In an era of downsizing, it’s pretty wild to think that the last-generation Audi S6 knocked at our door with a 5.2-litre naturally aspirated V10 boasting 429bhp and 328lb ft back in 2006. ‘Cor, what a range-topper,’ you might reasonably exclaim. Then you’d be reminded that there was the even more powerful RS6 positioned above it. ‘Cor! I remember the days!’ you’d gasp. Predictably, the new S6 drops to a twin-turbocharged V8 with more power and torque: 414bhp and 406lb ft of it to be precise. Less predictably, the new S6 can also drop to a four cylinder in certain low-stress situations, yielding an impressive 29.1mpg and 226g/km – a big improvement on that V10’s 21mpg and 319g/km
This 4.0-litre V8 is the same basic engine as that found in the new entry-level – but more powerful – Bentley Continental GT, and my goodness it’s smooth. Set off, in fact, and you might wonder if you’ve been sold the apocryphal engineless carriage after a downhill test drive, so refined and buttery is the powerplant. This in turn means that, far from jarring with the V8 experience, the down-to-four-cylinders bit is barely detectable, the camshaft followers being discreetly nudged over to prevent valves opening and closing and, therefore, fuel and air entering combustion chambers while four pistons rise and fall impotently.
The refinement isn’t all down to the smooth engine: it owes much to Audi’s active noise cancelling system, which monitors the cabin for unseemly sounds and fires other ones back at them through the speakers. This should all sound like a Dalek temper tantrum, but again it’s impressive and lends a hushed calm that pairs well with the excellent interior with its soft leather and gently damped storage-compartment lids and sliders.
If you don’t want to nod off altogether, press the throttle even moderately hard and you’ll hear that V8 sing again, a slightly muffled, woofly thunder of a soundtrack that suits this Q car down to the ground. Wind it right out and it’s incredibly linear and very rapid, only the relatively stingy 6500rpm redline yielding cause for complaint.
A seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox is the only option in the S6, and it’s a largely successful marriage with smooth, rapid-fire shifts, but on occasion it can be clunky, and feels consistently out of sorts on part-throttle downshifts where what feels like a slipping clutch abruptly gives way to a resumption of performance.
It’s Audi’s chassis and steering set-ups that usually draw criticism from motoring hacks, often during tests on UK roads. Now, we’ll have to dither a little here, seeing as the test route seemed purpose-built to take in little more than German autobahns and quaint little towns, but first impressions are pretty positive. Audi’s Drive Select system allows you to choose from Comfort or Dynamic steering, or a chameleon-like Auto compromise. In Comfort the electric steering has no feel, but it’s easy and light and, crucially, actually weights up meaningfully when you’re trying to avoid the scenery. Select Dynamic and things become unnecessarily heavy to the point where you’re fighting the steering when you try to bully the S6’s nose into tighter corners at speed.
Drive Select also works on the chassis, and in Comfort the ride – smooth roads, remember – felt pretty cushy, while Dynamic really tied the body down but transmitted far more surface patter. Make sure you put in a good stint on UK roads before putting your cash down.
Drive hard and the S6 feels very competent, and you can feel its four-wheel drive hardware dexterously juggling torque around, sometimes pulling you through a bend with the front tyres nibbling for traction, sometimes the rear powering you on, but it’s mass becomes apparent when you really chuck it around and, ultimately, it lacks the purity of the BMW 550i. None of this is a surprise, and none of it would presumably deter the S6’s potential buyers.
More important to these buyers is the all-weather surety, that fantastic engine, the sumptuous interior and, not to forget, 565 litres of luggage space – a 5-series estate holds 560 litres, an E-class estate 695 litres – with even more inviting emptiness accessed by pulling a pair of latches just inside the rear hatch to instantly flatten the split-folding rear seats.
In terms of pure fun, the S6 is easily beaten, but as an all-weather performance workhorse, few cars can compete.