Audi spent the 1990’s in the US trying to claw back from the death blow provided by the Unintended Acceleration scandal of 1986. Those were dark days for the mark, and some people saw Audi as a dead brand walking. That all changed with the release of the 1996 A4, which created a stir both stylistically and mechanically. It was as if Audi had thrown off some fog that had surrounded it and developed a car that people actually wanted.
The question for many automotive observers was “Is the A4 a one hit wonder for Audi, or is this the start of something new? Could there be some life in the brand after all?”
The new C5 version of the A6 would provide the answer.
Audi released a new version of its A6 at the 1997 Geneva Auto Show. The styling was revolutionary, the mechanicals top notch, and it was obvious that Audi was moving up to directly challenge the likes of the BMW 5 series and Mercedes-Benz E class. Europe received a wide variety of engines, including turbocharged diesel I4’s & V6’s, as well as gas I4’s, turbocharged I4’s, V6’s and V8’s.
The US received its new A6 for the 1998 model year, and while the style was hailed as groundbreaking the engine was … adequate. Audi brought over a new 30 valve, 2.8 liter V6 to the US, producing 200 horsepower, which provided competitive but unexceptional performance. The sleek body style had a low .28 coefficient of drag, but the racy exterior appeared to be writing checks that the engine couldn’t cash.
That all changed for 2000 when Audi introduced their 2.7 liter twin turbocharged V6 and added the 4.2 liter V8 from the A8 to the A6. Suddenly, performance fans had options, and buyers and the automotive press took notice. Car and Driver named the A6 to its Ten Best List in 2000 and 2001, and other publications were similarly positive.
The A6 was a home run, proving that the previous A4 was not a fluke and that Audi was back. Sales increased significantly and Audi was no longer in danger of becoming the next Oldsmobile, Pontiac or Plymouth.
The 200 20V had served me well for six years and, while still reliable and quite spritely at 188,000 miles, the manual transmission was becoming a challenge as I spent more time working in the car. The debut of the 2.7T model of the A6 was the first car that I’d seen with an automatic transmission that could provide performance and economy comparable to my 20V. Many manufacturers were making fast cars by then, but finding one that also delivered good fuel economy was a tall order. I hated buying a new car, but also didn’t want a first year model, so if I wanted a 2.7T, I’d need to order a second year 2001 as soon as they were released.
I researched where I could, from the official Audi site, to automotive publications, to Audiworld.com, which was the main internet forum for Audi’s at that time. I visited a “Prestigious” Denver Audi dealer for a test drive. They only had a six speed manual in stock, so we took it for a spin up in the mountains and I was sold. Smooth power, good economy, and good handling – everything was fine except that the salesperson was smug and dismissive. Now, I have a personal policy that says that I don’t put up with that when I’m spending my $$, so I thanked him for his time and left.
Later that week I went to another Audi dealer, prepared for the automotive equivalent of a proctological exam or root canal. By some alignment of the stars, the young salesperson didn’t sport slicked backed hair and a gold tooth.
Instead, here was a knowledgeable enthusiast, one who actually drove an S4 and was familiar with more than just the Audi sales brochure. Hallelujah! Because these were in short supply in the US, I knew that there wouldn’t be much negotiating room before I ever got to the dealer. But I gave Ken (the salesperson) my order, he entered it in, took my deposit, received the confirmation and made the process as painless as possible. I was still allergic to car dealers, but Ken had made the process palatable and served as a credit to the industry.
But, ordering the car meant that I was in for a wait, as the electrons had to travel to Germany and be entered into the factory’s production schedule. From there, Teutonic craftsmen lovingly hand formed each part the factory produced the car, put it on a boat for its journey to the Port of Houston, finally making its way to arrive in Denver. Ken kept me apprised of each step – nice customer service!
So why was the A6 suddenly different from what Audi had offered before?
The 2.7T V6 was introduced in the A6 and the smaller (A4 based) S4. It featured five valves per cylinder, double overhead cams on each head, two turbochargers and two intercoolers, all providing 250 hp at 5,900 rpm and 258 lbs. of torque at only 1800 rpm. The Bi-Turbo’s numbers don’t tell the entire story however, as the torque rating didn’t drop after the peak as with most engines, but stayed at that 258 figure all the way to 4800 rpm. The engine started pulling down low and didn’t stop until redline. All this power was put to the pavement by the Quattro all-wheel drive system.
The V8 provided 300 hp and was visually distinguished by a unique grill and fenders with larger flares for larger wheels. Although plenty quick, it was aimed more at the executive versus enthusiast market. It sold in smaller numbers than its siblings, but provided strong competition to midsize V8 offerings from BMW and Mercedes-Benz. The 2.7T was offered with a six speed manual or five speed Tiptronic automatic, while the V8 was automatic only as befitted their targeted markets.
An automatic of any kind, let alone the Tiptronic, had never been offered with a performance engine from Audi in the US before. Getting the ZF5HP seemed like a great solution to my work/car issues, as it was certainly easier than me trying to grow more arms and hands!
After months of waiting, I received an email notifying me that the car had finally arrived at the dealership. It still had to go through its pre-delivery dealer prep, but it was closer! Of course, I received this notice on a Sunday, and dealerships in Colorado weren’t allowed to be open on Sundays, so a little sleuthing in their back lot would have to do.
The car that I ordered was “Racing Green Pearl Effect” on the outside, with “Tungsten Gray” leather on the inside. It had the Sport Package (seats & suspension) and about 92 airbags throughout the interior.
It also had the winter package, meaning heated front and rear seats and a heated steering wheel. The Bose stereo sported a CD changer and the Tiptronic had automatic and manual shift modes. One of the nice features now common on cars but not available on my 20V was the 60/40 fold down rear seat, which meant that I could carry six foot loads inside.
The interior was a great place to be, with an upscale design, full instrumentation and red instrument lighting. Everything fell readily to hand, and it had real live cupholders – a first for me! This was another car that held four full sized people comfortably, and the gray leather was a nice change from the black in the 20V. The sport seats were bolstered, grippy, and endured my entire nine year ownership without showing any rips, wear or tears.
The rear seats had their own cup holders, seat heaters, AC vents and a cigarette lighter in the back of the console.
Hmm…a cigarette lighter in the back where kids would be travelling…what could go wrong?
One day, I looked back and discovered that a one inch hole had mysteriously appeared on the top of the transmission tunnel near the back seat. WHAT?!? This is a NEW CAR!! WHAT HAPPENED?? Either gremlins had accompanied the car from the Fatherland, or my seven year old son had decided to check out what happens when you push in a cigarette lighter and place it on carpet. Although the car was now officially “broken in”, it wasn’t the end of the world and I never got it repaired. My son is 27 now, and the value in reminding him of this incident and my threats to do a replay on his own car more than make up for his youthful curiosity!
Even though the car had the sports suspension, I added larger stabilizer bars front and rear along with larger wheels and tires. The car handled as if it was on rails, and was very enjoyable in the mountains. It was also great on the street, as my kids still have scrambled brains from my sawing the steering wheel back and forth on deserted roads heading home. They also knew that Dad was crazy, so I never had to remind them to buckle their seat belt when they climbed in that A6.
As you may have surmised from my previous COAL’s, I find that every car can provide lessons, and it’s up to us whether we want to learn them or not. I upgraded the wheels on the A6 to a set of nine spoke Hartman wheels, a quality manufacturer with a good product.
I live in the Denver area, and we’re known for some pretty changeable weather. In winter, it’s not unusual to have freeze, thaw, and refreeze cycles all in the same day. So what’s the problem?
See that nice rim on the wheel, that nice flat horizontal surface? Imagine that it’s morning and you’re experiencing a good bit of heavy wet snow. Early afternoon comes with some melting, so the snow slides around that wheel collecting on the lower surface. In early evening everything has frozen again, and you’re ready to jump in your car and take that relaxing drive home.
Have you ever driven with a wheel weight missing on your car? Remember how your car vibrated as you got up to speed? Multiply that times 20 and you have the mystery of the self-vibrating Audi. As the wheel spun centrifugal force caused the snow to compact and fuse on the flat surface, something that couldn’t be removed without military grade explosives or an overnight in a heated garage.
It was quite the surprise when it happened the first time, and after that I tried to clear as much snow as possible off the wheel before driving. There were a few times when I dared not get on the highway for fear of losing fillings in my teeth or leaving car parts strewn in my wake due to the violent vibrations.
I began to notice that other wheels, if they had any lip to them at all, were obviously (or subtlety) sloped to the outside edge, which allowed snow and slush to be slung off the wheel by that centrifugal force. The Hartman wheel probably worked fine in 99% of the country, because those areas where it snowed and stayed frozen would not have this issue. Since then, I’ve always looked carefully if I want to purchase wheels for a vehicle, so as not to repeat this experience. And that, as they say, is the lesson learned.
At the expiration of the 50,000 mile factory warranty, I decided not to put a high performance tune on this car as I began reading disturbing reports of turbos that occasionally went “boom” and transmissions that no longer transmitted power. The Tiptronic appeared to work great at 325 hp/320 ft/lbs. or less, but higher numbers (which the 2.7T was capable of) made it less happy. My inner frugality didn’t want to bump up the performance and take a chance on a $6,000 transmission repair. The ZF5HP was very smooth, but also crazy expensive to repair. And many Audi dealers offered a special deal if you blew a turbo. If something happened to one turbo you got a package deal of “buy two for the price of two” with an eye watering price tag.
“Power is fun, too much power is expensive”. These are the things that nightmares are made of. Fortunately, these nightmares were not reality for me as the engine stayed together quite nicely. I tend to keep my cars (nine years in this case) versus being a trader, and there was no way that I was going to be a test case on high power longevity.
The A6 was reliable though, with the most major repair being the replacement of a small torque converter seal. Like a small blue box from Tiffany & Co. though, this seal showed that expensive things can come in small packages, as repair required replacement of the torque converter. Could I choose a different blue box please?
The front suspension was an ingenious and innovative five link design, offering excellent handling and terrific suspension geometry. Unfortunately, these magic links also required about 156 bushings to function properly, and these bushings eventually wore and required replacement. Great design, but next time, maybe the suspension engineer can specify a bit more durable bushing – all 156 or so of them. OK, I didn’t count each bushing, but trust me, it’s a bunch.
In looking at my Cars Of A Lifetime, I realize that most cars have, with a few exceptions, shared three basic traits, those being that the car is practical, has good performance and has reasonable economy. During my nine years of A6 ownership, another vehicle was added to my stable that would only have two of those three attributes, but it’s a vehicle that’s been with me for 16 years and won’t be leaving anytime soon.
The subject of our next COAL will be this longest tenured vehicle, another one of my all time Top 5, and answer the question of “Which of the three traits is our mystery vehicle missing?” Stay tuned for the answer and more in our next edition of COAL…