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Price: $52,425
Major equipment: : Premium Plus Package — bi-xenon headlamps, LED running lamps, auto-dim side mirrors, 18-inch wheels ($1,500)

In the fleet: 6/23/2009 – 6/29/2009

Approximate mileage driven: 750, including 30ish laps of Nelson Ledges Road Course

J. BARUTH: Johan de Nysschen, Audi’s dashing head honcho here in the United States, has repeatedly stated his desire to move Audi into pole prestige position among German luxury brands. Consider this supercharged A6 a toe dipped into the water. At more than fifty-two grand, this midsizer is priced head-ups with the BMW 535xi and just three grand short of a V-8 Mercedes E550. That’s pretty rarefied air, but in the “Premium Plus” trim sampled here, the A6 is decidedly short of equipment. There’s no navigation system, no backup screen, no keyless entry, and no flappy paddles on the steering wheel. Those of who are fans of mid-Eighties Buicks — and who isn’t? — will recognize this as “Custom” trim, rather than “Limited”.

This sedan’s a little light on the goodies, but it does have one feature to pique our collective interest: Audi’s new supercharged six-cylinder, debuting here ahead of its arrival in the upcoming S4 and revamped S5 models. For A6 duty, the engine is tuned to deliver a round 300 horsepower, just about what the previous-generation A6 4.2 turned out and well above the power level of the previous 2.7T twin-turbo V-6. Did we mention it was supercharged? Yes we did. So why is is a “3.0T”? Who knows? Audi is positioning it as a performance model, however, so we took it to the fastest road course on the East Coast to find out just how it performs.

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Supercharged engines tend to be prone to “heat soak”, reducing their power output during long periods of full-throttle operation. The temperature during our track day ranged between eighty-eight and ninety-seven degrees Fahrenheit, and over the course of successive laps, the A6 lost more and more thrust as the heat built up. Still, there was enough power on tap to drop 2.7-liter Boxsters on the run-up to the infamous car-eating “Kink” at Nelson Ledges Road Course, and enough predictability in the chassis to toss the big Audi through in a long four-wheel drift to the exit of said Kink.

Stopping the car is another matter. None of the German mid-sizers have brakes that are up to track duty, and the A6 is no exception. Still, by alternating “hot” and “cool” laps, we retained the ability to dip into ABS at will on the entrance to Turn One. It’s virtually impossible to get the big Audi out of shape on a racetrack, thanks to the big engine slung out over the front axle. Even the most outrageous trail-braking maneuvers are easily recoverable by just relaxing inputs and letting the car nose itself forward.

In-between the track sessions, we used the A6 as a taxi to obtain food for our drivers and give everyone a chance to sit in the air conditioning. This is where the car shines; there’s plenty of room in the back seat, plenty of comfort for everyone, and very few ergonomic faults to be found. While it’s slightly incongruous to pull up to a McDonald’s drive-thru in the same big sedan that had been sliding sideways through Turn Two just half an hour previously, there is a lot of joy to be found in a car that can accomplish both tasks reasonably well.

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Comparing this A6 to our fully-equipped S5 made us a bit wistful for the “Prestige” equipment level. The navigation, backup camera, full-color instrument panel display, keyless entry, and other goodies really do improve the Audi ownership experience more than you might think. At fifty-two thousand dollars, more of this equipment should come standard. Audi’s response would no doubt be that the equivalent BMW is not fully-equipped, but everybody knows that BMWs are heavily subsidized through lease programs and a variety of cashback schemes, making their actual cost to own considerably less.

We would also have to discuss the manner in which the supercharged Audi V-6 matches up to BMW’s twin-turbo I-6… and it doesn’t, really. BMW offers more power on paper and much more power in the real world, combined with a better noise and a smoother rev. While the A6 continues to be a more pleasant, tasteful way to travel than the 5-Series, thanks in large part to BMW’s obvious cost-cutting on interior trim, it would be nice to have a little more equipment included at this price level.

As fate would have it, we had the chance to take a 2009 A6 4.2 out during the Taurus SHO press event. This eight-cylinder variant is clearly, unmistakably superior to the supercharged six, both in power and interior appointments. It’s the A6 of choice, but it comes at a price: nearly nine grand more than our 3.0T tester. Still, given the choice we’d spend the extra money. In fact, we feel so strongly about the “Prestige” equipment level that we’d probably prefer a normally-aspirated 3.2 Prestige to this 3.0T Premium Plus. Too bad you can’t do it: the 3.2 is not available as a “Prestige” model.

In many ways, this A6 is a Goldilocks car. It’s not as slow as a 3.2 or as fast as a 4.2; it’s not as base as a Premium or as nice as a Prestige. But what’s the point of paying fifty-two grand for a car that is “just enough”, when for just fifteen percent more you can have the A6 4.2 Prestige? One reason might be found at the pump: we averaged 25.8mpg off-track, more than half again as much as we’d expect for the V-8 car. The question is: does anybody at this end of the market care? We’d put our money on the V-8, no questions asked. This car is an A6 we respect, but the 4.2 is an A6 we want.

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Jack Baruth

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