We like the Audi A6 sedan. The exterior, as crisply tailored as a Savile Row suit, has a subtly upscale elegance that promises to age as gracefully as Christie Brinkley. The luxo-tech interior sets a benchmark for the segment, combining Audi's Virtual Cockpit with a set of haptic touchscreens and bold, architectural forms. The new 3.0-liter, mild-hybrid turbo V-6 powertrain is smooth, efficient, and capable. And it rides with the quiet aplomb of an E-Class, with much less of the nose-heavy feel that bedeviled previous-generation A6s when you start having fun in the corners.
But we like the new Audi A6 Avant wagon even more.
Just look at it: The Avant's long roof and steeply raked D-pillars transform the A6's visual signature from conservative to cool, to a car that's as fashionably multipurpose as a Brunello Cucinelli field jacket.
In Europe, base versions of the A6 Avant can be ordered with four-cylinder engines and front-wheel drive. Our tester, a 50 TDI Quattro S Line, with all-wheel drive and a six-cylinder engine, was more representative of the specification U.S. customers could expect should Audi of America decide to bring the A6 Avant across the Atlantic (it is currently under discussion, say sources). Fitted with adaptive air suspension, four-wheel steering, a full suite of safety and driver-assistance technologies, and a Bang & Olufsen premium sound system, our A6 Avant tester was equipped similarly to the top-of-the-range Prestige version of the A6 sedan, which starts in the U.S. at $68,095.
In the U.K., the base Avant costs 5.4 percent more than the base A6 sedan. Applying a similar premium to the U.S. market would have entry-level A6 Avant Premium starting at about $62,000 (a couple thousand below the U.S. market E 450 wagon) and a Prestige A6 Avant priced just over $70,000. For context, a Q7 SUV starts at $54,545 for the 2.0-liter turbo-four Premium model, with the six-cylinder Prestige at $69,695. The larger, lavishly equipped Q8 SUV, the entry-level Premium version of which comes standard with Virtual Cockpit and a panoramic sunroof, starts at $68,395 and stretches to $77,545 for the Prestige model.
That's quite a needle to thread for Audi of America product planners wanting to appropriately position the A6 Avant for U.S. consumers. But it's not an impossible task. After more than 1,200 miles from London to Geneva and back in the A6 Avant 50 TDI Quattro S Line, it's easy to see why 60 to 70 percent of all A6s currently sold in Europe are Avants.
In absolute terms the A6 Avant isn't as buttoned down through the corners as the BMW 5 Series wagon or Jaguar's pretty XF wagon. And although the steering is the best yet in an A6, even the Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagon's front end feels sharper and more responsive. For all that, the Audi wagon is still a much more alert and enjoyable drive on a mountain road than any midsize SUV. And with all-wheel drive it'll carry almost as much of your stuff just about anywhere most of today's heavily road-oriented SUVs will take you. (For context, a Q7—taller from floor to roof—will carry 36 percent and 21 percent more cargo with the second row up or folded down, respectively.)
The A6 Avant's real strength is long-distance cruising. It's a remarkably quiet and composed car to ride in, body motions beautifully modulated by the air suspension even when cruising at triple-digit speeds. The supremely comfortable S Line seats will leave you feeling free from aches and pains even at the end of a 600-mile day. The MMI user interface is intuitive, though the haptic touchscreen does sometimes require more pressure than expected to activate a function. And being able to switch the Virtual Cockpit dash display to a wide-screen map mode is a boon when driving through an unfamiliar city for the first time.
Our tester was powered by Audi's 3.0-liter V-6 turbodiesel, driving all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission. The engine delivers a solid 282 hp at 3,500 to 4,000 rpm and a stout 457 lb-ft of torque from 2,250 to 3,000 rpm. The 48-voly mild-hybrid drivetrain also includes a 4-hp e-motor mounted in the transmission that smooths the transient responses of the aggressive engine stop/start strategy around town and allows for smart coasting at highway speeds.
We are normally fans of big diesels, especially in long-legged wagons. But this powertrain was a mix of good and bad. The good? We averaged 31.4 mpg for the trip, despite battling blustery crosswinds all the way across France and back while cruising at 80 to 85 mph on the autoroutes. The bad? Annoyingly slow throttle response, especially on kickdown. The big diesel made the Audi feel clumsy on the winding roads through the Jura Mountains just outside Geneva, the engine often a day late and a dollar short when asked for power to balance the car or punch it out of a corner. Selecting Dynamic mode and using the paddle shifters helped ensure smoother progress, but even then the growly, grumbly oiler under the hood never felt happy being pushed out of its comfort zone.
The disappointment was all the more acute because of the great impression the smooth and responsive gasoline mild-hybrid powertrain made on us all while testing the A6 sedan during last year's Car of the Year evaluation. Should the A6 Avant come to the U.S, it would almost certainly get the sedan's 335-hp/369-lb-ft gasoline V-6. And it would be a much better car for it.
With the gasoline engine, the A6 Avant could offer Americans an appealing alternative to the SUV mainstream. The wagon has similar load carrying capacity, better fuel efficiency, and virtually the same all-weather capability as most of the wide-tired, stiffly sprung, car-based SUVs cluttering the freeways and mall parking lots these days. And it's much more enjoyable to drive. The Audi A6 Avant is the thinking person's alternative to an SUV.