Review: 2012 Audi A6

The Good: Great interior, intuitive controls, pep in the 3.0T, fuel economy in the 2.0T
The Bad: Sluggish acceleration in the 2.0T, smallish trunk, not as pretty as the A7
The Bottom Line: Tough competition for BMW and Mercedes at a lower price

Make: Audi
Model: A6
Model Year: 2012
Body Type: Four-door, five-passenger
Price Class: Premium

Up Front

Audi is on a roll these days, with a raft of cool new models that includes the Q5 and Q7 SUVs, the A8 flagship sedan, the gorgeous A7 hatchback, and the very hot R8 Spyder. Now comes the redesigned A6 sedan, and it’s another winner.

Audi, a unit of Volkswagen, decided to offer shoppers a very clear choice in the new A6. Those who put a premium on value and fuel economy can go with the 2.0T, which is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter, 211-horsepower inline four-cylinder engine. That model isn’t blindingly fast and comes with a boring but fuel-efficient continuously variable transmission—but gets a remarkable 33 miles per gallon on the highway and averages 28 mpg.

The A6 2.0T counters the BMW’s 2012 528i, which is powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder engine and is expected to get 32 mpg on the highway. However, the Audi is cheaper. The 2.0T starts at $42,575, which is $5,000 less than the BMW 528i and $8,790 less than Daimler’s Mercedes E350.

For those who want more punch in their driving experience, there’s the 3.0T, the model I test-drove, which is powered by a supercharged 3.0-liter V6 rated at 310-hp and 325 lb.-ft. of torque. The 3.0T gets decent mileage (19 mpg in the city, 28 on the highway, 22 on average) and is very quick and sporty. It comes standard with all-wheel drive and a sophisticated eight-speed automatic transmission with a manual shifting mode and steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

The A6 3.0T starts at $50,775, also well below its main German competitors: $3,090 less than the Mercedes E350 Sport 4Matic and $4,650 less than the BMW 535i xDrive.

The new A6 doesn’t yet have government crash-test ratings, but (like other German luxury cars) comes packed with safety features. Stability control, antilock disc brakes, front side and knee air bags, as well as head-protecting cabin-length side curtain air bags are standard. Available options include rear side air bags, a blind-spot warning system, and a Pre-Sense system that applies the brakes and takes other safety steps when an accident seems imminent.

The new A6 is doing well: U.S. sales were up 42.8 percent, to 1,124, in September. However, the model remains a distant also-ran. In the first nine months of this year compared with the same period a year earlier, U.S. sales of the Audi A6 amounted to just 6,704 units, up 7.9 percent. By comparison, BMW 5 Series sales increased 55.2 percent, to 37,996, and sales of the Mercedes E-Class were up 6.9 percent, to 47,824.

The big loser is Toyota’s Lexus division, largely because of the earthquake in Japan but also because the Lexus GS is about to be updated: A new GS is due out next year as a 2013 model. Meanwhile, GS sales plunged 41.4 percent, to just 3,080, in the first nine months of this year.

Behind the Wheel

When you punch the gas, there is no lag before the 3.0T’s supercharged V6 kicks in. There’s no noise, either—none of the annoying whine often emitted by a supercharger. Audi says the 3.0T accelerates from zero to 60 in a mere 5.3 seconds, about half a second faster than before and more than two seconds faster than the 2.0T.

The 3.0T is now slightly quicker than its main rivals: The BMW 535i xDrive is rated to accelerate from zero to 60 in 5.6 seconds. The Mercedes E350 4Matic sedan does zero to 60 in an estimated 6.6 seconds. You have to pay up for the much pricier E550 4Matic, which does zero to 60 in 5.2 seconds, to edge out the A6.

Audi’s Drive Select feature allows the driver to change the responsiveness of the steering, engine, and transmission. Whichever setting you choose, the ride is pitched somewhere between a BMW and a comfier Mercedes, more toward the Mercedes side of the equation than the BMW side.

One of the few things I don’t like about the 3.0T is the way the automatic transmission is set. It’s fine in automatic mode, but in manual mode the transmission shifts automatically as the engine approaches redline—usually a fraction of a second before I would have done the shift myself. The driver feels usurped by the technology when this happens, and it happens often because you shift gears a lot with an eight-speed transmission. The paddle shifters in the A6 also are too small and light-to-the-touch for my taste. I much prefer the big ergonomic paddles in, say, the Maserati Gran Turismo.

I like everything about the interior of the new A6, from the curved dash to the sculpting of the door panels to the chocolate-and-cream-colored leather in my test car to the ambient lights on the doorsills. The cabin design is simple but tasteful, and workmanship is impeccable.

The rear seat is very comfortable and surprisingly roomy for a car this size. I’m 5 ft. 10, and with the driver’s seat set for my height I had more than enough knee and foot space in the backseat. Headspace also was ample, even though the rear seat is set relatively high off the floor (which is one reason it’s comfortable). There’s a good deal of storage/bottle-holder space sculpted into both the front and rear doors.

One caveat: The rear seat in the 3.0T only really accommodates two adults. A hump in the floor—presumably to accommodate the all-wheel-drive system—eats up the foot space an adult middle passenger would need to be comfortable. The trunk in the A6 is fairly small (14.1 cu. ft.), but seems roomier because it’s unusually deep. The rear seats fold down to create extra luggage space.

Audi’s controls use a combination of a central knob, buttons, and screen commands, with information divided between a video screen in the central console and an information screen on the instrument panel, directly in front of the driver. Controls are intuitive and easier to use than the ones in a BMW or Mercedes.

Buy It or Bag It?

The 2012 A6 isn’t cheap: It sells for an average of 56 grand, about eight grand more than the average midsize premium car, according to the Power Information Network. That’s probably because many shoppers end up opting for the array of high-tech gear available on the car, which includes an adaptive suspension, night vision, and an automatic parking system.

Keep in mind that if you don’t need the A6 3.0T’s standard all-wheel drive, BMW and Mercedes are fairly close in price to the A6. The rear-wheel-drive 2012 BMW 535i starts at $53,125 with a stick shift, only $2,350 more than the A6 3.0T. The rear-wheel-drive 2012 Mercedes E350 starts at $51,365, only $590 more than the Audi.

Before buying the Audi 2.0T, be sure to test-drive the new BMW 528i. The Bimmer costs five grand more but offers similar fuel economy and is much sportier (it does zero to 60 in a little over six seconds). The 2.0T’s other main competitor is the diesel-powered Mercedes E350 BlueTec, which (like the Audi) isn’t particularly quick but gets 33 mpg on the highway (though only 22 mpg in the city, compared with 25 for the Audi). The catch: The E350 BlueTec starts at $52,565, 10 grand more than the Audi 2.0T.

The bottom line is that Audi’s new A6 matches or beats BMW and Mercedes in most respects, at a lower price.

Click here to see more of the 2012 Audi A6 sedan.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.