Hail the return of the Audi superwagon

Audi S6 Avant: Calling it 'a wagon' is like calling a Pierre Cardin dress 'a frock.'
Audi S6 Avant: Calling it 'a wagon' is like calling a Pierre Cardin dress 'a frock.'

Back in the last gasps of 2012, I found myself at the wheel of a new twin-turbo V8-powered version of the Bentley Continental GT.

The new 4-litre engine lowered the entry price of the Conti to $325,000, 40-grand less than a 12-cylinder version, but still a sum that most of us would prefer to spend on our housing than our transport. The same engine, albeit detuned a fair bit, is now doing the same price-lowering trick with the new Audi S6. Out goes the previous car's 5.2-litre V10, in comes the new 4.0 twin-charger, and the price falls prey to gravity, again by $40,000. The new S6 wagon costs $159,500, that is more affordable than the S6 Avant's most direct competitor - the $258,000 Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG estate.

Perhaps the judges in the recent Ward's Engine of the Year awards should not have overlooked this new direct-injection V8 with the dual ‘hair-dryers' from the Volkswagen Group. For I'd have thought that the way it makes our luxury cars so much more affordable would have put it into contention for an award. Then there's the ongoing savings when you drive the new S6, which is an incredible 28 per cent more fuel-efficient than the previous V10 version. Bentley's savings with the new engine were even more noteworthy, the new V8 being 40 per cent lighter on fuel than the W12.

Yet the performance sacrifices made with this new twin-turbo V8 are minimal. In the case of the S6, the car is actually quicker than before. Well, it is in terms of the ability to accelerate from rest to legal speeds anyway.

This is due to the new engine's mechanical partner in increased efficiency - a seven-speed twin-clutch robo-manual gearbox complete with launch control. You activate the latter by pushing the stability control button once, then placing the left foot on the brake, and then all the way down on the throttle.

The revs rise to a steady 5000rpm, waiting for you to release the brake. When you do, the S6 gets off the blocks like an amped-up Usain Bolt, and three 6500rpm upshifts later hits 100kmh in an independently measured 4.3 seconds - fast enough to embarrass the 4.6 second 0-100 sprint of the E63 AMG.

It's also quicker than the 4.5 second sprint time of the more powerful Bentley, which develops 66 more kilowatts and 110 more newton metres of torque thanks mostly to the extra turbo boost pressure provided by a different engine management computer. This is a fine illustration of the less wasteful transfer of torque of the Audi's twin-clutch transmission as the Bentley opts for a conventional 8-speed automatic gearbox.

It was pretty hard not to compare the S6 with the Continental during my time with the Audi. Same engine, virtually the same powertrain, similar quilted stitching on the leather upholstery, similar sporty weighting of the steering wheel yet still lacking road feel, similarly stupendous levels of mechanical grip from similarly adaptive 4WD powertrains, etc. Brand management is both an art and a science at the Volkswagen Group, where multiple marques draw their automotive components from the same mechanical pool.

The S6 feels exactly like a Continental to drive with a Bauhaus-inspired wagon body placed over the platform and powertrain instead of that of a retrospective coupe. It is pretty much up to the interior designers to sort these two cars out. In comes Bentley's increased focus on colour and texture to rescue the British-badged car from a Teutonic weakness for dark and sombre cabins that the S6 also exhibits. You pay double the price of the Audi to get access to the same automotive interior designer, Robin Page, who the Queen commissions to fit out her Bentleys, and some will consider the extra spend is well worth it.

However the S6 Avant isn't just a supercar, it's a super-wagon, which means that you get more than double the luggage space in which to cart all the trappings of a Kiwi lifestyle. You can also fit a towbar, an extremely useful item scorned by most Bentley dealers. Not only is the new S6 Avant faster than a speeding locomotive, it can tow its own weight as well.

Sunday Star Times