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Upwardly mobile: with its new A6, Audi earns full luxury status.

It seems hard to imagine, but less than 20 years ago Audi made middle-class automobiles of doubtful reliability. They were known in Europe as "burgher cars": good enough for small-town businessmen, better than Volkswagens, but hardly on a par with Mercedes-Benzes or BMWs.

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Times have changed. The new Audi A6 not only has joined the ranks of German luxury carmakers, but for the first time may be speeding past them. The A6 makes that claim on the basis of two new engines that are substantially more powerful than those of its direct rivals, the Mercedes E-Class and BMW 5-Series sedans. It also has electronic controls that are far more intuitive.

The A6 is a handsome, agile, pleasingly spacious "touring sedan" (Audi's term, to differentiate it from the ever-expanding flotilla of "sports sedans"). And it comes at a price that ranges from $3,000 to almost $10,000 less than the competition's. The A6 can be equipped with a host of luxury options, including a 200-watt Bose Surround Sound system and Xenon headlamps that follow the ear's steering to illuminate road curves.

The A6's one controversial feature is a bold new grille, which it shares with all of Audi's new models--a gulping-guppy trapezoid, a love-it-or-hate-it shape. Audi had already put the grille on several of its auto-show concept cars and, presumably, the new "face" drew more raves than rants in styling studies.

During a day of driving several versions of the A6 on the back roads of California's Napa Valley, several lesser cars pulled smartly off the road and let me pass. Not because I was hectoring them--which usually welds an American driver firmly to his lane--but because the big grille apparently makes a "comin'-through, outtamy-way" statement in rearview mirrors.

At a base price of $40,900, the A6 carries a 255-horsepower V6 engine; for nearly $10,000 more, you can upgrade to a 335-horsepower V8 borrowed from the bigger Audi A8. Be assured the V6 is amply strong and more fuel-efficient than the V8.

Part of the reason the engine is so strong is an advanced new system of direct fuel injection. Precisely metered pulses of gasoline under very high pressure are injected straight into each cylinder's combustion chamber rather than into each intake-manifold runner upstream of its intake valve.

The acid test of the A6's dashboard controls, or Multi-Media Interface, was to operate it without having to thumb through the manual. Within 10 minutes of intuitive fiddling with the rotating knob and four large buttons while a friend drove, I found myself moderately proficient. Proficient but not enthusiastic. Only an A6 owner will be able to decide whether the ability to operate the heated seats via a colorful LCD screen, instead of with simple switches, is a 21st century breakthrough or a needless complication.

Initially, all A6's will come with Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system, an excellent feature if you live where it snows and need traction. However, Audi (and many other manufacturers that are hastening to add it to their lineups) would like you to believe all wheel drive is helpful in every type of inclement weather. It isn't. It merely costs more (an extra $1,700), adds extra weight and burns more fuel.

Ford coined the term "precision size" in the mid-1970s as a rationalization for the brief-lived Fairmont compact that it rushed into production as a reaction to the energy crisis, but the phrase is far more appropriate for the sophisticated Audi A6. You wouldn't put up with less, but you don't need more. Not bad for a "burgher car."
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Title Annotation:WHEELS
Author:Wilkinson, Stephan
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Words:595
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