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Audi A6: Luxurious, Powerful, Affordable

Editor's Rating: star rating

The new 2008 A6 comes packed with features and Audi's trademark engineering—and still costs less than the Mercedes E-Class or BMW 5 Series

Up Front

In my mind—and many other people's minds for that matter—Audi luxury sedans have always been like a Mercedes-Benz (DAI) for budget buyers. With an Audi, you get a luxurious interior, good driving dynamics, a quiet ride, and just about every conceivable high tech feature—all at a lower price than a Mercedes. What's not to like?

The 2008 Audi A6 is a case in point. As I write this, I've just spent a week putting more than 600 miles on a 2008 Audi A6 4.2 quattro (the one with the big engine) in some of the worst winter driving conditions to hit Northeast Pennsylvania in recent years. I came away with a great deal of respect for the car.

The whole time I was testing the A6, however, I kept thinking: "If it weren't for the available all-wheel drive on the Audi, why not just buy a Cadillac?" I mean, if you're on a budget, and can't afford a Mercedes, why stop halfway down the price ladder? A Cadillac STS is cheaper than the A6 and has many of the same virtues, and a Cadillac CTS is a lot cheaper than an A6. Details on that toward the end of this review.

Don't get me wrong. Benchmark the '08 A6 against the Mercedes E-Class, and it easily holds its own. Like a Mercedes, even an entry-level A6 comes with loads of standard equipment, including 18-in. alloy wheels, leather seats and wood interior trim, a 10-speaker CD system, and Audi's MMI control system. The top-of-the-line V8-powered A6 sedan adds better interior leather, heated front seats, auto-dimming mirrors, and xenon headlights.

One of Audi's strengths is the way it continuously improves its vehicles. The current generation of the A6 dates back to 2005. In '07 Audi goosed the power on the available V8 engine by 15 hp, to the current 350 hp. So you now have a choice between a 3.1-liter, 255-hp V6 and a 4.2-liter, 350-hp V8.

For '08, the A6 also gets a new S line interior and exterior treatment. (The S line is a high-performance car similar to Mercedes' AMG and BMW's M Series.) The exterior package includes 18-in. alloy wheels and a rear spoiler. The interior package includes sport seats with an S logo, a new Milano leather upholstery, and a three-spoke sport steering wheel with paddle shifters. Headlight washers and Sirius satellite radio now come standard on all A6s.

At least by the standards of German manufacturers, the price is right, too. The base model V6-powered A6 3.2 sedan starts at $43,725 with front-wheel drive and $46,875 with all-wheel drive. The hot version, the V8-powered Audi A6 4.2 quattro, starts at $57,075. There's also an all-wheel-drive A6 station wagon that starts at $49,775.

A Mercedes E-Class sedan lists for six to eight grand more: A 2008 E350 starts at $51,675 with rear-wheel drive and $53,150 with all-wheel drive, while an E550 with all-wheel drive and a 5.5-liter V8 starts at $63,375 (including a $1,700 gas guzzler tax).

The Audi's fuel economy is surprisingly good if you stick with the entry-level A6 3.2 with front-wheel drive, which is rated to get 18 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. The A6 4.2 quattro I test-drove is rated at 16/23 mpg. In a stretch of 401 miles of mainly highway driving, I got 20.3 mpg.

Like other German cars, the A6 is extremely safe. It earned a Top Safety Pick rating by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and comes standard with antilock brakes, stability and traction control, front and side airbags, and cabin-length side curtain airbags.

The big rap on Audis is a troubling reliability record, which can also be said of parent company Volkswagen (VLKAY). I still hear from readers who remember the alleged "unintended acceleration" problems Audi had in the 1980s. However, Audi has been improving. Consumer Reports says the predicted reliability of the A6 is "average." And in J.D. Power's Initial Quality ratings, the '07 A6 earned "average" or "above average" designations in most categories.

Overall, Audi did well in the U.S. market this year. Total U.S. sales were up 8.7%, to a record 87,004 in the first 11 months of 2007. But the growth came mainly from exotic models such as the TT sports car (up 315%, to 3,871), Q7 performance SUV (up 149%, to 19,120), and the A4/S4 convertible (up 7.9%, to 7,151).

Audi's core sedans were all hurting until recently. In the year's first 11 months, the A6/S6's sales were off 27.9%, to 10,797. Other models didn't do much better than the A6: A8/S8 sales were off 24.6%, to 3,475, and A4/S4 sales were off 5.2%, to 34,062. Even the entry-level A3 was down 21.3% to 5,868. However, A6/S6 sales picked up dramatically in November.

That fall-off in A6 sales so far this year contrasts sharply with U.S. sales of the Mercedes E-Class, which were only off a tiny bit, to 42,824. BMW (BMWG) 5 Series sales were only off 3.7%, to 47,455 through November.

Then there's Cadillac. Through November, sales of the Cadillac CTS were up a smidgeon to 50,252, and STS sales plunged 20%, to 18,558—but that doesn't tell the whole story. As with the Audi A6, CTS sales soared 55% in November, and that seems to be having a halo effect on the previously under-appreciated STS, which saw its sales jump 16.8% in November.

Behind the Wheel

The A6 is weighted more toward the comfort (i.e., Mercedes) side of the equation than the performance (i.e., BMW) side. In fact, you hear gripes that Audi has lagged BMW and others in adding speed and power to its sedans.

That wasn't my experience with the A6. I clocked the 4.2 quattro at about six seconds in accelerating from zero to 60. I didn't believe it the first time, so I did it again and got the same time. The A6 may not be as quick as a BMW 535i or a Mercedes E550, but it's plenty quick for most people. And if you want a real screamer, move up to the S6 quattro, which starts around $74,000 and is powered by a 5.2-liter, 435-hp V10.

The V8 engine in the 4.2 quattro is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual shifting function. You can do the shifting via the shift lever on the floor, or steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Only hardcore driving enthusiasts will miss having a stick shift.

The A6's interior is gorgeous. The wood steering wheel has the same hard-polished chunky feel as in a Mercedes. The materials and workmanship are flawless. I'm not generally a fan of two-tone black-and-tan leather interiors, but in the Audi it didn't bug me because the tan leather didn't have the orange hue it does in competing models. My only gripe is that the CD changer is in the glove box, leaving virtually no room for anything else.

I'm 5 ft. 10 in. tall, and I had plenty of legroom in the rear seat with the front seat set for my height. Surprisingly, given the Audi's sloping roof line, I had plenty of headroom, too. The trunk isn't very deep, but it is long, and the rear seats fold down in a split pattern for added hauling capacity. There's also a pass-through and bag to accommodate skis.

It's less painful to learn how to use Audi's MMI control system than BMW's iDrive, but it's far from intuitive. There's a big control knob on the center console, surrounded by four little buttons and two banks of buttons with labels like "audio." I had driven Audis before, but I still had to consult the owner's manual to figure out how to enter a destination in the navigation system. That said, mastering the system would be more of a problem for reviewers than for owners, who have time to fiddle around with the controls and learn their intricacies.

One of Audi's big selling points is its optional all-wheel-drive system. It would be hard to put a car through a tougher winter driving test than I did, and the A6 performed flawlessly, even though it wasn't even equipped with snow tires. I drove it down the long, steep road to my house in 4 in. of snow over glare ice. No problems. I also drove it several hundred miles on the highway in a driving sleet storm. Again, no problems.

Buy It Or Bag It?

Judging from its buyer profile, the A6 appeals to relatively young shoppers who seem to be stretching a little to afford the purchase. The average A6 buyer is 49, two years younger than for the E-Class, eight years younger than for the Lexus ES 350, and 13 years younger than for the Cadillac STS, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). Nearly two-thirds of all buyers lease their A6s, as opposed to 15% who get financing and 20% who pay cash. The pattern is similar for the E-Class, with 72% of buyers leasing.

If you absolutely have to have a German car, test-drive the A6 against a Mercedes E-Class. The Mercedes' list price is higher than the Audi's. But the A6's average selling price of $51,461 is only about a grand less than what the average E-Class sells for, according to PIN.

There are many less expensive alternatives. You'll probably save a few grand if you go with a Cadillac STS, but the truth is the Cadillac CTS is about the same size as an A6, and there's a reason the new CTS is selling so well. An '08 CTS starts at $32,990 with a stick shift and $35,290 with an automatic. And the '08 CTS is selling for an average of $38,897, more than $12,000 less than the A6, according to PIN. Both Cadillacs are available with all-wheel drive, too.

If you still don't trust General Motors (GM) to make a reliable luxury car, there are several Japanese models to consider, including Nissan's (NSANY) Infiniti M45 and the Lexus ES 350 from Toyota Motor (TM). The '08 ES 350 sells for an average of $37,049, according to PIN, even less than the Caddie CTS.

The Audi A6 is a marvelous car. But hey, the subprime loan crisis is wending its way through the economy, and many economists are forecasting a recession. Why not save some money?

Click here to see more of the 2008 Audi A6.

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