Driven: 2007 Audi S6

Consider the position of Audi’s new S6 and the predicament in which the Audi brand finds itself in the American marketplace. A case can be made that the situations are surprisingly parallel. Like the entire Audi brand, the S6 has matured, yet is lagging somewhat in visibility compared to its German rivals. Also like the brand itself, the S6 must stand on its own, continuing to appeal to the traditional Audiphile, yet still catch the eye of those who’ve never owned or even considered a car with those four chrome rings affixed to the grille.

The buzzword about Audi’s positioning as of late in the halls of Auburn Hills is “Restart.” This term represents a whole new approach to the American market, with fresh new product that will captivate more customers than ever and convert them to the brand. At the same time, success relies on Audi staying credible to its traditional customers. For no other car in Audi’s lineup will this be seemingly more apparent than for the S6.

The S6 is clearly not a mass-appeal model like the company’s A4. But even if it sells well beyond the product planners’ sales projection, the number of S6 sedans rolling out of dealerships will still be only a small fraction of the number of A4s. Still, the role the S6 fills within the Audi brand is an important one, squared off against competitors like the venerable BMW M5, the brutish Mercedes-Benz E63, and even the previous generations of the S6 beloved by traditional Audiphiles (a.k.a. original S4 depending on the year).

The S6 name and the lineage it represents is hallowed ground for brand loyalists. Audi launched the S-car range with this S6’s great granddaddy – the Ur S-car, four generations back and roughly 15 years ago. Enthusiast owners of that car and the generations that followed are a fiercely loyal bunch, attracted by the utility of Audi’s mid-sized performance sedan and also to the forced induction and ease of tuning of a turbocharged engine. Today’s S6 enters the market sans turbochargers, and for the first time with no station wagon variant available for North America.

In its favor is arguably one of the best C-chassis designs in the history of Audi, and a V10 developed from that of a Lamborghini Gallardo… street cred indeed. But, will this be enough to win over those who’ve owned the vaunted Ur S-cars, while at the same time woo over cross-shoppers from Mercedes and BMW or tantalize the bandwagon buyers who just want to own the next “it” car? To answer that question, we headed to Montreal, Quebec to sample the new S6 first hand.

October in Montreal is the “on-season” for visitors. According to locals, it’s the perfect time for leaf watchers to get their jollies ogling foliage with its golden, amber and crimson hues. Well… they don’t come for the beaches.

Outside the city, the backdrop of infinite trees is certainly breathtaking, but leaves are far from our motivating factor for visiting and it’s a certain crimson cruiser, Brilliant Red in Audi speak, that makes us want to make like a tree, get in, fire it up and leave.

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Outwardly, it’s easy to be smitten with the S6. The current generation A6 is already a great looking car to start with. Like the original S-cars, this new S6 benefits from subtle changes over the A6, Audi added several design elements that are now trademarks of all S-cars in the range. This includes a gray grille accented with subtle chrome struts (or vertical slats), satin silver exterior rearview mirrors, a subtle blended spoiler lip moulded into the lid of the trunk and similar aerodynamic kit to lesser A6 S-line models. However, the S6 goes a step beyond the A6 S-line with a unique front spoiler, including integrated daytime running lights containing 5 LED bulbs on each side, said to represent the 5-cylinders on each bank of the car’s powerplant. The DRLs are a menacing thing to behold via the rearview mirror of any car the S6 might be overtaking and bestow this mid-sized S-car with a look like no other.

Critics will say the new S6 is too subdued, though longtime S-car zealots will point out that this S6 is actually less of a sleeper than previous generations– cars that settled for a different grille and the traditional red S badges. Further, in-your-face styling just doesn’t seem to be the norm in this niche. The M5 and E63, while also quite attractive, are similarly differentiated from their more pedestrian 5-series and E-class counterparts.

This fourth generation S-car also goes one step further than its predecessors, with new 19-inch 5-spoke “tuning fork” alloy wheels. In the middle, star-shaped center caps are definitely inspired by the centers on the C6-based allroad concept, although they lack the trick motorized retractable lug covers of the concept. It seems the reaction to the wheel design is somewhat polarizing, though we’ve grown to like them. Those who don’t grow to like them can opt for an 18-inch wheel similar to that of the S8 as a no-cost option.

LEDs, 19-inch wheels and the like are really just baubles though when you consider what’s under the hood. While the trick lighting and kit will win you looks at the stoplight, what lies beneath that aluminum bonnet will win you respect… whether you’re revving that sultry motor or tearing at the pavement with four gripping claws courtesy of Audi’s quattro 40:60 all-wheel drive system and the kind folks at Continental Tire.

There’s been no secret made of the fact that the V10 fitted to this generation S6 and S8 is an evolved version of the same V10 that serves as the heart of the Lamborghini Gallardo. Like the S8, the V10 in the S6 has an identical stroke to the Gallardo at 92.8mm, but an increased bore of 82.5mm, bumping it out to 5204cc, just like the S8 and larger than the Gallardo’s 4961 cc. Like the S8, it also utilizes the same FSI and compression ratio of 12.5:1 over the Gallardo’s 11:1. With its own unique ECU mapping, on paper the S6 has a 15-horsepower deficit compared to the S8 and an 50-horsepower deficit compared to the BMW M5 in the Bavarian’s most aggressive engine setting. However, on paper the S6 also has the highest and widest torque curve, besting the S8, M5 and Gallardo when it comes to sheer grunt.

To go head to head with a car like the M5, the S6 will need that extra oomph. The S6 weighs in at 4486 lbs, 474 lbs. heavier than the 4012 lb. BMW.

Transmitting all that power is one of the best Audi Tiptronic transmissions we’ve yet experienced. Shift points are quick, light years better than the Tiptronic fitted in the previous-generation S6 Avant with the 4.2-liter V8. In manual mode, shifting is controlled via the gated console shifter or two butterfly paddles mounted on the silver-stitched leather sport steering wheel, backlit in case you forget which is up and which is down while driving at night.

Some drivers complain about the butterfly shifters. They’re not mounted on the column. Rather they’re on the wheel, and in aggressive turning the butterflies fly away from your finger tips. While drivers can always go back to the gated shifter on the console at times like this, we prefer to leave the car in Audi’s aggressive Sport Mode and catch those butterflies only as needed. On the road, which is where the S6 performs best, it seems this solution is more than adequate.

Power is put to the ground via the aforementioned 40:60 split Torsen version of quattro all-wheel drive. The theory is that with 40 percent of the power going to the front and 60 percent to the rear under normal conditions, the car will have more of a rear-wheel drive tendency. We’d guess this would prove more obvious in wet, icy or loose surface situations, though the 265-series Continentals do well to keep the car from exemplifying power-drifting on dry pavement for all but the most extreme drivers, even with the ESP switched off.

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All of the optional equipment on our scarlet tester has been outfitted for interior pleasure. This particular S6 has been outfitted with optional Carbon Fiber Inlays ($400) and Audi’s Technology Package ($3,900) that includes voice recognition, advanced key, advanced parking system, Audi navigation system and Sirius satellite radio.

With the advanced key feature, you need only step up to the locked S6 with the key fob in your pocket and pull on the door handle. The car instantly opens, sensing your presence. Open the vault-like door, and you’ll see why Audi’s name is synonymous with incredible interiors.

Slide into the car and your posterior will be spooned by Audi’s fantastic new sport seat design, quite similar to what you’ll find in the new TT and new R8. Fitting the spirit of the car in which they’re installed, these are not ultra-aggressive seats such as the Euro-only optional shell seats in the RS 4. That said, they’ll still hold you decidedly in place, even when you combine the smooth-as-a-baby’s-you-know-what Napa leather with enough G-forces to throw this usually well-rooted 4400 lb. car into a lateral slide.

While not laterally sliding, you’ll have time to notice other fine details within the cabin of the S6. Grey instrumentation with S logos emblazoned and contrasting silver stitching on the equally emblazoned sport steering wheel are also becoming part of the new cohesive S-car equipment checklist. So too is carbon fiber interior trim (an option equipped on our test car), though the look might be one of the most classy and least boy racer applications of the carbon weave to be encountered inside a luxury car. The woven black and gray accent is much more classy than the boy-racer look of the S4, and possibly even better looking than the king-of-the-hill S8 itself. The net effect is largely due to the border of satin aluminum that accents the contours of most pieces, while the nautical-look center console segment carries the carbon-fiber with equal grace.

Like all A6 models below it, the S6 comes standard with MMI. However, our car was also fitted with a prototype version of the Audi Music Interface, allowing for full iPod connectivity through the MMI system. Plug your iPod, and eventually your USB2-equipped jump drive or other MP3 device into AMI and you’ll get full access to your mobile music collection. Added to the S6’s Bose sound system, this combination could keep all but the most ardent audiophile more than happy.

While the S6 may weigh in over 400 lbs. on the north side of the M5, the lighter Bimmer will also leave your wallet decidedly less heavy to the tune of almost $9,000. Factor in the gas guzzler tax and the less-thirsty S6 will save you another $2,400 (EPA city/highway is 15/21mpg for the Audi and 12/18mpg for the BMW). And those of you not liking the tuning fork 19s who were wondering where you’d get the Benjamins to afford a set of Giovanna dubs… tisk tisk.

In all seriousness, number crunchers that might cast a critical eye on the S6 as they spec sheet quarterback a comparison between the BMW and the Audi might also want to take a look at the window sticker. Options aside, a base version of our 2007 S6 test car is a full $11,575 cheaper than the base figure for the 2006 M5 tested by Fourtitude’s sister website catering to BMW owners That’s enough bank to buy yourself a nice Ur-S6 to park in the garage next to your 2007.

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On the road, the S6 is surprisingly dexterous. It may only weigh 200 lbs. less than the equally equipped S8, but the smaller body and steel spring suspension combination make for a car that feels much lighter than you would expect.

The S6 actually sits about an inch (precisely 25mm) lower than its steel sprung A6 brethren. Add in the spring rates, valving and other changes and you have a car that will give you a refreshing level of lift-off oversteer when traveling hot into a turn. Sure, you can make a V10 Audi understeer if you want to, but this refreshingly controllable suspension combined with Audi’s continually improving Servotronic speed sensitive steering have shown just how adept the engineering community in Ingolstadt has become at fighting the laws of physics as they apply to a V10 engine hung off the leading side of the front axle of a large sedan. You don’t even have to think of it as a reverse, but heavier, Porsche 911, and we bet you’ll still walk away from a test drive as thoroughly impressed as we were.

At speed, road noise is up from the A6, probably aided by the big wheels and meaty tires fitted to the S6. However, this is about priorities. If you want a silent ride, buy a Lexus like all the accountants and foot doctors on the block.

In day-to-day driving, the FSI-powered Audi V10 really shines. Torque is at your toe tips in spades. It’s easy to get accustomed to the cement-stomping strength the S6’s burbling V10 so amply supplies, only to have a rude awakening when you go back to the real world of more pedestrian sedans.

Audi’s drive-by-wire has improved, but is still a bit touchy… perhaps compounded by the more aggressive transmission programming and additional power of that burbling V10.Mash down on that electronically modulated throttle and a series of circuits will signal the dumping of gas FSI style into two banks where five cylinders on each side will, in their predetermined order, suck in air via the intake, 10 plugs will fire and exhaust will be forced from the manifold, through the cat and out past the resonators. The entire process is really too quick to calculate, but the resulting sound is one of the best exhaust notes we’ve ever heard on an Audi – more rich-sounding than the 4.2 and more raucous than the more stately S8.

That same process will shove you back into your seat as the S6 hustles to 60mph in 4.9 seconds. Remember that M5 we’ve been comparing? If you launch perfectly and so did the M5 driver, you’re only trailing the Bimmer to the vaunted 60mph mark by .4 seconds. If you’re reading this aloud, just saying the word “point” in “point four seconds” takes longer than the time to span the gap between the S and the M. Get the point?

Most likely, the fatter torque curve of the Audi would make it a more enjoyable driver in the real world. And, at the end of the day, the real world is in fact where most of us drive.

In case you haven’t guessed, there’s a petit bit of amour in our hearts for the S6. However, there are some complaints. Understanding that this car is neither the RS 4 nor the M3 (something we think engineers of the M5 sometimes forget), we can get our heads around the fact that it’s heavy and not quite as agile as Audi’s smaller uber performance car.

Some enthusiasts will lament that the S6 is no longer turbocharged and thus not as easily modified and upgraded for those with the aftermarket performance bug. Still, we’d like to meet the guy who is left wanting after driving the S6. So too would Audi who may just have a 600-hp RS 6 he might be interested in driving in the not-too-distant future.

The other enthusiast beef will be that the Avant isn’t coming to America, and our enthusiast hearts are in harmony with that sentiment. This is the first time an S6 has been offered stateside without the wagon variant. Sure, we get the fact that Audi only sells one Avant for every ten sedans it moves off the showroom floor, but with a roughly equally priced RS 4 sedan in the lineup and a roughly equal drivetrain in the S8 sedan also available, we wonder if Audi didn’t miss an opportunity here. Audi could have differentiated the S6 from its other performance car offerings by instead offering it as an Avant as they did with the last generation S6.

This argument was made to Audi of America’s product planning manager Filip Brabec. Unless it’s need-to-know information that we simply don’t need-to-know, Brabec is usually good for a straight answer. To our Avant plea, along with a quick interjection of “Dodge seems to be moving Magnum SRT8 models with some success,” from us, Brabec pointed out that Audi of America didn’t have the easiest time moving all of the previous generation S6 models out of dealer stock. Remember, it was Avant only. Besides, the Avant costs a lot more to build, which would have made them even more expensive.

Considering these factors and that at least credibility if not job security is on the line, this author doubts he would have made the decision any differently than Brabec. In retrospect, the fact that the S6 came to this market at all was a risky prospect, and telling of how serious Audi of America is about re-establishing itself in the North American marketplace. And, perhaps this S6 will prove so successful that Brabec will reconsider an Avant version of the next-generation car… or maybe consider it for that RS 6 we hinted at earlier, even if Audi’s illustrious product planning manager plays coy when we vocalize that sentiment. “What RS 6?” he asks with a smile.

Related Links:

Audi AG In-Depth Press Release

Audi Music Interface Article

Fourtitude General A6 and S6 Gallery

Road Test Photo Gallery 2006 BMW M5 Review

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