Think Audi and a hulking great SUV rapidly fills your windscreen, LEDs glowering, that Parthenon of a grille threatening to chew your face off - such has been the enthusiastic acceptance and strong (Bollywood) endorsement of the Q7. Yet Audi might also be a victim of its own success. To most Audi starts and end with the Q7 and while that has done a world of good for the Q5 and virtually guarantees success of the forthcoming Q3 (see page 72) it has perhaps taken the sheen off the cars explaining the cold shoulder the A6 got from Indian buyers. Despite being rated highly (particularly in our track tests) and coming very close to the E-Class and 5 Series in our comparison tests (though never besting them outright) the A6 never really brought home the bacon, and that's despite being around for five years. It was in fact the first Audi to be locally assembled - bet you forgot that!
This time round things are different. Audi will never admit it but there has been a subtle yet very deliberate shift of the spotlight on the cars - the R8 supercar at the top of the range, the awesome RS5 sports car, the extremely sexy A7 and the all-new A8. And this has paved the way for this, the all-new, seventh-generation A6, the last of the A8-A6-A4 triumvirate to be updated. Yet Mercedes-Benz and BMW haven't exactly been hanging about with the E-Class and 5 Series…
Like every modern Audi the A6 looks like any other Audi. In profile this could be an A8 or A4, even the previous generation A6; from the rear, well, it's the same problem and from the front … let's put it this way, only close inspection of the edgy headlamps and the arrangement of LEDs within will reveal it to be the brand new A6. And yet that close inspection also reveals a strikingly attractive car with tremendous attention to detail, incredibly tight shutlines and a muscular hunkered-down stance. There's also a new found scowl to the A6's visage - out goes the subtle understated charm of the old A6 and in comes a serious dollop of aggression.
Do I like it? I actually do, very much. The surface treatment is so technical, so well executed and with so much underlying strength that it's impossible not to fall in love with it. Yet I also have to say the Mercedes is the most distinctive car in this test. It doesn't look, nor will you mistake it for an S-, C- or previous-gen E-Class. It is its own car and looks every bit the posh and expensive car that it is (if you ignore the uninspired taillamps). And as for the 5 Series, I'm afraid the newly mellowed BMW design language with a focus on the subtle athleticism in the details doesn't work too well for me.
But how much time are you going to spend looking at your car from the outside? What matters here is the cabin and that's where the A6 deals an ace ripping out full chapters from the A8's rather excellent book. The design of the dashboard with elongated panels that wrap onto the doors, the flow of lines, the glossily polished woods, brushed aluminium brightwork, lighting and most importantly the quality is never less than excellent. There's so much attention to detail that even the motions of the gear level and the way it slots into position has been damped so well that it gives off a really expensive vibe. You can't help but raise an eyebrow in admiration, and then the other one joins it when you stumble on some plastics, like the lid of the cupholder, that's hard, brittle and terribly out of place in such a fantastic cabin.
Like the A8 the central screen slides out of the dash, sticking out like something of an afterthought and while that didn't find favor with many of our testers who labelled it a rather unnecessary gimmick for something that is used so often I didn't have much of a problem. And that screen itself is brilliant - a full 8inch high-resolution screen with an intuitive and thoroughly comprehensive menu system linked to Audi's MMI system that is the best in its class. The display between the tacho and speedo is also excellent showing a wealth of information that can be clearly projected (and read) because of its size. The A6's cabin is so good that without so much as turning the key (actually thumbing the starter button, the E is the only car left that requires a key to start it) you will be sold.
Just like the A8 whose cabin immediately made its rivals feel old and dated the A6 pulls off a similar trick on the E-Class. The Merc's material quality feels nowhere as nice, the design is nowhere as wow-inducing, the half-wood steering wheel feels very grandpa-ish and the screen is the smallest with the worst resolution showing the least information and not being very useful or intuitive. A parking camera isn't even on the options menu though the Avantgarde spec now gets DVD screens at the rear. But not for nothing does the E set the standard in this class - the ergonomics are perfect (a small example - the gear lever mounted on the steering column to the right is a masterstroke liberating so much room on the centre console), the seats are large and wide and comfort levels are seriously decadent. All three cars have more or less similar levels of roominess but if I had to choose I'd take the back seat of the E. There's a fraction more knee and headroom, the headrest doesn't intrude as much as on the A6 and the seating position is that wee bit comfier.
The 530d is somewhere in between. The design and layout is more driver-focused than the A6, that meaty small-diameter steering wheel is an absolute delight to grip (though not so much to look at), the driver's seat is awesomely supportive and sporty, quality of material and switchgear is every bit as good and the second-generation iDrive is almost as intuitive and exhaustive as Audi's MMI. There's also much more equipment including television reception, DVD screens at the rear and in-built satellite navigation. What it lacks though is that expensive feel and style of the A6's cabin.
The 3.0-litre V6 TDI diesel in the A6 is a familiar engine powering everything in the range from the Q7 to the A4 but it has been thoroughly reworked; weight is down by 25kilos, power is up to 245PS, peak torque remains the same at 500Nm though available over a wider (350rpm) rev range and because of the lighter rotating masses the engine has become even more eager to rev, something that's definitely noticeable. Because the car is also lighter than its predecessor it has even better power to weight ratio. But what will really strike you is just how silent the engine is. Unless you properly floor it there's no way of knowing this is a diesel motor. And when you floor it this engine really moves!
Over a second has been knocked off the 0-100kmph sprint and it now does it in a class-besting 6.17seconds. That's sports car territory - quicker than the TT, quicker than the Z4, just a tenth slower than the 370Z. Just goes to show the tremendous pace of progress and also the intense competition in this class that has resulted in every successive generation not only getting more powerful but also becoming lighter, cleaner and even more efficient. Eight per cent more efficient to be precise. The city mileage has gone up to 7.9kmpl, highway is up to 13.66 and overall efficiency goes up to 10kmpl (from 9.3kmpl). The gains are also down to the gearbox, the old 6-speed automatic making way for the 7-speed S-Tronic twin-clutch automatic that shifts more rapidly and has more just an additional ratio to play around with.
But that's not to say our previous performance benchmark, the 530d, is blown away. The straight-six makes an identical 245PS of power but it has more grunt with 540Nm on tap from 1600-2400rpm. The difference then in acceleration times is down to rear-wheel-drive versus quattro. Floor the A6 and all four tyres dig into tarmac launching the car without any wastefully spinning tyres. The 530d on the other hand smokes its rear tyres all the way in first gear and even in second gear such is the mountain of torque on tap completely overwhelming traction. It really is a brilliant engine, even more intoxicating and involving than the A6's with keener throttle responses and an even stronger bottom end. And it is mated to an 8-speed transmission that has the measure of the Audi's twin-clutch delivering significantly smoother shifts and of course the extra ratio plays into the hands of both performance and efficiency. Like Bertrand said the last time he drove the 530d, the transmission lights an extremely short fuse to a highly explosive engine - for an ethusiast the 530d is where it's at.
Which leaves us with the E350CDI that, at 7.41seconds to 100kmph, is the slowest in this test. But slow is a relative term here, after all 7.41seconds, in anybody's book, is far from slow. The Merc also delivers the least power (228PS) but makes up for it with a BMW-rivaling 540Nm of torque and that gives it great flexibility and an easy-going disposition. A strong surge of acceleration is never more than a twitch of the right foot away and the engine is mated to the 7G-Tronic seven-speed auto that is deliciously smooth and quick to operate. As a fast and relaxed cruiser the Merc is just awesome though it must also be said that the others have now moved the goal posts.
The Audi is the only one with adaptive air suspension as standard and all versions of the A6 also get Drive Select that can alter the dynamic behavior from comfort to sport mode. There's also Individual mode where the car's dynamic behavior can be tailored to suit - for instance the engine and gearbox in dynamic, steering in comfort, suspension in comfort and seat belt pre-tensioners (yes, even that's adjustable!) in auto. Honestly though the A6 is best left in Comfort where the steering is light and easy-going (though not over boosted) and air suspension works wonderfully delivering a truly impressive ride quality that's way superior to anything the outgoing A6 dished out. The low speed ride is almost as good as the E-Class - which is a huge achievement in its own right - but pick up the pace over a narrow, twisty and bumpy state highway and the A6 truly comes alive. Because the reaction times of air suspension are very quick the A6 can handle bumps and crests at speed without ever feeling nose heavy and scrunching its front bumper. The rebound rates of the suspension are also very quick to deal long-wave expressway undulations that again cuts pitch and wallow keeping the A6 steady and planted.
Quattro is standard on the V6 engines and moves to a 40/60 default torque split that gives a more rear-biased feel to the handling. It also ensures fantastic grip levels and when it rains that superiority is stamped across in emphatic fashion, making the Audi feel so much safer when carrying crazy speeds in the wet. What Quattro doesn't allow you to do is play around with the car on the throttle or make the rear dance like on the 5 Series, at the limit she just starts to understeer (requiring a lift of the throttle to bring it back on line), but then again to how many buyers is that a priority?
In Dynamic mode the suspension firms up and the steering becomes heavier but it's just an artificial weighting up whereas what you really want is an increase in feedback and communication. If you had to find fault with the A6 it will be with the steering that is strangely listless. It does what you ask of it but it doesn't involve you like the E-Class does.
Surprisingly the E350 has the best steering in this lot. I say surprising because there is nothing sporty about the E, nothing that encourages you to go mental behind the wheel; even the 'wheel is one size too big with that half-wood thing going on. But get going and there is excellent feedback and responsiveness, so much so that even though there is a fair bit of body roll you can position the front wheels with an accuracy that the other two struggle to match. And despite afore-mentioned body roll grip levels are quite amazing, the front end bites with tenacity and understeer is resisted very strongly. All that body roll also results in a deliciously compliant ride quality - at city traffic speeds nothing can come close to the E-Class' benchmark and even on the expressway those small ripples are best ironed out by the Merc. For the typical luxury car usage pattern the E is still the comfort benchmark, though the A6 does run it very close. However what the E doesn't like are bumpy state highways where it feels nose heavy, the suspension comes across as too soft (both at the front and rear), there's significant pitch and wallow and in places it also bottoms out forcing you to back off. The A6 on the other hand can keep going and its suspension responds quicker and deals better with bumpy roads.
The 530d doesn't respond very well to bumpy roads. Like the Audi and Mercedes, it too runs on 17 inch wheels (55 profile to the Merc's 45) and allied to the softer suspension settings the ride quality is much, much better than the previous-gen 530d (that had gorgeous but wholly unsuitable 18-inch wheels). On the expressway and even in the city the improvements in ride quality are immediately apparent and can now be termed luxurious. But - and there's always a but - the tyres are run flats and the consequently stiffer side walls fails to take the edge of bumpy roads like the other two do. Even with its adaptive suspension set to Comfort mode, the ride can be a bit too stiff when the road is less than smooth. Bumps and even ripples filter into the cabin and when you fly round a bumpy corner instead of riding those bumps the suspension hops and skips throwing the car off-line and forcing you to back off. On our test route through the hills near Pune - a demanding and bumpy state highway with blind crests, unsighted ditches and nasty mid corner bumps - we had to ease off in all three cars but in the 530d we had to back right off because of the car getting airborne over the smallest crests and the suspension crashing into the bumps and ditches.
What the 530d needs is a smooth, fast and twisty road - show it that and the Bimmer is humungously good fun. There's very little body roll, the steering is brilliant, and when you switch off ESP and stick it in Sport + mode there is terrific sideways fun on offer, provided you have the talent. On pure smiles per kilometer the 530d is still the king of the road but the problem is it needs the right kind of road to shine; on regular roads of our regular commutes the suspension can be too stiff and the steering too heavy.
Does the new A6 exorcise ghosts of the past? Yes! The transformation is pretty remarkable resulting in a car that both rides well and handles even better. But on pure sporty terms the verdict remains unchanged - it has to be the BMW 530d. Even though the A6 is quicker and has made huge strides in driver involvement and even though the E350 is a far sharper tool than you'd expect the BMW is still the most fun to drive. Provided you are in a city with good roads no other car has the tools or abilities to keep you entertained for mile after mile. Yet that very same sportiness leads to its Achilles heel - the ride quality that struggles with most Indian roads and back seat drivers are well advised to think twice.
The 530d is also the value for money pick and unless Audi pulls a rabbit out of the hat with the pricing it is the BMW that gives you the most equipment for the least sticker price.
However if you're buying a car for what a car of this segment is supposed to be doing then the E350 nudges ahead. Mercs always rode well so it's no surprise that all things considered the E-Class is still the most comfortable car here but now there's also handling and a level of driver involvement to keep the other cars honest. In fact the only thing that doesn't go in her favor are the interiors that, when pitched against the A6, just don't do the job.
And that's why, for the first time since it came to India six years ago, the A6 goes to the top of its class. What you get is terrific performance mated to even better refinement, a far more involving chassis, near-E-Class levels of ride comfort and vastly superior interiors. After all, in the final reckoning, your time will be spent inside the car and the more the car pampers you, makes you feel good about yourself, that's where your money should go.
The fourth cog - Jaguar XF
Comparisons in this class were usually between BMW and Mercedes with Audi playing a bit role but now that Audi has stepped up to the big league there's a new rival snapping at the German's heels - the Jaguar XF. It was only four months ago (April 2011 issue) that we pitched the Jag against the E-Class and 5 Series and even though we were impressed with the engine (making 275PS and 600Nm it is the most powerful in this class) we felt it was let down by the 6-speed gearbox. That has been addressed in the face-lifted XF that has just been launched in Europe and will come to India by the year end. The most noticeable change are slimmer headlamps that echo the look of the XJ and makes a pretty car even prettier. Inside there's a new steering wheel and upgrades to some switches but the big change is the 8-speed ZF gearbox that should finally put the XF where it deserves to be - at the top of the performance charts. The dynamics were in any case spot on.
As we said in that comparison test, the Jaguar does pose a credible alternative to the German brigade with its unique sense of Britishness and styling that has rather more panache and flair. With the upgrades it could even trump them and that will make for a very interesting comparison test when the XF lands up.