First drive: Audi A6 ultra
Audi's A6 mid-sized executive saloon has just benefited from a mid-life refresh, to keep it on top of its game in this competitive market sector. Aside from the expected tweaks to the exterior design and interior appointments, the face-lifted A6 also brings with it new eco-biased model, badged 'ultra', and designed to appeal to company car drivers and cost-conscious private buyers with impressive fuel consumption and exhaust emissions. We headed to the eastern German city of Dresden to find out whether it's worthy of your consideration.
What is it?
Audi's slick and handsome A6 saloon has undergone a nip-tuck to keep it looking youthful and appealing in its middle age. On the outside there are sharper lines, most noticeable in the wider, flatter grille, which is flanked by new, slimmer headlight units. There are also standard-fit LED lamps at the back and for the eye-catching daytime running lights. Combined with the subtly flared wheel arches, the makeover imparts a new subtly aggressive look, and mimics the aesthetic of the larger and more expensive A8 limousine.
The interior is also subject to minor cosmetic tweaks, though it is under the skin where the majority of changes are evident. The refreshed A6 – specifically the Avant (Audi speak for estate) for now – gets new glass-fibre suspension springs, which save around 5kg in weight over conventional steel items.
The engine range has been massaged too, for improved power and emissions figures across the board, though it is the new ultra models that are most worthy of consideration. Representing a new entry point into the A6 range, they offer CO2 emissions from as low as 109g/km.
What's under the bonnet?
In years gone by, a 2.0-litre diesel engine in such a large, upmarket car would have been inconceivable, though is now likely to be amongst the best selling versions of what is currently the UK's favourite executive saloon. It's not difficult to see why, as aside from the appealing 67.3mpg fuel economy and 116g/km C02 emissions (that headline 109g/km figure is quickly eroded with the larger wheel options, as fitted to our test car), it offers credible performance. Fitted with Audi's slick-shifting seven-speed S Tronic gearbox, the A6 ultra is able to romp to 62mph in 8.2 seconds, before running out of steam at 144mph.
Those wanting more power will be pleased to hear that the refreshed A6 range also includes the fiery S6 performance range-topper, with its turbocharged 4.0-litre V8, and Audi's sublime 3.0-litre bi-turbo diesel motor, though predictably neither can match the ultra for its parsimony and cleanliness.
What's the spec like?
The A6's refresh also sees a greater number of toys fitted as standard. Two trim levels are offered: SE and S line, with even entry-level models being generously equipped. Highlights include four-zone climate control, 17-inch alloy wheels, keyless ignition, Audi Drive Select (which allows the driver to adjust steering weight and throttle response based on driving style), a refreshed music interface and bi-xenon headlights.
Opt for the higher S line trim, and aside from a subtly sporty bodykit, standard equipment also grows to include LED headlamps, 18-inch alloy wheels, leather upholstery and sports suspension.
Being an Audi, the A6 comes with an extensive options list, with high-tech items such as reversing and night-vision cameras, 'Matrix' headlights (which minutely adjust to provide maximum illumination without dazzling oncoming drivers) and a plethora of electronic driver aids available, allowing customers to individualise their car to their tastes. However, go over the top with the extra kit, and you'll soon the A6's list price balloon dramatically.
Both BMW and Mercedes-Benz, Audi's closest rivals, offer high-efficiency four-cylinder turbodiesel motors in their mid-sized offerings – the 5 Series and E-Class respectively – though it is the BMW 520d that most closely plays the ultra, matching its CO2 emissions and slightly bettering its combined fuel economy.
At the cheaper end of the market, buyers may be swayed by the value offered by the new Ford Mondeo, while Volkswagen is fresh from launching a brand-new version of its Passat saloon, which has moved further upmarket to occupy market territory that was once the sole preserve of the German big three.
If you'd really rather drive a petrol car, consider the Lexus GS300h, which uses hybrid technology to produce CO2 emissions on a par with the A6 ultra, and comes with a large selection of toys as standard – something to bear in mind if you're a company car driver subject to benefit-in-kind tax rates.
Audi A6 Ultra
First drive: Audi A6 ultra
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What's it like to drive?
Audi has worked hard to ensure that the A6 ultra doesn't feel like the cheap option, and as such is indistinguishable from regular models, aside from a small model badge on the boot lid. Particularly impressive is the cabin refinement, with the clatter of the diesel motor well subdued – indeed much more so than in the Mercedes E-Class. On the move, it's clear the A6 has been set up for relaxed cruising; its light, vague steering a perfect accompaniment to the motorway cruise, though less impressive on twisting roads, where its lack of feedback can dent a driver's confidence.
The ride, too, is largely comfortable, though it does have a firm edge, meaning potholes and other large imperfections in the road surface make themselves felt in the cabin with a jolt. The upside of this, however, is that the A6 feels taut and in control of its mass in the bends, and doesn't feel out of its comfort zone being driven enthusiastically.
The four-cylinder diesel motor acquits itself well, too, providing sufficient poke to make overtakes a realistic – and not hair-raising – proposition. This is aided by the automatic gearbox, which shuffles ratios quickly and near imperceptibly, making for swift, effortless progress.
The AOL Cars verdict
Offering the full premium executive car experience with the added appeal of lower running costs, the Audi A6 ultra really is the compromise that really doesn't feel like one. It offers enough power to suit the needs of the vast majority of drivers, and doesn't punish buyers with stingy amounts of kit
What's more, for company car buyers, the A6 ultra could well work out cheaper than ostensibly more cost-effective cars from mainstream brands, thanks to its competitive entry price, low CO2 emissions and robust levels of standard equipment, particularly in S line trim. If you're looking for an upmarket executive express or family holdall, that will blend effortlessly into your life and won't break the bank, the A6 ultra takes some beating.
Model: Audi A6 2.0 TDI ultra S Tronic
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbo diesel
Power: 187bhp, 400Nm
Max speed: 144mph
0-62mph: 8.2 seconds
MPG: 67.3 (combined)
Emissions: from 109g/km CO2