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Audi A6 Saloon

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Audi A6 2.0 TDi SE
6/10

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Road Test

Audi A6 Saloon 2.0 TDi SE

Driven April 2011

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Hold on! Don't rush away. No really... come back. You probably think a small mid-life facelift of the Audi A6 isn't worth your time. But contrary to first impressions, this isn't just a grille-and-headlamps job. It's an all-new car. It just happens to look like the old one's very slightly fitter twin brother. The A6 is a breadwinner for Audi, so it doesn't want to change a winning formula. Ah yes, the safe-option defence.

The safe option being, often, highly perilous. It risks people thinking this is still the old car, so bypassing it in favour of something more novel. The most infamous example is Jaguar's 2003 XJ, an all-new aluminium car that replaced an old steel one. No one noticed.

Mind you, the A6 doesn't need many new buyers. It's got plenty already. Audi's aim is simply to hang on to its existing comfortable share of the 5-Series versus E-Class versus A6 carve-up. This is the perennial European grudge match in company cars for those who've made their way to an above-average altitude up the corporate greasy pole. Almost all are four-cylinder diesels, and half of them are estates. And, by the way, the Jaguar XF - as an exclusively big-engined saloon - has so far excluded itself from the meat of the market.

The choice of engine is explained by the tedious matter of company-car tax bands. The A6 2.0 TDi registers just 129g/km, which is up with the best, given its size and performance. And so corporate man or woman pays less tax and can invest a larger proportion of his or her salary into the kind of inoffensive but immaculately tailored suits that will serve them well around the boardroom table, surely their next job destination. Inoffensive and immaculately tailored, just like an Audi saloon.

Mind you, beyond the sheet metal, the cabin of the new A6 is a lot more stylish than before, so the designers haven't been on all-out strike. And unlike a lot of German cars, the interior looks good without demanding too much commitment to the exquisite pain of the lengthy and pricey options list.

More importantly, it's a lot better to drive. Again, you don't need to go mad with options: the base chassis is fine, though the test car was on 18in wheels, which probably sharpened it a bit. The key is weight. First off, the distribution of weight. The A6 is a late-adopter of the variably sized A4/A5/Q5/A7/A8 platform.

This puts the front wheels further forward than the old car, so more of the weight is inside the wheelbase, making it turn more easily into corners. But absolute weight matters just as much as the distribution, and the A6's body uses significant amounts of high-strength (so thinner and lighter) steel in its core body and mostly aluminium for the outer panels. Lighter weight means more agility. It also means more acceleration and less fuel, which works in tandem with the frugal engine and other powertrain measures including idle-stop.

Because it's the version that will take the vast majority of the sales, we're in the basic 2.0 A6 front-drive manual A6. If you want to know about the quattro S-tronic versions with 3.0 V6 petrol or diesel power, read our story about the A7, because the two are twins under the skin, but the A7 comes only with the V6s. Model-for model, the A7 is also about £9k more expensive, half of which gap is explained by the A7's extra standard kit, and half simply because they can get away with it, the A7 being priced as a CLS competitor.

The A6 2.0TDi has exactly the same CO2 and consumption as the BMW 520d, yet slightly slower acceleration, so BMW still has the edge, but it's close enough for you not to have to worry about making the wrong choice. The Audi's figures are still pretty miraculous. The Audi's engine actually makes a pretty sporty noise as it kisses the 5,000rpm red line, and acceleration is pretty decent unless you're going up a German motorway hill at 90mph or above. 

The A6 uses electric power steering, and the engineers admit that it's got no feel. To prove it, you can drive around a corner in the damp, hit a wet manhole cover or expansion joint and feel the car jink sideways, and yet have absolutely no change in steering weighting throughout the event. But the thing is, there is chassis feel - an impression comes through the seat of the front and rear tyres making their contributions, and it's pretty agile because of the lightness.

The reason for the EPS, of course is to save fuel, plus enable a suite of optional gadgets, like self-centring in a motorway lane and self-parking. In fact, it's quite possible to double the car's price in options; self-driving aids, sensors and cameras, a six-grand stereo, thousands more in seat upgrades, big wheels, auto 'box, air suspension (which is worth it for a wider stretch of soft ride and sharp handling). All on the ‘base' car.

Go beyond that in the price list, and you get into the V6 245bhp diesel and supercharged 300bhp petrol, both with quattro. The latter, at least when kitted out with the rear e-diff and sport chassis, is actually rather fun - the cornering neutral and agile, the engine quick to answer your right foot. But the sport chassis models suffer in the ride.

By contrast, the ride comfort in the basic 2.0TDi is OK over rough roads, even if it never really settles on a motorway, oddly. In fact, all new A6s ride with more suppleness than before, and they're close to a 5-Series, though nowhere near as nice as an E-Class.

Personally, I'd wait for the Avant, or the estate version of the Jag XF, also coming soon. Or get a 5 Touring. Anything, really, than such a strait-laced-looking saloon as this. Progress through technology, eh? Well yes, there has been technological progress, and plenty of it, but surely that's no excuse to forget about the design altogether...

Paul Horrell

We like: Fairly light but still feels rock-solid
We don't like: Looks like the unlovely last one
TopGear verdict: Fab cabin, fine drive and low CO2 for company man. Progress everywhere but styling.
Performance: 00–62mph in 8.7secs, max 141mph, 57.6mpg
Tech: 1968cc, 4cyl, FWD, 177bhp, 280lb ft, 1575kg, 129 g/km CO2
Tick this on the options list: Bose hi-fi, £1,000
And avoid this: Power-operated boot-lid, £545

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