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Audi A6 Avant review (2002-2004)
For some people, a long distance drive is an exciting prospect; others view being trapped behind the wheel for hours with foreboding. Either way, for such a trip you want a car that's comfortable, capable and dependable.
So when we set out from MSN's London offices to drive to Frankfurt for Europe's largest motor show, we needed vehicles that could accommodate a selection of MSN staff, plus our cameras, computers and other paraphernalia. While it was essential we could lug our equipment, and sit in for 10 hours in these cars in comfort, what we really wanted was to take advantage of Germany's largely speed-limit free Autobahn system. So we chose two very different ways of getting to the heart of Europe. One was by freight, in a Toyota Preview (read Hugh Poulter's report on that here). This is the story of the other option: by express, in an Audi A6 Avant, in 3.0 SE quattro tiptronic flavour. To be fair, there's more to it than the freight/express tag implies: the Previa's not lacking in comfort, nor the Audi in loadspace.
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You pays your money . . .
You can buy an A6 Avant for as little as £21,850 (the 2.0 manual), but our 3.0 SE quattro comes in at £29,950 on the road, pitting it against BMW's 5-series, the Mercedes E-class and the top of the Volvo V70 and Saab 9-5 ranges. BMW's 525 offers similar space and less performance for slightly less money; the 535 offers slightly more performance for more money. Equivalent priced E-class models offer more space, but less beauty and performance, while the Volvo offers similar space and performance but can't match the Audi's quality. The quirky Saab is probably the closest match, and in the updated form soon to be released it will be a challenging opponent. But the A6 will be hard to beat in terms of build quality, and thanks to its powerful V6 and the legendary quattro superglue, at least for the moment it has an advantage on performance - and potentially driveability.
However, although it may start out looking good value, it's easy to bump up the price of your A6: our test car had more than £7,000 of options, including opulences like the £1,400 Tiptronic automatic transmission and a lavish £1,365-worth of leather trim. Not every option falls into the `outrageous' category: it's harder to say no to a `Sideguard' head airbag system at £360 (thorax side airbags are standard) or the £560 pearlescent paint.
Standard equipment on the 3.0 quattro includes ABS brakes with EBD (electronic brake distribution) and brake assist (which helps you make emergency stops more quickly), ESP (electronic stability control, a kind of superannuated traction control), air conditioning and climate control that's individually controllable for driver and passenger, cruise control and CD-autochanger. Everything in this list except the cruise control is actually standard across all models in the A6 range.
Look and feel
After an update earlier this year, the A6's looks have evolved only slightly from its predecessor. But that's all they needed. The simple, clean lines are understated - confident but quietly spoken, unlike its principle competitors, which are all showy in their own individual ways - the BMW with its aggressive stance, the bulky Mercedes with its aristocratic air. Cars like the Volvo S80 and Saab 9-5 probably are closer to the Audi in appeal - but they can't quite match the Audi for design purity, or sheer quality.
And once you're inside the A6, that's what you appreciate more than anything else. Materials, build and design in the cabin are all outstanding. The controls are ideally placed, switches and buttons operate with perfect weight and feel; everything works with such effortless efficiency that you're soon wondering why all cars aren't like this.
On the road
That feeling largely holds true on the move. The new A6 may not look radically different, but there are lots of changes under the skin. It's stiffer, quieter, and has suspension revised for a more sophisticated ride: from the cabin, what's striking is that this is a very quiet and refined car. Easy and relaxing to drive, the A6 feels like the big cruiser it is. The 3.0-litre V6 provides lots of power, but, despite the `sports suspension' that's fitted to all A6s sold in the UK, this is no sports car - while there's plenty of performance to be had from the 220bhp engine, it's delivered gently. Doubtless it's sapped to some extent by the complex gearbox and four-wheel drive transmission, but that's no hardship as the behaviour feels controlled and natural and it suits the car. The A6 achieves a lot, without really seeming to try too hard. The overall effect is to give it a mature character, that's very satisfying in a market sector dominated by cars that often seem overblown and aggressive. Fierce acceleration is definitely not on this menu.
Unsurprisingly in this size car, neither is economy - we averaged 25.3mpg over 1169 miles, according to the onboard trip computer. With moderate loads, over a variety of roads, and some fast autobahn and steep mountain driving thrown in, that's not by any means a bad result for a large automatic with four-wheel drive. It compares well to the official combined figure of 24.6mpg.
The quattro's biggest weakness is its steering: vague, and offering very little feedback, it feels distinctly at odds with the high standard of the rest of the driving experience. It's a common Audi failing: we also found it on new A4 quattros recently.
The other disappointment was the automatic gearbox: slow to react both on kickdowns and up-changes, it leaves you far too often in the wrong gear, especially at the lower speeds around towns and on steep, small roads where an auto should do most to ease the driver's work. Choosing sport mode will force it to choose lower ratios sooner, but that's not always the solution; and though it's helpful that you can force a different gear instantaneously in any drive mode with the tiptronic selectors, that's not why you pay a lot of money for an automatic. Ultimately, it proved simply too frustrating and often it was easier to put it in manual mode and just use the tiptronic buttons to select the gears manually all the time.
On the plus side, the four-wheel drive quattro transmission and ESP electronic trickery ensured that over almost 1200 miles of driving on every kind of road, sometimes at high speeds or in appalling weather conditions, the A6 never once put a wheel wrong, or left us feeling even unsettled. It's comfortable, too: you quickly find a suitably cosseting position and can emerge from it after a 500-mile drive without the customary stiffness.
Ride is also excellent - on the firm side, but absorptive and supple, it's less sporty and more mature than the smaller A4. On motorway and highway, lumps and bumps are hardly noticeable. At higher speeds (around 60mph) on the rolling, unclassified country roads that criss-cross the vineyards of southern Germany, where visibility is good, we did feel them - but they never made us uncomfortable. Handling is surefooted - but again that lack of feedback from the steering saps your confidence in your ability to position the car precisely long before you've tested what the engineering is capable of.
Living with the A6
This is a tourer as much as an estate, but the A6 has plenty of stowage and passenger space. In the front, there's lots of cubby-hole space, while front a rear passenger areas offer plenty of head and knee room. The load area is large, squarish and easily accessible through a tailgate that's wide and opens high. There's a luggage net and split-folding rear seat, and a flexible load area cover that retracts into a cartridge as in the A4 Avant. The whole works well, and it took the various loads, including both heavy and delicate items, that we needed for our continental excursion without demur.
To buy or not to buy . . .
Capable as it is, it's still hard to recommend the A6 in this 3.0-litre quattro guise wholeheartedly - those steering and gearbox flaws are just too annoying. Simply deleting the £1,400 automatic transmission option would help, but we'd probably also plump for the 2.5 TDi engine. There's a small performance penalty, but this is still a highly refined engine, plus you'll get an extra 10mpg and the SE quattro manual version will cost you only £28,655, £1,295 less than the equivalent 3.0. On the other hand, if you want an automatic, consider the non-quattro 2.5 TDi SE with the superb multitronic system that we tried recently in the A4 at £26,995 (you can't have the multitronic with the quattro system).
When we finally arrived back in the UK, jaded from a busy week and a long drive, we were very glad the A6 had been our companion. Were we fighting over who got to drive the Audi or the Toyota? Not really: both were comfortable, capable cruisers, and while the Audi might score for absolute comfort and speed, thanks to its superb transmission and high-seating position, the Toyota was easier to pilot around city streets. But what's most surprising about these cars is how versatile they are: the Toyota may be a superb big beast for freight- or people-lugging, but it's also rapid and easy to drive. And the Audi is expensive and swish, but it's also practical and spacious. If ever there was symbol of how good modern car design has become, it's that two so very different cars can both do a similar job so well.
Civilised, dependable, spacious, fast and comfortable, the Audi soundly delivered everything we wanted for the journey. Indeed, the A6's beautifully crafted, wood- and leather-clad cockpit had become something of sanctuary. Maybe that £1,365 for leather trim and £450 for wood dash inlay isn't so profligate after all . . .
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