First Drive: 2012 Audi A6

A Smaller, Livelier, Less-Expensive A8

2012 Audi A6 – Click above for high-res image gallery

Audi is on a roll. Need proof? Who doesn't overtly or secretly lust after an R8 Spyder? Would any of us kick anything with an RS badge out of our garage? Didn't think so. Audi's sales are growing because of its products. The German automaker recently broke the 100,000 unit sales mark in the States, with 2010 calendar year sales up 23 percent over 2009. The all-new 2012 Audi A6 – due in U.S. showrooms in September – continues the manufacturer's aggressive product expansion and portfolio revitalization plan. Now we want to know if it's good enough to bring even more buyers into the Audi family.

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Photos copyright ©2011 Rex Roy / AOL

The A6's debut at the Detroit Auto Show was all look and no play. So for the latter, we traveled to Sicily where we saw the A6's new lines in daylight and it became even more clear that Audi's designers in Ingolstadt have brought the sedan's styling in-line with the automaker's evolving corporate design language.

The shape and details closely resemble the new A8 – a big sedan we like plenty. Initially seeing an A6 and A8 together in Detroit reinforced how similar the two are, with overall size and their wheels being the quickest differentiators. Technically, the new exterior gives the revised A6 a slippery aerodynamic face. The Cd is a commendably low 0.26. Compared to the previous A6, the 2012 edition is slightly shorter and lower in overall length and height, but width is up 0.7 inches. The most significant dimensional change is the wheelbase, up nearly three inches thanks to a reengineered front differential and axle. The extra space between the axles directly benefits interior roominess.

2012 Audi A6 side view 2012 Audi A6 front view 2012 Audi A6 rear view

Significant changes under the hybrid steel and aluminum unibody enable the 2012 model to weigh less than 3,500 pounds, a comparatively low figure for a 16+foot mid-size luxury sedan. Even though the new car is marginally larger and carries more equipment than the previous-generation A6, weight is down by modest amounts in most model-to-model comparisons. Aluminum makes up more than 20-percent of the body, while lighter hot-shaped steels, which provide a high strength-to-weight ratio, are used in areas of the passenger cell in the front of the vehicle to enhance passenger safety.

Inside, the design motif is pure Audi. Materials and ergonomics are exemplary. The car's Multi Media Interface Plus now includes a touchpad that enables the MMI to perform character recognition tasks. This allows users to spell words with the stroke of a fingertip, providing another means of text input for navigation, phone and audio system functions. If you've read our reviews of the A7 (due in April) and A8, you already know this, but can see what we mean in the Short Cuts video below.

2012 Audi A6 interior 2012 Audi A6 gauges 2012 Audi A6 gearshift 2012 Audi A6 navigation

An updatable computer chip powers the MMI, rich non-reflective VGA display with deep blacks and a myriad of functions. A story as long as this one would barely do the new system's capabilities justice, but know that the A6 will be available with its own cellular data plan to pipe information to its occupants while transmitting a WiFi signal to connect up to eight devices simultaneously.

The optional navigation system benefits greatly from the new technology. Users can see layered maps that begin as a standard graphical navigation map, then overlaid with Google Earth maps, and overlaid again with route instructions and real-time traffic information. The system is also capable of 3D graphics modes. Overall, it's very slick and one of the best nav displays we've ever seen.

While the European Union gets a choice of five powertrains – including 2.0- and 3.0-liter diesels – the U.S. makes do with the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder and the supercharged 3.0-liter TSFI V6. Respective power figures are 211 horsepower and 258 pound-feet torque, and 310 hp and 325 lb-ft. The front-wheel-drive 2.0-liter model is offered with a Continuously Variable Transmission, while all Quattro and V6 models get the new ZF-sourced eight-speed Tiptronic. Naturally, fuel economy is up as well, with the 2.0T estimated at 25/33/28 mpg city/highway/combined, while the supercharged six manages a respectable 19/28/22 mpg.

Extra gears, lighter weight plus reduced powertrain and driveline friction has lowered fuel consumption by as much as 19 percent model-to-model, year vs. year. The V6, for example, is up 1 mpg city and 2 mpg highway compared to 2010 models.

2012 audi a6

Of additional interest to the fuel conscious, Audi will add the A6 Hybrid later this year. The A6 Hybrid will feature the same powertrain as the Q5 hybrid: a 211-horsepower, 2.0-liter, turbocharged in-line four-cylinder and a 33-kilowatt (45-horsepower) electric motor. Expect a diesel A6 after the Hybrid. Audi representatives we spoke with weren't specific on timing, but hinted that 2013 might be about when to expect another TDI model for American roads.

Our driving time in Sicily was short, so we satisfied ourselves with several hours behind the wheel of a European-spec 2012 A6 3.0-liter with the fast-shifting seven-speed Steptronic DCT and air suspension-equipped sedan.

About that gearbox and the air suspension – neither are coming to America. Therefore, the impressions we took away from this drive aren't entirely accurate for U.S. drivers. (No U.S.-spec cars were available.) The immediacy of the Steptronic will be missed, as will the range of ride settings provided by the air springs.

Even without these features, the U.S. 2012 A6 should be a seriously good drive. For those unfamiliar with the supercharged 3.0-liter, it's a surprisingly powerful engine. The linearity of the power delivery is almost shocking. While max torque runs from 2,900-4,500 rpm, the power plateau feels even broader. It runs hard out of the hole and just keeps pulling at the same rate shift after shift.

Regardless of whether we were blasting up sinewy mountain roads or flying across straight and flat valleys at close to 240 kph, the engine never felt like it was working hard. The adjective "effortless" comes to mind, as does the feeling of a naturally-aspirated V8.

It was on blasts through the valleys that we were able to note the refinement of the A6's new body. Sicily's imperfect roads tried to bottom out the suspension and twist the body while succeeding at neither.

2012 Audi A6 headlight 2012 Audi A6 grille 2012 Audi A6 tailpipe 2012 Audi A6 taillight

In terms of road feel, the A6 stakes out a middle ground between the heaviness of the BMW 5 Series and lively playfulness of the 3 Series. The extra wheelbase helps deliver a smooth ride and the steering is immediate and direct, with fair but filtered road feel. It's not a Porsche 911, but then again, it isn't meant to be.

When flogged hard, our A6 did understeer, but it wasn't the sickening push one might expect from a C-segment sedan with ample room for four and a week's worth of luggage. On more than one occasion we relied heavily on the A6's four-wheel disc brakes, and they never dissapointed and remained fade-free even after lengthy mountain descents.

In terms of cabin noise, at generous throttle openings, the V6 made its presence known in a way that enthusiasts can appreciate. Beyond that, the only hum emminated from the wind snaking its way around the side mirrors.

2012 Audi A6 rear 3/4 view

During relative periods of calm, we played with the A6's optional full-color head-up display, automatic cruise control, lane-keeping assist, MMI with the touchpad, and night vision (in tunnels). The amount of technology packed into this car eliminates the gadget gulf that once separated top-of-the-line full-size bourgeois luxury cars from more affordable proletariat conveyances.

Unfortunately, our drive route was far too short to provide a more in-depth analysis. That time will come closer to the car's fall introduction. For those looking to place an order now, expect pricing to generally overlay the current model while reflecting an increase commensurate with the new A6's added content. But if these intial impressions are any indication, Audi has yet another strong contendor on its hands, and BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus have yet another weapon from Audi to worry about.

Photos copyright ©2011 Rex Roy / AOL

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