Richard Whitehead finds a car vastly improved by its new technology - in most ways.
Road Test: Audi A6 3.0 TFSi Quattro S tronic
"In 200 metres, turn left," says the disembodied female voice. Pause. "Turn left."
"Where?" I ask, looking for a gap in the drystone wall that borders the hillside to the left. This is Sicilian farmland so it is rugged, filled with rocks and scree and, located as it is close to the southernmost tip of Italy, completely unpredictable.
"There," shouts my pasenger animatedly, pointing towards a small break in the wall, which opens into a narrow, white path, paved around the time that Cosa Nostra was founded and broken up by generations of farm wagons. "That'll be the one."
It clearly isn't, but we take it anyway. My passenger is Jeff Mannering, the regional managing director for Audi, so he must show confidence in all his cars' systems, and the Audi A6's optional 20cm multimedia interface (MMI Navigation Plus), stocked with Google Maps and a trackpad that allows you to "write" in your destination, is a beauty. The big Australian is a big player in the Middle East car scene so you tend to do what he says.
Mannering is sitting in the offside back seat and has plenty of room. He spends much of his time speaking to his boss in Ingolstadt while his mobile phone wanders in and out of reception on these isolated roads 100 kilometres south-east of Palermo, the island's capital. "Look, Stefan, I'm going to make a call on that ..." Expletive. Shake the phone. Redial. "As I was saying, Stefan ..." Repeat.
He is also keen to find out more about this car, constantly asking for my opinions on ride quality, braking, steering, and pointing out bits of kit like the Adaptive Cruise Control - "You can let it do all the driving for you; you just control the steering. I once left it to perform what was almost an emergency stop. It was a bit hairy but it worked," he says - and the optional air suspension of this supercharged V6, 3.0L TFSi model with Quattro four-wheel drive. The A6 is one of Audi's bulk sellers so getting this upgrade right is a big deal for the company.
They've clearly got the looks right for this seventh generation of the car. The most recent iteration of Audi face is striking here, not least because of the mystic aura the front lights add to it. The optional LED headlight kit, with its sequence of seven square diodes, is imposing and incorporates daytime running lights, cornering lights, highway lights and all-weather lights, which replace conventional fog lights. Audi claims that, at night, the amount of light these beams give off resembles daytime.
The car is a smidgen shorter and lower than its predecessor but its wheelbase has grown significantly and the front overhang is now 8cm shorter. Key developments for the A6 include a 15 per cent weight reduction, the result of using 20 per cent aluminium within the body including the bonnet, doors and front fenders. The previous model used steel.
It gets Active Lane Assist, which detects lane markings using video-camera feedback, and helps the driver steer back into the lane if the vehicle drifts. It can also tell if the driver's steering is intentional or not and intervenes accordingly. Night Vision Assistant is just that, and detects living objects on the road using a thermal imaging camera and marks them in red. The image is projected to the driver in the gauge display and/or the new full-colour head-up display. An audio alert is also signalled to the driver. Parking Assistant can manoeuvre the A6 in both parallel and perpendicular parking spaces. All the driver needs to do is brake and accelerate.
Driving-wise, this is every bit an Audi. It feels incredibly stiff, has good thrust - good enough to reach 100kph in just 5.5 seconds - and the S tronic seven-speed box allows precise kickdown and selection. It steers surely, corners ably and brakes responsively. There are absolutely no surprises here; were he alive today, Benjamin Franklin might have amended his notable quote to: "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and Audi dynamics."
The rutted track is really starting to break up now. Tall grass grows on either side so there's no room to turn back and what's ahead looks better suited to a farm vehicle. The only way is up, so the air suspension comes in useful, good for another 20 mm of height to get us over and past a series of potholes.
There's no way this is the route we had planned. While the MMI might be a beauty, it is definitely wrong; but on the bright side, it's amusing to see Google's satellite view of where you are. The road in the image is rut-perfect and the display updates absolutely seamlessly. It is part of a wider system that is considered an Audi breakthrough. It requires a mobile phone SIM card and a data contract, and once in place, it overlays Google Maps onto the proprietary system as well as creating a WiFi hot spot throughout the cabin good for connecting eight devices. Unfortunately, the Google option won't be available in the UAE.
An already excellent cabin has been given a makeover with an attractive new dash and the availability of new timber and metallic inlays. There is more headroom than before to add to good forward and lateral space front and back. The front seats have been redesigned for the better and the finish is outstanding across the board.
After a deafening number of loud chassis scrapes against Sicilian road surface, dozens of U-turn bends and even one stretch where the track disappeared, we reach a sleepy hillside town. The disembodied voice still urges us to continue along the most impossible routes - "In 50 metres, take a blind left into somebody's garage before making an immediate right up the stairs and into the guest bathroom."
But we know better than to follow her directions; there are road signs here and we are back on the map. Mannering has achieved some mobile reception and is happily talking to Stefan for the 14th time today; the sun is out, the roads are excellent and Audi has released an A6 entirely suitable for the nameplate. The world is a good place to be.