by Karl Furlong
Last year, the all-new Audi A6 arrived to mount a bolder challenge to its midsize luxury rivals, the BMW 5 Series and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Now, the more performance-oriented S6 is here for shoppers who still hold a traditional, three-box luxury sedan in high regard but want more power. The new S6 replaces the previous version's twin-turbo V8 engine with a 2.9-liter turbocharged V6, further boosted by a 48-volt electric compressor providing a surge of power at lower speeds. The combination works well, with 444 horsepower and 443 lb-ft of torque enabling zero to sixty in just 4.4 seconds. That's quick, but BMW's V8-powered M550i is even faster, while the Mercedes-AMG E53 delivers similar performance and also boasts electric assistance. The rest of the S6 experience is pure Audi: it's comfortable yet enjoyable to drive, interior quality is first-rate, and it's loaded with technology. In fact, the new cabin, replete with glossy screens, is a significant departure from the previous S6. With its understated style, technology galore, and potent powertrain, the S6 embodies many of Audi's best attributes.
The Audi S6 is an all-new arrival for 2020, based on the fifth generation of the A6, which was introduced last year. Along with bolder styling inside and out, the new S6 has an entirely different powertrain, replacing the V8 used previously for a 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6 with mild hybrid technology, an engine that is also used in the S7. The dual-screen infotainment system dramatically modernizes the cabin, while the A6 also has more space for passengers than the S7. As usual, Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system endows the big sedan with tremendous grip.
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Like the powertrain, the S6's adaptive air suspension is a class act. Quattro all-wheel-drive directs the engine's power to all four wheels, ensuring that the S6 retains its composure in wet or icy conditions, while the grip on offer in the dry will rarely, if ever, be tested. The electromechanical power steering is light enough at lower speeds but proves pleasingly direct when pressing on. The Audi exhibits excellent body control through the twisties, but its strength remains in switching to Comfort mode and eating up the miles on the highway, where the ride is compliant and smooth, despite the large wheels. Road noise is suppressed brilliantly, too. In Dynamic mode, the suspension firms up, although never to the point of being jarring, but even here, the S6 is more of a competent luxury sedan than a thrilling sports car. That's fine, because it's exactly what a buyer in this segment will want. Still, a 5 Series just about retains its edge for driving enjoyment among the three Germans. But the S6 really is hard to find fault with.
The switch to a smaller-capacity V6 engine with mild-hybrid technology has not diluted the appeal of Audi's swift midsize sedan. It feels like the perfect balance between performance and control, and comfort blended with driver engagement. Typically, trying to be all things to all people is a dangerous exercise, but the S6 package will appeal to the vast majority of shoppers in this segment. The immaculate cabin is another highlight, even if its abundance of technology takes some time to familiarize oneself with. Flaws are few, with the smallish trunk and the subjective feeling from some that the S6 remains too understated being among the question marks. The S6 is a mighty close match for the Mercedes-AMG E53; the differences are small enough that a preference for either badge will sway the final decision. BMW's M550i offers something different at the same price, bringing fun dynamics and brawny V8 power to the mix. But the Audi easily earns a podium finish in this segment, and for many, it will be the top choice in the segment.
With its fastback design, the S7 cuts a much more distinctive figure than the S6. For many, that alone will be enough to go for the Audi with the higher number in its badge, but is '7' really better than '6' in this case? Well, it's certainly more expensive. At $83,900, the S7 starts at exactly $10,000 more than the S6, which is a significant difference. Despite this, the two are similarly specced, although the S7 has LED headlights as standard, one of the few feature differences in base trim. The S7 also has close to double the amount of trunk space behind the rear seats, but the S6 has more headroom front and rear. To drive, it's near impossible to separate the two, as they both have the same powertrain and a negligible difference in acceleration (the S7 is just one-tenth behind the S6 to 60 mph). For the fashion-conscious crowd, the S7 will win every time, but the S6 offers much of the same for less money.
Many buyers considering the S6 will probably wonder if the high price is worth it over the regular A6. The regular A6 begins at $54,900, nearly $20,000 less than the S6. Although refined and well-equipped, it means you'll have to be happy with four-cylinder power in the form of the 2.0-liter turbo with 248 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. A better comparison would be the $59,800 Audi A6 55 TFSI, which uses a 3.0-liter V6 engine and generates 335 hp and 369 lb-ft. It'll hit 60 mph in 5.1 seconds, not much slower than the S6, although in base trim it has fewer seating adjustments, no virtual cockpit, and does without the S6's sportier interior and exterior add-ons. If you want an Audi A6 with V6 power, the 55 TFSI in one of its lower two trims represents a sizable saving over the S6, but the latter does feel more special inside and out. There isn't a bad choice here, and your budget will dictate the final decision.
The most popular competitors of 2020 Audi S6: