Review Audi S6 Avant
SEE ALSO: Audi Buyer's Guide
2002 Audi S6 Avant: Uberwagon Base price: $58,700 Price as tested: $61,875 EPA mileage: 14 city/21 highway By Des Toups Given the almost weekly introduction of oddly shaped vehicles by automakers staking out territory in that new automotive niche, the crossover, it seems clear now: The Holy Grail is a car that can haul plants back from Home Depot. At 100 mph. In a snowstorm. That would make the Audi S6 Avant -- a marriage of all-wheel-drive security, cushy versatility and 340 burbling horsepower -- the ultimate crossover. The S6’s throaty V-8 and sharp reflexes offer the kind of effortless athleticism a three-ton sport-utility could never hope to provide, yet its manners are far friendlier than the high-strung moves of a sport sedan. It’s a subtle, expensive-looking wagon that hauls butt but carries no Mommy-mobile or midlife-crisis baggage. Of course, for 60 grand, it <I>should</I> be good. The A6 sedan on which the S6 Avant (Avant is Audi-speak for wagon) is based is among Audi’s older platforms, regarded highly for its clean lines, high-fashion interiors and sure-footed handling. It’s never been known for speed. A 4.2-liter V-8, a slightly detuned version of the motor that powers the ultra-luxury S8, changes that perception dramatically. At idle, the S6 gives off the wonderful tick-tick-tick enthusiasts love, but the engine is never intrusive except when the accelerator is floored. Forget the 0-60 and quarter-mile numbers (they’re great, but who drives like that?) and revel instead in the kind of thrust that builds confidence. Power is abundant and instant even at low speeds -- you'll never hesitate to enter urban traffic – and passing is over in an eye blink. Knowing your car will do what you ask of it is the ultimate in safety. Of course, it’s a rush, too. Power reaches the pavement through Audi’s Quattro system, which sends half the muscle to the front tires and half to the rear. There’s zero wheelspin at launch, even if you left-foot brake and rev the engine first. Otherwise the all-wheel drive is invisible, with no binding in the steering or feeling of friction in the powertrain. The link between motor and driveline is a five-speed automatic, which can be left alone or pushed into what Audi calls Tiptronic mode, allowing the driver to control up- and downshifts manually. It’s useful for the mountains and a great toy for gearheads, but irrelevant for 99% of the driving most of us do. I’d rather have steering-wheel controls for the radio rather than the redundant shifter buttons there now. Left alone, the transmission offers easygoing, unobtrusive shifts in routine traffic. A “sport” mode holds the transmission longer in each gear (right up to the 7,000 rpm redline) for better acceleration when you need it (like dusting off the Z28 in the next lane). The automatic does seem reluctant to shift into second when trundling through parking lots. Steering is light but not touchy, and it requires more effort the faster you drive, as it should. The S6 tracks like a train on the Interstate, little affected by road ruts that keep sport-sedan drivers on their toes and absolutely impervious to the crosswinds that push big’n’tall SUVs to and fro. Even with ultra-low-profile 40-series tires surrounding its sharp 17-inch alloy wheels, the S6’s ride is relatively serene, calmer than you’d guess, given the car’s immense capabilities. Still, these aren’t winter tires, and anybody who lives in the Snow Belt should consider a taller, all-season tire. Ride would certainly improve and the handling should remain bulletproof in every situation but a racetrack. Inside lies the interior that launched a thousand imitators, a mix of soft-touch vinyl, aluminum accents, red lighting and leather. The suedelike material on the seats and headliner is a particularly neat compromise, offering the comfort and grip of cloth with the rich feel and look of leather. Other than tiny, Chiclet-size buttons on the powerful Bose stereo and in-dash, 6-disc CD changer, there are no annoyances inside. Five adults fit comfortably, and four like kings (especially with seat heaters all around). This is a car, though, and a thronelike driving position isn’t part of the deal. You sit relatively low, but relatively large mirrors and easy-to-see corners take away any real feeling of vulnerability. There’s no third seat in back, just 36 cubic feet of well-finished cargo room, far more than in the heavyweight BMW X5. Capacity doubles with the back seats down, and it’s accessible at a lower-back-friendly height. Strap bikes to the 57-inch-high roof (about a foot lower than the typical SUV) and you won’t hyperextend a muscle. I love the lack of pretense in the S6. There are no strips of body cladding, running boards or brush guards to mar its clean look with faux outdoorsy cues (those are the province of another A6 wagon variant, the Allroad). And while there are mild hints of the remarkable power and handling underneath (bigger wheels, fat tires, a low-slung look), anybody in search of bait for a trophy spouse had best look elsewhere. The only real competitors for the S6, for now, are the go-fast versions of the Mercedes M Class, the M55, and the X5 4.6is. Both offer similar speed and all-weather traction, yet neither has the anything close to the grace found in the S6. Anybody in real need of a sport-utility, who tows a boat or bogs through mud, should have one, of course. But it’s always amazed me that those who don’t live an off-road life so willingly give up the advantages inherent in a smoother, quicker car. The S6 is a rolling showcase for those advantages, and it takes its driver only <I>one</I> try to park at Home Depot.