The Audi S6’s huge engine, well-appointed interior and understated appearance make for an ideal high-speed cruiser.
by Christopher Diken
While test driving the Audi S6, I stopped at my parents” house for a short visit. This was not a good idea.
First of all, they thought I had gotten a job at a hedge fund and not told them. Then, after dinner, I took my dad for a ride and now he wants one, which is more of a problem for my mom than it is for me. We merely meandered through the neighborhood, but two minutes into the drive, he said, “This car is serious. This is a car for a guy like me.”
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To be honest, my dad isn”t all that serious. But his assessment was spot-on. The S6 is a serious automobile. And it”s the kind of car that can make a person develop a serious plan to come up with about $83,000.
As of yet, I have not developed my own plan. In lieu of that, I have come up with a list:
Five Things the Audi S6 Is Dead Serious About
1. Covering long distances in short amounts of time.
2. Exiting toll booths rapidly.
3. Coddling you with high-tech amenities that are unnecessary but which seem absolutely essential when you go back to driving a car without them.
4. Carrying four people and their stuff in comfort.
5. Encouraging you to disengage the traction control and partake in high-dollar hooliganism in quiet residential communities.
I took the S6 on vacation from New York City to Lake Placid, N.Y., and then down to New Jersey, where my parents live. Surely there are few better vehicles for this journey (unless gas mileage is a huge concern). The five-hour drives upstate and back were themselves vacations from steering more quotidian automobiles.
Let”s see what makes the S6 so spectacular.
The S6 is the high-performance version of Audi”s midsize sedan, the A6, and to untrained eyes, it may not look significantly different. This sameness is by design. Understatement is a key component in Audi”s design philosophy.
The S6 sits lower to the ground, with a more aggressive stance. Tweaks to the bodywork include wider front fenders and an outward flourish at the doors” lower edges.
Poking out the back are four healthy exhaust pipes, as opposed to just two on the A6. Brushed aluminum side-view mirror housings are present, as on all of Audi”s S models. Huge brake calipers adorned with S6 logos peek out from behind 19-inch wheels that look like slicer attachments for a food processor owned by a wealthy giant.
Another S-specific touch is the LED daytime running lights that appear in a horizontal line beneath the headlights. They reminded me of misplaced electric eyebrows. And besides looking really cool, they kindly let the person driving in front of you know that they had better move over, or else.
A fun game to play with the S6 is to pretend you are driving a shark, and instead of passing cars, you devour them whole. The large grille is practically big enough to swallow lesser vehicles.
There are the obligatory S6 emblems front and rear, and V10 badges placed just ahead of the front doors to telegraph how many cylinders the engine has and what letter their arrangement resembles.
The vehicle I tested was painted in a vibrant electric blue that Audi calls Sprint Blue Pearl Effect. It”s a $750 option that makes the car further stand out from the legions of bland mid-size sedans crowding the roadways.
My tester was loaded with a serious array of options, as press vehicles tend to be. All together, they tacked on about $10,000 to the $72,350 base price. I”ve found that tons of needless options only serve to further impress parents, even if they are confused by what the options actually do.
But if you”re going to drive something so indulgent, you might as well go all the way.
The front sport seats are supportive and seemed almost custom-fitted for my tall, narrow frame. In customary Audi fashion, they are also quite firm, especially when compared to the lounge chairs in the BMW M5, one of the S6″s competitors. All of the important controls fall right to hand, and outward visibility is excellent.
The rear accommodations, while wide enough for three, are really meant for two, as indicated by the bolstered semi-bucket seats at the outboard positions. There”s a seat belt in the middle, but the unlucky center passenger has to saddle up on a short, flat leather perch between the two real seats.
The interior trim is impeccable in design and implementation. A Leather Dash Package was probably the most superfluous option on our test vehicle, but with its delicate grain and contrast stitching, it evokes the sophistication of a finely tailored suit.
Exotic carbon fiber abounds due to a $400 option package, with expanses of gray checkerboard on the center console and door trim. In a car of this caliber, it feels like just the right amount of decadence, and certainly beats the wood veneer plastered gaudily on the insides of so many luxury cars. That being said, wood trim is standard in the S6, although I can’t comment on its level of gaudiness.
Storage in the cabin was ample. There”s a bi-level console between the seats, a pair of unobtrusive cup holders that are close to hand yet away from the electronics, an overhead sunglasses holder and a glove compartment that automatically falls open once a cryptically labeled button on the dash is pressed. This strange functionality can be attributed to Audi wanting to remove all hard points, such as metal latches, from the front of the glove-box door, which would contact a passenger”s knees in a frontal collision.
With 15.9 cubic feet of capacity, the trunk reminded me of a cave. It”s so deep that I could barely see the back wall, even in direct sunlight. Split-folding rear seats help accommodate long or bulky items.
A full complement of safety features is standard. There”s the obligatory electronic stability program (ESP), which is augmented by anti-slip regulation (ASR), which work together to keep the car stable if any wheels lose traction. The S6 also includes the latest two-stage airbags, front-side airbags and side-curtain airbags for all passengers.
The S6″s in-dash navigation system worked well. Sure, there are only about three roads between New York City and Lake Placid, but on the way back I took a detour through suburban New Jersey on a route I had never traveled and let the computer lead the way.
It worked flawlessly. I was never a big fan of navigation systems on account of the way they distract the driver and complicate the beautiful simplicity of a well-designed map, but the S6″s is good enough to make me reconsider. It even has certain brands of gas stations listed, which can be handy when you”re traveling through a rural area and one wrong turn when you’re low on fuel can leave you stranded.
The thing that controls the navigation system, Audi”s MultiMedia Interface (MMI), was simple to use without consulting the manual. Even though it has several buttons and a scroll wheel, it”s much more intuitive than BMW”s one-wheel iDrive system.
The MMI also operates the radio (a Bose system that sounded great in the quiet cabin), climate control (likewise easy to use) and seat heaters (didn”t need them at the time).
I was too much of a chicken to try out Audi”s Adaptive Cruise Control, which depends on sensors in the front of the car to gauge traffic and regulate the car”s cruise speed accordingly “” I didn”t want to risk crashing before my vacation even started.
I was more than happy to make use of the Advanced Parking system, however. When the car is shifted into reverse, a camera positioned above the rear license plate transmits live video of what lies directly behind the car so that you don”t accidentally bump into anything that”s too low to see in the rear-view mirror. This is especially helpful on the S6 because it”s a long car.
Finally, a remote Advanced Key system lets drivers start and drive the S6 without putting the key in the ignition. You would think this option only applies to contestants in the World”s Laziest Person competition, but after a few days with the S6, I wondered whether it might be possible to retrofit an Advanced Key system for my apartment.
The S6 tends to warp one”s perception of the world.
Let”s get one thing straight: When it comes to transmissions in performance cars, I am a manual man. It should say a lot about the Audi S6, then, that I found it highly enjoyable “” even downright exciting “” to drive, despite the fact that it only comes in a six-speed automatic.
That”s probably because no matter what kind of gear-changing device it”s channeled through, 435 horsepower is going to be a lot of fun. But Audi did a few other things to create a highly satisfying driving experience.
The large, glee-inducing 5.2-liter engine is a detuned version of the V10 that propels the Lamborghini Gallardo (Audi”s parent company, Volkswagen, also owns Lamborghini).
It benefits from 398 pound-feet of torque available at just 3,000 rpm. And because the engine easily revs past 2,000 rpm, power is pretty much available at all times. Lay a big toe on the accelerator and hold on, because off you go.
While welcome during flat-out acceleration, the S6’s sensitivity to pedal input can also be disconcerting, because at low speeds the gas pedal can feel like an on/off switch. This characteristic is especially less than ideal in high-traffic situations. The brakes are likewise quick to grab hold, which can be annoying when creeping along during rush hour.
The Tiptronic automatic transmission is so smooth that gear changes are almost imperceptible during normal driving. Drop the shift lever into Sport mode to hold gears longer for stronger acceleration. In this mode, shifts are ripped off more abruptly, albeit still automatically. For those who prefer enacting their own brutal gear changes, aluminum shift paddles are located on the back of the steering wheel.
From a stop, the S6″s sheer power is a joy to extract, not just because of the big numbers at play, but because of the immense traction provided by the quattro all-wheel-drive system. Floor the accelerator at a standstill and the wheels will claw at the pavement for just a second before they grab hold and slingshot the car down the road. Audi says it takes 5.1 seconds for the S6 to go from 0 to 60 mph. It felt quicker.
On the highway in dry conditions, all-wheel-drive is less advantageous because of the system”s extra weight combined with the added energy necessary to drive all four wheels, as opposed to just two, when moving at a consistent speed. That being said, the S6 is still profoundly adept at laying waste to long ribbons of highway and overtaking almost any vehicle with little notice. Again, the technique is press and go.
The only problem with all of this power is that it will go largely unused on American roads. Step on it around town and you”ll plow into cars lined up at a light. Get on it on the highway and you”ll hustle up to jail-worthy speeds in no time. Fortunately, the huge brakes are excellent at slowing the big guy down.
When the road gets a little crooked, the S6 is still surprisingly entertaining, and not just in an oh-my-gosh-this-car-is-huge-I-hope-I-don”t-clip-that-oak-tree kind of way. The tight suspension keeps the 4,486-pound car planted and prevents excessive body roll. The steering is a little numb, but the car does feel unexpectedly light on its feet. Despite the firm suspension required to make a car of this size feel sporty, ride comfort is excellent, even after several hours of driving. The car feels composed, and although roadway imperfections are noticeable, they aren’t intrusive.
Although the S6 isn”t a car you buy with fuel economy in mind, note that it gets 14 mpg in the city and 19 mpg on the highway, according to the EPA’s latest testing methods. I averaged 16.9 miles per gallon over the 600-mile journey, which included a mountain road ascent of 3,000 feet during which the in-dash mpg calculator said I was getting 8 mpg. To compensate, I was able to coast and get 68 mpg on the way back down.
With a 21.1-gallon fuel tank, the S6 seems to get better mileage than it does. For instance, I only used a bit more than half a tank of gas between upstate New York and central New Jersey, but filling up that half tank with premium cost more than $30.
There are a few other cars to consider in this high-performance sedan realm, most notably the BMW M5 and Mercedes-Benz E63. The E63, which is priced about $10,000 above the S6, is likewise only available with an automatic transmission. It is available only with rear-wheel drive, and with a supercharged V8 producing 70 more hp than the S6, it should be the faster ride, especially on the highway. If you prefer a manual transmission, the $82,000 M5 is the only way to go. Power delivery is decidedly different “” it asks drivers to wring the 500 hp from its V10 engine instead of cramming it down their throats like in the E63 and S6.
Overall, the S6 is a nearly perfect long-distance machine. In my mind, it could only be improved with the addition of a stick shift. It”s comfortable and relaxing to drive, but with monstrous power on tap it can provide plenty of excitement as the miles pile up.
Editor’s note: This review is based on driving impressions from the 2007 Audi S6. The 2008 model is unchanged except for one new option (Audi Lane Assist), option pricing and a $350 increase in MSRP.
Is the Audi S6 for You?
Buy the S6 if
You need the space and comfort of a mid-size luxury sedan with the straight-line power of a sports car; you crave technologically advanced toys; you want a fast car that can fly under the radar; you prefer an automatic transmission.
Keep Looking if
The standard A6 gives you the room and comfort you need; good fuel economy is a priority; you prefer a manual transmission; you want a car that”s more flamboyant.
People of all heights fit in the front, but those of larger build might find the seats a little tight. Backseat room is ample for two adults. A third will fit, but not comfortably.
Options Worth Splurging On
Technology Package ($3,350), which includes Advanced Key, Advanced Parking, Navigation and Sirius Satellite Radio; Pearl Effect paint ($750).
BMW M5; Cadillac STS-V; Chrysler 300C SRT8; Jaguar XJR; Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG.
2008 Audi S6 Gallery: