Has Audi been the first to blink? Its latest S6 is the first supersaloon to offer less power than its predecessor. Jonathan Crouch reckons such a move is well overdue.
Ten Second Review
The latest Audi S6 steps back from the horsepower arms race. Its 414bhp is down on its predecessor's 435bhp, but it offers more torque, far better economy and a pleasantly understated yet quietly potent look. It's still fearsomely rapid, the V8 twin turbo engine punching it to 60mph in just 4.6 seconds.
Let's face it. It was getting silly. The race for ever higher power outputs amongst big saloons and estates was merely having the effect of adding cost and complexity at the expense of tactility and efficiency. It brought us a whole generation of crassly unlovable bruisers that had grown too expensive and which were proving embarrassingly out of step with societal mores. Audi has been the first to recognise that perhaps less is more. Its latest S6 still offers sledgehammer acceleration but with 414 bhp compared to its predecessor's 435bhp perhaps this car is more significant than we realise. If customers reward Audi's pragmatism, the quest for ludicrous power might be drawing to a close. We can't laud Audi too slavishly though as it shares much of the blame with AMG for fuelling the chase for massive horsepower at the expense of involvement. The latest S6 attempts to demonstrate that right-sizing is the way forward.
The Lamborghini-derived V10 fitted to the old S6 was undoubtedly a charismatic thing, yowling its way to 7,000rpm and giving the big German an unexpectedly exotic feel. It also had a fierce thirst and 319g/km of emissions just wasn't going to cut it. The latest engine can't hope to match the V10's feral aggression but it's a very smart piece of engineering. This twin-turbocharged, direct-injected 4.0-litre V8, generates 414 bhp and cranks out 550 Nm of torque at just 1,400 rpm which is a little more torque than the old V10 mill could manage. The S6 gets a twin-clutch transmission with seven speeds, which can be selected by some cool aluminium paddle shifters. Quattro all-wheel drive transmission is naturally standard, this time combined with an optional torque vectoring differential between the rear wheels. Tipping the scales at 136 kilos less than its predecessor, the S6 is no slouch, bludgeoning its way to 60mph in just 4.6 seconds. With better weight distribution than before, the S6 also features "cylinder on demand" technology that allows the V8 FSI engine, to cut four of the cylinders when cruising to aid efficiency. At low speeds or when throttle demand is higher, the erstwhile dormant four cylinders thrum seamlessly back into life. The S6 rides on standard air suspension and Audi drive select driving dynamics system is also standard. This controls throttle pedal response, shift points of the S-tronic transmission, the assistance to the electromechanical steering and the characteristics of the adaptive air suspension. The driver can adjust the operation of these systems via five settings.
Design and Build
The Audi S6 was first unveiled at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show in a huge product offensive from Audi which included the S8, S7 and both the saloon and Avant estate versions of the S6. It's an undeniably handsome thing whether you choose four doors or five and while it's still a massive car, it carries its size deceptively well, the sculpted flanks doing much to break up the visual bulk. In certain regards, the S6 is not a visually aggressive car, the aluminium wing mirror housings and subtle S6 badging being enough to tip most observers that this is no cooking A6. The cabin is as well appointed as you'd expect from a range-topping A6 model, with beautiful monogrammed leather sports seats, an exquisite fluted finish for the centre console, perforated leather on the gear shifter and steering wheel and a coolly understated anthracite dial pack. Big brake calipers peeked out from behind the grey five-spoke alloy wheels, while quad exhausts and a reassuringly narrow aperture between tyre and wheelarch were also clues as to the S6's potency.
Market and Model
You'll need a budget of around £55,000 for S6 ownership and there's a premium of just over £2,500 if you want to progress from this saloon to the Avant Estate bodystyle. That's about £7,000 more than you'd pay for, say, a sporty 'S line'-trimmed version of the fastest variant you'll find in the standard A6 range - the 3.0 BiTDI diesel. But it's over £20,000 less than you'll pay for Audi's 560PS RS6 model, a car that'll get you from rest to 62mph just 0.7s faster and is only available as an estate. If you like the whole S6 package but would prefer a five-door hatchback bodystyle, then it's worth knowing that Audi's S7 model provides exactly that - but at a premium of just under £8,000. The Pearl Nappa leather seats are beautifully finished although there's also an upgrade pack to three alternate leather finishes. The diamond-stitched seat backs are particularly choice. Other standard features include Xenon headlights, Bluetooth connectivity, MMI radio plus, a 10 speaker audio system and Audi's Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) system which functions much like noise cancelling headphones in the cabin.
Cost of Ownership
When manufacturers like Ferrari are introducing Start/Stop on their cars in a bid to drive down emissions, it's a reminder that nobody gets a free pass. Audi certainly don't and the latest S6 is a notably more efficient contrivance than its predecessor which was a bit of a rogue when it came to economy and emissions. The quoted 21mpg combined fuel figure of the old V10-powered car always looked hopelessly optimistic, and I'd wager you'll be able to approach the V8 S6's 29.1mpg is a serious percentage improvement. The heavier Avant is only slightly worse at 28.8mpg. Depreciation is sure to be a concern for all but the most well-heeled buyers as big petrol-engined cars haven't been faring to well lately and despite the S6's fuel economy improvements, it's still a car that's going to see you through a whole lot of 98RON.
Sometimes it takes genuine bravery to sound a tactical retreat but in doing just that, Audi should be praised. There's a definite case for stepping back from the arms race that had been waging between the luxury car manufacturers and Audi is one of the few companies with the corporate confidence to do just that. The S6 still fronts up with 414bhp which is more than enough for all but the most demented autobahn aggressor and deploys its power in a smarter, more responsible manner. It's a handsome thing, in both saloon and Avant estate guises but despite the gains made in terms of efficiency there's a nagging doubt in my mind that the S6 is chasing a market that's drying up fast. It's caught between the big sales of the upper-spec diesel A6s and the persistent offenders who will want the ludicrous power of an RS6 model, when that eventually appears. It's hard to pitch to this market but if anyone can strike the right balance, you'd count on Audi. We live in interesting times. Too interesting for the unwary car manufacturer, that's for sure.