It's a tale of two cars. With the expensive, technologically complex supercharged V-6 and all-wheel drive, the 2012 Audi A6 is a borderline brilliant machine, with steering feel less of an Achilles heel than ever before.
We haven't driven the 211-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder version of the new A6, but with its technical specs little changed from the last-generation sedan, we're not holding out much hope for zesty driving feel. Audi's turbocharged four-cylinder has the torquey response we love in other applications, and Audi bets it'll accelerate to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds, up to a top speed of 130 mph.
The killer will be the continuously variable transmission, a system that uses pulleys and belts instead of a conventional set of stepped gears. CVTs are less complex than automatic transmissions and usually conserve fuel, but they lack the quick responses of a good automatic transmission, and tend to linger at points in the powerband where power output equals drivetrain noise. On its own, this front-drive-only model likely would earn a rating of 7, more for its transmission than its engine.
Audi promises best-in-class fuel economy with this drivetrain, but that omits some standard-issue family sedans like the Sonata, Optima and Camry that outflanks it for half the price. As soon as we're able to drive one of these new A6 sedans, we'll confirm or update these impressions.
The other A6 feels entirely different, and it's a strikingly fast performer. Supercharging and direct injection on its six-cylinder give it the pace of any V-8 German sedan in its class. By the numbers, the V-6 blasts out 310 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque, and it's all harnessed to an eight-speed automatic and standard quattro all-wheel drive with a rear torque bias of 40:60. Audi says it's good for 0-60 mph times of 5.3 seconds, and the same governed top speed of 130 mph. Getting there is nearly all pleasure: the A6 jumps off the line and runs like it's on a luge, with extremely good tracking, no torque steer, and an amazingly flat powerband. The eight-speed automatic is a perfect fit, clipping off upshifts and downshifts with just an occasional part-throttle moment of confusion; paddle controls amplify the high-performance feel, and the transmission actually obeys the manual commands. At times, it's tough to shake the feeling of piloting a bullet train, so arrow-like is the A6's straight-ahead focus.
Audi Drive Select is standard on every A6, and it's been a source of frustration on A4 and A8 and A7 models before it. The system adjusts the feel and response of the transmission, throttle and steering to Comfort, Auto, Sport and individually tailored specs. Of all the things it controls, steering has been improved the most, and the uncanny way the A6 tracks on interstates is proof of concept, even if the execution of Sport steering mode feels too heavy, and Auto seems to believe low-speed corners require the same steering feedback as high-speed sweepers. Even in Comfort, the A6's ride quality is firm and strongly damped, which cued us to leave the car out of Sport mode for most of our 750-mile test drive. Dial up a custom setting for Individual mode--we tried Auto steering and Sport transmission settings--and it's possible to enjoy tucking in the A6 with its impressive brakes and tossing it around steep curves, though even with all-wheel drive biased to the rear, it's a nose-heavy understeerer that prefers to punish its tires for your transgressions.