By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
What luxury car leaps forward like a bracket-racing muscle car — you’ll swear you’re getting daylight under the front tires — but also gives you almost 40 MPG on the highway?
It’s the new Audi A6 TDI.
Efficiency — and performance.
The only catch is it’s not a cheap date: $57,500 to start for the TDI — vs. $43,100 for the standard (and gas-engined) A6 2.0T.
On the other hand, the TDI A6 is only about $2,400 more than the performance/power equivalent supercharged (and gas-engined) $55,100 A6 3.0 T — and that slight difference up front ought to be made up for pretty quickly in the form of down-the-road savings, given the TDI’s solid 10 MPG advantage at the pump over the 3.0T.
And — if the fur flies in Syria — as seems imminent at the time I filed this review in early September — almost 40 MPG (and being able to burn diesel rather than gas) could become a lot more relevant overnight.
Even if the fur does not fly, this is still a magnificent piece of work. It’s a bullet compared with the base/gas-engined, four-cylinder A6. And it’ll run right on the heels of the supercharged gas V-6… while running away from both of them when it comes to MPGs.
It also cleans the clock of one of its two main potential rivals, the Benz E350 BlueTec.
Which leaves just one rival that might be able to hang with it — the soon-to-be-available diesel-powered BMW 5.
WHAT IT IS
The A6 is Audi’s mid-sized/mid-priced luxury-sport sedan — in the same price/size class as the BMW 5, Benz E, Jaguar XF and Caddy CTS.
But, of these competitors, only the BMW (2014) and the Benz offer (or soon will offer) diesel engines — so that winnows the field down by half. And of the two remaining — the Benz E350 BlueTec and the soon-arriving 2014 BMW 530d — only one — the BMW — offers either the performance or the economy the A6 does.
Much less both those things.
Base price for the A6 TDI (which also includes Quattro AWD) is $57,500 — vs. $43,100 for the base A6 2.0T with FWD and $55,100 for the supercharged 3.0 Quattro (AWD).
The current Benz E-350 Bluetec diesel starts at $53,105.
The almost-here 2014 BMW 530d’s MSRP was not available at the time this review was written but will probably fall somewhere in between.
The star attraction for 2014 is the addition of a turbocharged 3 liter diesel V-6 to the A6’s roster of available powerplants.
The A6’s base 2.0 liter gas engine also gets goosed to 220 hp vs. 211 last year.
Muscle car thrust: 5.5 seconds to 60 (that’s more than two seconds quicker than a Benz BlueTec).
Economy car MPGs.
Adjust almost anything via electronic controls — even the steering feel — to suit your liking.
A gorgeous — and classy — car.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
2014 BMW 5 diesel will reportedly be available with a manual transmission — and may outdo the Audi on performance or economy.
Higher price of diesel fuel vs. gas eats away at some of the diesel’s over-the-road economy advantages.
Google is watching you.
Hassle/expense of urea (Adblue), a fluid that must be replenished every once in awhile to keep the car’s emissions control system working as designed.
UNDER THE HOOD
About two years ago, something very significant happened — even if not many noticed its significance: Mid-sized luxury-sport sedans began to shed their standard sixxes in favor of much smaller — but turbocharged — 2-liter-ish fours. Prior to about 2011, there wasn’t a single car in this class that came with less than about 3 liters — and six-cylinders.
Now both the Audi A6 — and one of its main rivals, the BMW 5 — both come standard with turbo fours.
For the same reason — i.e., the increasingly urgent need to satisfy ever-upticking federal fuel economy minimums (set to reach 35.5 MPG less than two years from now) while also satisfying customer performance expectations — both Audi and BMW are trotting out turbo diesel engines as a way to offer better-than-four performance with the gas mileage customers expect — and that Uncle demands.
Benz got there first, of course — but the E350 Bluetec is a generation behind the A6 TDI — and the pending BMW diesel. It’s only so-so efficient (21 city, 32 highway — which, incidentally, is slightly less than the new A6’s 2.0 turbo gas engine gives you) and its performance is, frankly, subpar for a car that starts at $53,105: Zero to 60 takes 7.7 seconds, about the same as a four-cylinder Toyota Camry or Honda Accord that costs half as much and also gets about the same gas mileage.
Now check out the specs of the A6 TDI.
The 3.0 liter turbo-diesel produces 240 hp (30 more than the base 2.0T gas turbo) and — here’s the real deal — an incredible 428 ft.-lbs. of torque at 1,750 RPM. This number needs to be put into perspective. One of my favorite muscle cars — and one of the strongest classic-era muscle cars ever made — was Pontiac’s 1973 SD-455 Trans-Am. This high-performance 7.4 liter V-8 — one of the biggest V-8s ever made by an American (or any other) car company — only made 390 ft.-lbs. of torque.
And didn’t make it until 3,600 RPM.
The ’73 SD-455 Trans-Am could run a high 12 second quarter mile — and lay rubber for 100 yards on the way down the track.
Now, reflect upon the fact that the A6 TDI has 38 lbs.-ft more torque — available at just over half the engine speed.
Of course, the A6 won’t run a 12 second quarter — but it is extremely quick: Zero to 60 in 5.5 seconds, which blows away the Benz E350 BlueTec’s embarrassing 7.7 second to 60 fat man jog. On top of that, the speedy Audi is also economical.
How’s 24 city — and 38 highway — grab you?
Stack that up against the slow-mo’ Benz’s 21 city — and just 32 highway.
I averaged 34.2 miles during the week I had the A6. That’s 2 MPG better than the Benz’s best-case highway number.
The wild card is the soon-to-be-released BMW 530d. Preliminary stats say 255 hp (which would be 15 more than the A6 TDI) and 413 ft-lbs. of torque (a bit less than the A6, a bit more than the Benz). No word — yet — on either 0-60 capability or MPGs.
One thing, though, that is known is that BMW will offer a manual six-speed transmission with the diesel. The Audi — and the Benz — both come with automatics only, though the A6 one-ups the E by coming standard with an eight speed automatic while the Mercedes has a mere seven forward speeds. The A6’s unit features standard and Sport modes, with an additional driver-selectable manual mode controlled via paddle shifters on the steering wheel. It is also possible to tailor the engine/transmission, steering feel and adaptive cruise control settings separately and individually.
As mentioned earlier, every A6 TDI comes with AWD. It’s still optional on the rear-drive Benz.
No word yet on whether the ’14 BMW 530d will be RWD or AWD (either standard or optionally available).
ON THE ROAD
Cars — in general — are now so good overall that when one rises above the rest, it’s a real achievement.
The A6 TDI is such a one.
I can’t say enough in praise of the turbo-diesel engine. It’s an almost no-downside deal. Muscle car performance when you want to hustle — and 600 miles on a full tank.
Off the line, it will literally snap your head back like a Cadillac CTS-V if you’re not ready for the bracket-racer thrust of all that right-now torque. The mid-range, though, is even better. A light downward pressure on the accelerator pedal is all that’s necessary and — just like that — you are at 80. Or 90. Or a lot faster than that. And because the engine is a diesel, it hardly revs to get you there. It doesn’t need to. At 70 MPH in top-gear eighth, the RPMs are about 1,800 — a fast idle, really. This is why, incidentally, the TDI Audi is such a fuel miser on the highway. A gas engine would turning higher RPMs — and so burning a lot more gas. Just look at the A6’s other engine — the 3.0 liter supercharged V-6: 18 city and 27 highway (and 5.2 seconds to 60).
The TDI turbo-diesel gives you almost the same all-out acceleration potential — with the actuality of much better economy no matter how you drive it. I’ve already mentioned I averaged 34.2 MPG — driving in a most non-Clover manner. A 3.0 T driven the same way would return high teens.
And, another thing: In real-world driving, the TDI’s power curve is arguably preferable. Yes, the supercharged gas V-6 will move the car down the line even more rapidly than the turbo-diesel. But, you’ll need to work it harder. Both its peak hp and its peak torque happen way up there in the RPM scale — relative to the TDI. It can be fun, no doubt, to spin a high-performance supercharged engine to the redline. But it’s nice to not have to — and enjoy very comparable forward momentum. Indeed, is it not the essence of luxury to move very rapidly with no apparent effort?
That’s what the TDI does.
And — at the time of this review — no one else does it better.
AT THE CURB
Some people want a luxury car that bellows — look at me, I have a lot of money!
Audis speak more softly. There is a quiet, self-assured elegance about the A6’s exterior styling that’s very appealing — to me, at least — in a world of often belligerent, nouveax riches garishness.
In fact, Audi has arguably taken over the slot formerly occupied by Jaguar as the brand for people who wanted a really nice car for its own sake, not to make an issue of it for the sake of other people.
But, these are subjective observations. Let’s consider some of the objective ones.
Audi — like BMW, like Benz — adopts a parking brake 180 when it comes to packaging a diesel version of a given model for the US vs. the European market. Over there, the diesel engine typically comes in the lower-trims, with less equipment — at a lower price — with the object being to make the car more affordable to buy as well as to drive. Over here, the diesel-powered version of a given car will typically come loaded — at or near the top-of-the-line — with the object being (apparently) to make the diesel engine more attractive to people who are not used to them — or who may have bad memories of them. You’ve got to keep in mind that — as a rule — the American experience with diesel powered passenger cars has been limited — and often, unpleasant. Noisy, smelly — and slow. No doubt this helps explain why my test car had TDI CLEAN DIESEL emblazoned in huge black and red lettering on each door.
And, no doubt, it explains why the A6 TDI comes with almost everything you can get in any A6 already included in the package — including all the stuff that comes in the almost top-of-the-line 3.0T Premium Plus: 18 inch wheels, LED headlight “underbrows,” HD radio with Audi’s Multi-Media Interface (MMI) mouse input, GPS with fold-out, iPad-style display, real-time Google earthview-topographical mapping (more on this in a moment), in-car Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, HD radio … well, you get the picture.
My test car had, in addition to all of those things, the optional Prestige package — which adds LED cabin lighting, S-Line exterior trim, Bose ultra-premium audio with Sirius satellite radio, four-zone climate control, heated and ventilated seats, Audi’s Pre-Sense system, which automatically rolls up the windows and closes the sunroof if an imminent crash is detected by the car’s sensors, rear-end collision warning system and a few other bells and whistles besides, including — wait for it — an infra-red night-vision system that can detect the heat signature of a deer or pedestrian up ahead, before your eyes can see it. The thermal image is displayed in between the speedometer and tach.
There is also an Auto-Start (and Stop) system. BMWs and other cars have this feature — which automatically turns off the engine when you’re stopped in traffic in order to save fuel that would otherwise be spent idling the engine. But the A6’s system is different in one important way: The default setting is off — not on. In cars like the BMW 5, it is necessary to turn the system off every time you start the car — if you don’t want the engine (and the AC) to stop every time you roll up to a red light. In the A6, the engine will not stop unless you push Auto-start on (or turn the engine off yourself by pushing the ignition button on the center console).
That’s the way it ought to be. Unobtrusive — and thus, luxurious.
Another objective thing the A6 has in its favor relative to rivals is a roomier second row — 37.4 inches. The Benz E, in contrast, is pretty tight for an ostensibly mid-sized car — 35.8 inches. The BMW 5 is slightly better, but not by much: 36.1 inches.
On trunk space, the A6 is dead heat with the BMW — 14.1 for the A6 vs 14 for the 5 — while both come up short relative to the Benz E, which has a more generous 15.9 cubic foot trunk.
I have very mixed feelings about the A6’s Google-ized GPS system. Google’s motto is, “Don’t be evil” — but we know Google egregiously violates the privacy of Google e-mail users by filching through the contents of correspondence — and there’s good reason to worry that Google is in cahoots with the NSA and data-mining every Google web search, too. So, the question arises: Do we really want Google in our cars? More precisely, monitoring where and when we drive — and even how fast we drive?
Well, check out that GPS display. It gives you a real time-rolling, birds-eye view (from what appears to be about 1,000 feet up, though this can be adjusted either way) of your car in relation to everything around you. A Google Earth view. You can literally see the leaves on the trees around you. Off to the left, there’s your neighbor’s house. Not an icon of a house — a digitized photograph of his actual house. Google knows where he lives — and where you are. And where you’re going — and where you’ve been.
Google also knows what the speed limit is.
Off to the right, on the lower edge of the screen, there is a real time-updating speed limit icon that changes as the posted speed limit changes. Right now, this is “informational.” But — being I think understandably worried about the fact that Big Brother is watching us — I wonder whether the end game is to use this technology to enforce compliance with the speed limit? All the technological pieces are there. It would probably take nothing more than a software update to either over-ride your foot — the car refusing to go any faster than the posted speed limit. Or, to narc you out to the local revenuers — either the state/county. Or the insurance mafiosi. Progressive insurance — one of the biggest of the “families” — already pushes in-car driving monitors. Bet your bippie they’d love to make these things mandatory.
Personally, I’d prefer to not have Google (or Onstar or any such electronic overlord) in my car. As they say, your mileage may vary.
The only other thing I’m a bit ambivalent about is the Audi’s occasional need for AdBlue fluid — that is, urea. There’s a tank that must be periodically topped off with Audi-specific fluid, in order to maintain the full function of the car’s emissions control system. It’s an additional expense — not huge (maybe an extra $100 annually, depending on how many miles you drive) but, nonetheless. It’s also a potential hassle — because if you don’t top the AdBlue off in time, the car’s computer will progressively disable the drivetrain until you reach a point after which the car will not re-start and must be towed to a dealer. Now, this only happens if you ignore about six progressively more insistent warnings over the course of a pretty long period of time — so you’d have to almost deliberately ignore them before you had to worry about calling AAA.
On the other hand, it’s the necessary price we all have to pay in order for Audi (and Mercedes and others) to be able to sell diesel-powered cars in all 50 states — or even in any of them.
So, we must count our blessings — and embrace the technology necessary to end-run Uncle.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Beautiful — fun — sensible, even.