The climb has been long and sometimes very difficult, but German manufacturer Audi seems finally to have attained its goal.
The companys model lineup primarily the A8, A6 and A4 is now recognized in the United States, along with Japans Lexus and fellow Germans BMW and Mercedes-Benz, as one of the worlds premium brands.
The journey to the pinnacle has taken the best part of 25 years, starting with the introduction of the entry-level two-door Audi Fox, spiritual predecessor to the A4. Along the way, there have been serious backfires, some involving quality issues and one, the most damaging, a bogus accusation that full-size Audi sedans would suddenly accelerate without warning and crash into things.
But the company persevered, spotlighting its engineering capabilities and its Quattro all-wheel-drive system. After its United States introduction in 2003, the current flagship A8 sedan was deemed by the critics as a worthy, in some ways better, alternative to the acknowledged leaders in the big-bucks sedan category.
Late last year, Audi introduced the newest version of its A6, and it, too, won accolades in the mid-size sports/luxury sedan category.
Following a too-brief drive during the cars introduction to the national automotive media, I recently spent a week with a 2005 A6 3.2 Quattro, powered - no surprise here - by the companys new 3.2-liter V-6 engine.
My initial impression was confirmed. The sedan - which now has all-wheel drive as standard equipment - is quick, agile, solid and comfortable, even with a suspension setup that tilts to the firm side of the ride equation.
For its newest design, Audi stylists have chosen to give the sedan a more angular look that emphasizes the sports part of the equation. Of course, theres no ignoring the big grille that some critics have been carping about. To me, it adds some distinction to the design, but I keep wondering what the repair bill would be if some car smacked the Audi in the kisser.
While the new car is pretty much the same size as its predecessor, its wheelbase is about three inches longer and it has gained about 80 pounds.
The six-cylinder engine generates 255 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque, easily enough to entertain the enthusiast, and more than is really necessary to cope with modern traffic conditions.
Its most technologically advanced feature is a high-pressure injection system which feeds the gasoline directly into the combustion chambers. The engine also features four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing and a variable intake manifold.
The new A6 will run from a stop to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds and return an EPA-rated 19 mpg city and 26 mpg highway. For the record, I averaged between 17 and 25 mpg.
But the story is best told on the road, where a driver will have plenty of power for passing, easing into high-speed freeway traffic and effortless high-speed cruising.
The only available transmission is a new, smooth-shifting, six-speed automatic that allows the driver to select gears manually. The anti-lock brakes are ventilated discs all around and steering is rack-and-pinion with variable ratio power assist.
The handling of the new A6 benefits from a body structure stiffened by 34 percent and from revisions to the four-wheel independent suspension. The car exhibits minimal body roll on curves and is so rock solid and quiet on the open road that a driver may find himself in serious trouble with the highway patrol without ever causing a moments alarm among his passengers.
At the limits on a racetrack, the new Audi may not quite match the handling of some of its competition, but real-world drivers will find it superbly responsive on real-world roads. Those who live in snow country will find the all-wheel drive an indispensable winter aid.
The cars longer wheelbase translates to additional legroom for front-seat passengers, extra knee room in the rear and a little more shoulder room all around. Ideally a four-passenger sedan, the A6 will hold five in reasonable comfort if the three on the rear bench are of average height and weight.
Audi is known for the sumptuousness of its interiors and the new car does not disappoint. Comfortable leather upholstery intermingles tastefully with aluminum accents to let passengers know they are literally in the lap of luxury. Additional highly polished wood accents are part of an option package.
Switches and gauges are logically placed for the driver, with one exception the dreaded Multi Media Interface system. With a control terminal and monitor located primarily on the console, it centralizes the operation of onboard electronics - everything from the sound system, to the navigation system, to the adjustment of the cars ride height.
Audis system is a bit less confusing than the ones offered by its German competitors, but even after repeated use I found it a potentially dangerous distraction.
Frankly, I couldnt begin to describe how to use the MMI with any clarity, so I will try to give you some sense of it with this passage from a corporate press release.
The MMI terminal is ergonomically located in the center console, behind the shifter and just forward of the armrest, for comfortable reach. Operating controls consist of a rotating On/Off and Volume knob (A), a rotate-and-push-to-select center knob (B), four soft keys (C), four hard keys (D) and a Return and directional keys (E).
The operating principle of MMI is logical and quick to learn: Rotate the On/Off knob and then push the hard key of the electronics category to be adjusted; depress a soft key that corresponds to the category item as identified on the monitor, then rotate the center knob to the preferred adjustment as indicated on the monitor, and push down the center knob to select the desired action. The Return key scrolls back through the command screens one at a time, convenient for readjustments and corrections. To adjust multiple electronics, simply repeat the process starting with appropriate hard key.
If you follow that, MMI may just be the system for you. Me? I was just thankful that the climate control system is separate from electronics central. And, it really did help that some of the functions are duplicated by steering wheel controls and displayed on a secondary monitor in the instrument cluster.
There is one other oddity among the controls, but it is neither complicated nor distracting. Its a button, similar to a power window switch, and it operates the electromechanical parking brake. The beauty of it is that it eliminates the traditional pedal or lever.
Safety features abound. In addition to all-wheel-drive, all A6s have electronic anti-skid control, electronic brake assist and brake-pressure distribution for panic stops, front and seat-mounted airbags for front seat-passengers, inflatable side-curtain airbags, active front head restraints to prevent whiplash, pre-tensioning seat belts and daytime running lights. Available as an option are Bi-Xenon adaptive headlights, which follow the road up to a maximum of 15 degrees by responding to steering inputs. This gives the driver better night visibility as he approaches and navigates turns.
Base price of the A6 3.2 Quattro is $40,900, and that includes the Multi Media controller (minus the navigation system), automatic dual climate control, stereo sound system with 6-cd changer, 12-way power front seats, and one-touch power windows.
Add every option an unlikely scenario and the price will climb above $54,000. Equipped the way most people want them, the cars will carry sticker prices ranging from about $45,000 to $50,000.
Serious power mongers may opt for the top-of-the-line A6 4.2 Quattro, which features a 335-horsepower V-8 engine and a base price of $51,500. With all the options, it could cost more than $63,000. But, again, the average sticker price should fall somewhere near the middle of those two numbers.
Audi has built a solid, athletic sedan with tasteful elegance throughout. It has earned its own space along-side the premium mid-sized sedans.