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Classy A6 keeps Audi renaissance progressing nicely

SHARE Classy A6 keeps Audi renaissance progressing nicely

You have to admire the folks at Audi. Considering the struggles that the German carmaker has had in this country over the past 30 years, the marque should be only a memory by now.

There shouldn't be any new Audis, just old ones collected by die-hards who hold rallies, send each other newsletters and meet once a year in Park City to show off how nicely they've maintained their vintage Fox, 4000 5+5 or 5000.When "60 Minutes" did its infamous hatchet job on Audi, claiming its then top-of-the-line 5000 guilty of "unintended acceleration" - as if it were possessed by demons or something - sales plummeted and it seemed the beginning of the end for Audi of America, a company that had long struggled to carve out a niche for itself alongside the German juggernauts Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

It seemed only a matter of time before Audi would go the way of once favored imports such as MG, Austin-Healey, Fiat, Renault, Peugeot, Citroen and other marques that couldn't cut it here and some of which ended up not cutting it anywere.

It didn't happen, thankfully. Audi hung on and somehow found the will and the financial capital to completely change its model lineup, keeping only its name and linked-rings logo. Happily, it is now enjoying a well-deserved renaissance.

The comeback began with the compact A4, a small sporty sedan that has been a big success in this country. The A4 was followed by the high-end A8, a low volume hyper-luxury sedan that showed just what Audi could do against the top-end Bimmers and Benzes.

Now comes the A6, the car that Audi hopes will become its mid-range bread-and-butter sedan, the Audi version of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

Mid-range and bread-and-butter for a luxury marque, that is. Audi is competing in the upper echelons of the market where a $40,000 car is considered right on target.

My test A6 for the past two weeks was base priced at $33,750, but $6,975 worth of options and a $500 destination charge put the bottom line at $41,225. In truth, though, the "options" consisted mostly of items that luxury car buyers consider standard stuff: leather seats, a high end Bose sound system with CD changer, 16-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats, a ski sack between the trunk and back seat, power sunroof and some other convenience items.

About the only option that might reasonably be deleted is the $1,550 Quattro all-wheel-drive system, but AWD has been an Audi specialty for decades and it gives Audi bragging rights over other luxury sedans propelled by only two wheels. It even affords snow-country buyers an alternative to high-end sport utility vehicles.

There was an A6 prior to this new iteration (introduced last fall), but the '98 model has a longer wheelbase that affords really generous rear seat legroom and upgraded levels of equipment along with a stunning new body that just may be the best looking four-door sedan on the market.

Gone is the five-cylinder engine that once powered the 5000. The A6 is motivated by a 2.8 liter V6 with five-valve technology that delivers 200 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 207 pound feet of torque at a low 3,200 rpm, right where Americans want their pulling power.

Past Audis were often criticized for their lack of low-end grunt. Yes, they would fly like the wind at high speeds, but since no one has yet built an Autobahn in this country, we like our cars to strut their stuff once the light turns green.

Although no one would mistake it for a drag-strip hotrod, the new A6 accelerates better from a standing start than most of its predecessors (my '82 4000 5+5 with a five-speed manual was pretty quick off the line).

Standard transmission for the A6 is a five-speed automatic with the Tiptronic feature first introduced by Porsche in its 911 sports car. Tiptronic allows the driver to shift manually through the five gears. I didn't use it much except when going up canyons. It was nice to be able to select just the right gear to match the grade of the hill.

I mentioned above that the A6 is drop dead gorgeous. According to Audi, this is due in large part to their designers asking themselves if a sedan really had to look like a sedan: boxy, bland and boring. Why not, they mused, make it look like a coupe, a body style that makes up for having only two doors by being sleek, sexy and scintillating.

They pulled it off. If it weren't for the rear door handles, you'd swear the A6, with its sweeping roofline gliding in an arc from hood to trunk, was a coupe. But it's not. No coupe ever had the generous headroom, legroom and trunk space of the A6.

There's much more to be said about the A6 but no space left here to do it. Suffice to say, if you are in the market for a luxury car, do your due diligence and say howdy to an Audi before signing that lease.

The clincher may be Audi's three-year 50,000 mile no charge scheduled maintenance; three-year, 50,000 mile limited new car warranty; 10-year warranty against rust perforation and 24-hour roadside assistance for three years.