2002 Audi S6 Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
February 4, 2002

There are a lot of very capable performance cars, and there are a lot of practical, sensible utility wagons, but it takes a special car to blend the attributes of both without involving a lot of compromises. Audi’s S6 Avant high-performance sport wagon is such a vehicle: It’s an engaging performance car, a utility wagon, and an all-weather warrior at the same time.

While the A6 Avant 3.0 whizzes along with adequate power, the S6 Avant is a rocket ship. Audi boasts a zero-to-sixty time of 6.5 seconds, with a top speed of 155 miles per hour.

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The S6 has a hopped-up version of the all-aluminum V-8 that’s been offered in the A8 for several years. With five valves per cylinder, variable intake valve timing, and a variable intake manifold, it makes 340 horsepower. The V-8 has excellent performance throughout the rev range, though it doesn’t have the sort of massive low-end torque of traditional American V-8s.

Audi’s quattro system is so good at getting the power to the road that full throttle from a standing start doesn’t even yield a tire chirp. The S6 employs the latest version of quattro, which reverts to a 50/50 torque distribution from front to back unless wheel slippage occurs. Some measure of power oversteer is allowed, so dynamically the S6 could be a lot of fun on the track. Because such high speeds are required to explore the S6’s adhesion limits, we didn’t wish to test them on public roads.

2002 Audi S6

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No manual transmission is available, but the five-speed automatic transmission has a Tiptronic mode that lets you control the shifts. Gear selection can be made by the gear selector itself, or now through one of the buttons (labeled with plus/minus) on either side of the steering wheel. An indicator in the instrument panel shows which gear you’re in. Besides regular Drive and Tiptronic mode, there’s also a Sport mode, which does the shifting for you but allows the engine to rev more, delaying upshifts and downshifting more eagerly. We were very satisfied to leave the shift selector in Sport most of the time. It seemed to read our right foot far better than Drive, which tended to rush to the highest gear possible unless we were at nearly full throttle.

S6 treatment subtle

The A6 is already one of the most attractive wagons available, and the subtle S6 treatment enhances it just enough without being too flamboyant or juvenile. On the outside, the most obvious upgrade is the tires and wheels: P255/40R-17 tires on Avus wheels. Special bright-finish roof rack rails and side mirrors also differentiate the S6 from the A6. Also, dual exhausts with bright chrome tips are added, the front end is changed slightly, and the lower side-body molding and fender flares are broadened slightly to fit the wider rubber.

Underneath, the S6 features a revised suspension and undercarriage with the increased use of aluminum pieces. The alterations lower the S6 slightly and give it a slightly stiffer ride and crisper handling. Although we didn’t push our S6 to the limit, we did notice that turn-in was sharper than previous A6s we’ve driven.

The S6 doesn’t compromise any additional noise and vibration, despite its stiff body construction. The interior is snug and well isolated from wind and road noise, and from engine noise and vibration, too. From inside, the engine is glassy and only a smooth distant purr most of the time, and it develops into a snarl only in the upper reaches of the tach. From the outside, the dual exhausts have a low, refined tone.

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The S6’s interior is downright seductive. With cold rainy weather outside, I wanted to stay in the comfort of our test car’s warm and inviting heated seats upholstered with soft, suede-like gray Alcantara inserts (a $250 option). We don’t know how easily it would clean up from a spill, or how well it will wear, but it sure is more comfortable than plasticky leather. The seats themselves are wonderfully supportive and comfortable, though the cushions are rather short.

Excellent build quality, dreamy materials

The doors have sharp detents and they open and close firmly. As with all VW/Audi models, the materials in the S6 are top-notch. Chrome and real wood trim, combined with high quality plastics and soft-feel surfaces, add up to an interior that outdoes the more staid competition, no contest. All of the knobs and controls have a pleasing, consistent tactility, too.

The S6 Avant is loaded to the brim with comfort and safety features. Heated power front seats, heated mirrors, xenon headlamps, headlight washers and fog lamps, and front side and curtain airbags are all standard. And if the Quattro system isn’t enough to get you out of trouble (or if it gets you in trouble), a stability control system (ESP) helps you out with judicious use of individual brakes and the throttle.

If the standard equipment isn’t enough, you can load the S6 with even more gadgets like rear seat heaters (our car had them), GPS navigation, a hands-free phone, a rear parking system, a sunroof, or GM’s OnStar roadside assistance and telematics system.

Despite its fancy name and fancy appointments, the Avant is a wagon, and wagons are intended to haul stuff. So how well will your stuff fit in the back? With the rear seats up in their normal position, the Avant’s 36.4 cubic feet of rear cargo space is rather limited by the angle of the hatch and rear window. The slight downward slope of the roof near the hatch interferes with true utility (though the cargo floor is perfectly flat). Folding down the split (60/40) rear seats yields enough space (73.2 cubic feet) to move pieces of furniture or whatever else you might want to haul around.

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Easy to drive, stealthy on the road

Piloting the S6 is very low-effort. If you’re lazily just getting groceries, shuttling the kids, or making the commute to work, the S6 is very much a point-and-shoot car. Maneuverability is superior around town, and parking is easy, thanks to good visibility all around and a tight turning radius. The only constant reminder that the S6 is a high-performance car is that the wide, sticky tires require both hands on the wheel. They tend to get thrown off course by ruts and the angle of the roadway, and small road imperfections will often interrupt a straight course.

There’s something respectable about how visually and aurally stealthy the S6 is. It’s the perfect high-performance car for those who want to drive fast without showing off and being noticed—all the right reasons for enthusiasts. The S6 emblems on the front grille and back hatch are small and discreet, and there’s no 4.2 badging on the back to advertise to the local police.

Along with the bigger engine comes a modestly increased thirst for premium. With EPA city/highway ratings of 14/21 miles per gallon, the S6 Avant is subject to a $2100 federal Gas Guzzler Tax. They seem a bit pessimistic; we managed nearly 18 mpg in mixed driving, with some hot-footing. There’s something wrong with the way the government recognizes cars (and allows some mileage figures) if the S6 has a gas-guzzler tax while many luxo-barge SUVs that cost nearly as much and get half the miles out of a gallon in the real world avoid the tax.

But at $60,000, $2100 isn’t going to change the price point. Keep in mind that the BMW 540iT is about the same size, and it costs a few grand less. But with the 540iT, you lose the all-wheel drive, the super-plush interior, and nearly 60 hp (though the car is lighter and faster). For about ten grand more you could have the high-performance BMW M5, but it only comes in a four-door sedan body style. If you’re not looking for a wagon and want Quattro, Audi’s A8 or S8 (with a special all-aluminum body and even more vaultlike construction, a roomy interior, and seats you’d normally only dream of) might make more sense.

The S6 is of a rare pedigree, a car that satisfies one’s hunger for performance every bit as well as it satisfies one’s (or an entire family’s) utilitarian needs—all the while feeling special. And that makes it the King of the Wagon Road.

2002 Audi S6 Avant
$58,700 base, $61,875 as tested
Engine: 4.2-liter V-6, 340 hp
Transmission:  Five-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 108.6 in
Length: 193.4 in
Width: 76.1 in
Height: 58.2 in
Curb Weight: 4024 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 14/21 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags, side curtain airbags, stability control system, anti-lock brakes, headlamp washers
Major standard features: Automatic climate control, xenon headlamps, power heated leather seats, heated mirrors, 200-watt, six-disc, in-dash CD sound system
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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