupe sales, if we’re willing to grant that the Mercedes CLS and Audi A7 are “coupes” despite their rear portals. But why offer both a “four-door coupe” and a sedan? Ostensibly, for the same reason you’d offer both a coupe and a sedan: the latter will be roomier, easier to get in and out of, and altogether more functional. No problem here in the original Mercedes case: the first-generation CLS was certainly far less functional than the E-Class on which it was based.
The problem with the Audis—admittedly not a bad problem to have: the A7 isn’t significantly less roomy than the A6. The A7’s roofline might be a couple inches lower, but somehow headroom is only reduced by a few tenths up front and by less than an inch in back. Shoulder room and legroom similarly differ by only a few tenths of an inch. The A7 is also just about as easy to get in and out of as the A6. People getting into the rear seat don’t have to engage in contortions to avoid banging their head on the header. Once they’re ensconced, either car’s back seat is adequately roomy and comfortable. Nothing impressive, lest the A8 lose its raison d’etre, but little to complain about, either. The A7’s primary interior limitation is entirely artificial: there’s no center seating position. On the other hand, the A7 is actually the more functional car when cargo hauling is called for, given its large hatch.
If you’re not feeling much need for speed, and care more for keeping the initial outlay and fuel bills low, the A6 sedan is available with Audi’s ubiquitous 211-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. I actually requested an A6 with this engine, but none was available. So the tested A6’s four wheels, just like those in the A7, were driven by a 310-horsepower supercharged 3.0-liter V6. The supercharged six isn’t dripping with character even in 325-horsepower tune in the performance-oriented S4, and has even less personality in the A6/A7 application. But driving all four wheels through a ZF eight-speed manually-shiftable automatic transmission it certainly accomplishes the task of moving the car, feeling much more powerful than its official power ratings suggest in the process. Tipping the scales at just over two tons, the A6 3.0T is about 150 pounds lighter than the A7, and consequently might be a little quicker. Though the BMW 535i xDrive manages to point a little higher, the A6 3.0T’s EPA ratings of 19 city and 28 highway are nevertheless impressive given the car’s curb weight, performance, and all-wheel-drive (if far off the 2.0T’s almost shockingly good 25/33). The trip computer’s reports were in line with these ratings.
Much like its powertrain, the Audi A6’s chassis is supremely competent. Understeer creeps in later and less heavily than with older Audis and body motions are well controlled, with just a hint of bobble from time to time. Thanks to the all-wheel-drive system, even unwise throttle applications mid-turn don’t upset the car’s composure. The harder the sedan is pushed, the better it behaves, inspiring confidence. Within the segment, only the BMW arguably handles with as much precision and poise, and even the 5er now has less communicative steering. Compared to the A7, the A6 rode a little more smoothly, but how much of this was due to the lower profile tires on the former (265/35YR20 vs. 255/40YR19)? The A7’s optional sport suspension might be a little firmer than that in the A6, but the difference is not dramatic. Especially when so equipped neither car provides the sort of smooth, quiet, insulated ride you’ll find in a Lexus. Older A6s had higher interior noise levels, but the new ones continue to trail the ultra-low segment average. And yet, compared to the S4 with which they share an engine, both the A6 and A7 also feel considerably larger and much less overtly sporting. The A6 is about eight inches longer and nearly two inches wider than the S4, but it’s only about 200 pounds heavier, so the difference in driving feel isn’t entirely a matter of physics. One factor: the S4’s optional active rear differential isn’t offered in the A6 or A7. In either of them you’re clearly driving a largish four-door. Perhaps a more overtly sporty driving experience should have been part of the A7’s role. If so, consider this an opportunity lost. For better or worse, the A6 and A7 drive nearly the same. Competence to spare, but limited passion.
So far we’ve got no compelling reasons to buy the A6 instead of the A7 unless you’re a knuckle-dragger who believes hatchbacks are only suitable for subcompact economy cars. But how about this one: Audi charges over $7,000 extra for that fifth door. Equip an A7 like the $57,470 tested A6, and the sticker will read $64,845. How attractive does that A7 seem now? Should the A6 instead be seen as offering all of the goodness of the A7, save the sexy sheetmetal, at a considerably lower price?
Well, this depends on how the 2012 Audi A6’s price compares to those of its direct competitors. Equip a BMW 535i xDrive with everything on the tested Audi A6, and it lists for over $10,000 more. But it also includes more stuff because of how BMW packages features and options: things like power-adjustable seat bolsters, adaptive shocks, a power-adjustable steering column, and keyless access and ignition (a standalone option not on the tested Audi). Adjust for these using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and the Audi’s price advantage shrinks to a mere $6,670. Skip the sport packages and this difference is cut in half (BMW charges much more for its more comprehensive package). No longer $10,000, but no matter how you slice it the Audi is considerably less expensive than the 5er as well as its prettier sister.
The usual caveat at this point: compared to anything German, you can spend a lot less by opting for something Japanese. Yet compare the Audi A6 to the Infiniti M37 and you’ll find that they’re within $1,000 of one another, with the modest advantage usually going to the Audi. In this light, the A6’s price seems very competitive.
Ultimately, it’s hard to find fault with the 2012 Audi A6 based on any objective criteria. It might not be as fun to drive along a winding road as an S4, but then no sedan with an adult-friendly rear seat is. The A6 3.0T’s engine is strong yet efficient. Its chassis handles with poise and precision while also riding fairly smoothly and quietly. Its interior is stylish and adequately comfortable, if short of luxuriously plush (that’s just not the Audi way). We’re back with the problem posed initially: the A7 performs the same, accommodates people about as well, accommodates cargo better, and has a sexier exterior. How, then, to get excited about the A6? We’re left with its much lower price, but how exciting is that? The A7 proves that it’s possible to offer a more stylish car with no significant tradeoffs. So why not do it? Or, taking a different tack, if you’re going to offer two models, why not style and tune the A7 to make it far edgier than the A6? One possibility comes to mind: even though it’s nearly as conservative as the A6, the A7 is just too sexy for too many luxury car buyers. After all, many doughboys DID return to the farm. For those luxury car buyers who cannot handle the sleek hatch (and those who simply don’t want to pay the excessive premium for it), the A6 does just about everything very well.
Audi provided the car with insurance and a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.