Audi has a new mission for its S-series of performance cars: Instead of competing directly against high-enders like BMW's M-series, the S cars are aiming a bit lower. So how well do the S6 and S7 fulfill their objectives? Not well, as it turns out -- and that's a good thing.
Less for the S?
The first thing the Audi folks told us at the press launch for the S6 and S7 was that they are dialing back the S-series. New S models, they said, would essentially be A models with big engines -- in other words, the S6 would compete with the BMW 550i and Mercedes-Benz E550 rather than the M5 and E63 AMG, while the big performance guns would be reserved for the RS models, only a couple of which (RS5, TT-RS) are available in the States.
Then they let us drive the cars, and I immediately realized that they had lied. They lied! Attention Pants Control, we have ignition.
If the S6 (or S7) is no more than an A6 (or A7) with a bigger engine, then I'm the King of Sweden*. Okay, it's true they could have turned the power up; the 4-liter twin-turbo V8 produces 420 horsepower -- a mere twenty more than BMW's 550i -- and 406 lb-ft of torque, and yet this same engine is set up for 520 horsepower in the bigger S8. But the connecting hardware is serious: The engine drives all four wheels through Audi's 7-speed "S-Tronic" twin-clutch automatic transmission, which delivers snappy shifts and instant power without the slushy feel of a traditional torque-converter automatic. And out back is Audi's torque vectoring rear axle, which shifts power to the outside rear wheel when the driver gets on the gas coming out of a turn.
* I realize that, since few of you will actually meet me in person, it is possible that I could be the King of Sweden. So for the sake of clarification, let me state definitively that I am not the King of Sweden.
More than just a big engine
Where the S6 and S7 really excel is on twisty tarmac. I drove them back-to-back on the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road, and just thinking back on the experience quickens my pulse. Most all-wheel-drive Audis are quick and relatively drama-free, but the S6 and S7 add a level of excitement that reminded me of my first RS4 drive back in 2007.
What makes the S6 and S7 so truly fantastically amazingly amazing is the air suspension. For those unfamiliar, an air suspension replaces traditional steel springs with an air-filled rubber cushion. Air suspensions are often used in applications where a level ride or adjustable ride height are desirable, but they also do wonders for handling. Steel-sprung suspensions have a ride-handling trade-off -- one gets worse as the other gets better -- but air suspensions aren't affected to nearly the same degree, a loophole that both the S6 and the S7 exploit to the max. End result: Select "Dynamic" mode -- which sets the steering, transmission, accelerator pedal, and shock absorbers to their most aggressive levels -- and you can attack the curves at speeds that would be impossible in a two-wheel-drive car, with levels of grip and traction that border on the unbelievable.
Both the S6 and S7 share the same suspension and steering setup; the S7 has a slightly wider stance, and that translates to a bit more grip and a bit less drama. Rush the S6 into a corner and the tires will start wailing fairly early, but you can pretty much ignore this and press on -- getting this car to break its grip on the pavement requires a supreme act of suicidal will. The S7 felt even more reluctant to let go, although I did drive it second and therefore had the technique down pat -- that technique being to accelerate more and worry less. Both cars are very quick, very tidy, very easy to drive fast and a lot of fun.
So what are they like at a more serene pace? Well, other than having to fight the urge to crack open the accelerator and blow past every slowpoke in your path, they are surprisingly docile and comfortable. Audi has even fitted the V8 with a cylinder-deactivation feature, which allows it to duck under the gas-guzzler tax with EPA estimates of 17 MPG city and 27 MPG highway -- just 1 MPG less than the 3-liter "A" versions. Of course, you can't exactly expect that in the real world, not if you drive the way these cars want to be driven -- I averaged around 12.5 MPG in both.
Audi vs. the competition
Audi is charging $72,795 for the S6 and $79,695 for the S7. For comparison, the all-wheel-drive BMW 550i xDrive starts at $65,595, while Cadillac's 556 hp CTS-V goes for $65,410. I would argue that the S6 and S7 are in a different class than the Bimmer, although the rear-drive CTS-V is just as thrilling on a curvy road. The Audis are certainly a better deal than the Mercedes E63 AMG ($90,704) and CLS63 AMG ($95,775), both of which are very fast but not quite so agile in the curves.
Many people will compare the A6 and A7 to the BMW M5, but that car is in a different class. The M5 is a proper beast, with a twin-turbo V8 that bests the S6 and S7 by 400ccs, 140 hp, and 94 lb-ft of torque, all of which is fed to half the number of wheels. Set in its most aggressive performance mode, the M5 is a real handful -- it will allow you to hurt yourself in ways that the S6 and S7 won't. It also costs nearly twenty grand more than the S6.
Would I buy one of these Audis? Hell yeah, I would! The A6 is one of my favorite luxury cars, and the S6 is a bigger, faster, stickier version -- what's not to love? As for the S7, well, as much as I love the styling -- it reminds me of classic European sports cars of the 1960s -- I don't know if I could bring myself to pay six grand extra for the slicker styling (and bigger trunk, and reduced rear-seat headroom). But maybe I'm just a skinflint.
Bottom line: The S6 and S7 are two more outstanding additions to an already-outstanding lineup. They're very quick, easy and enjoyable to drive fast, and aggressively priced compared to the competition. Let's hope Audi keeps on lying. -- Aaron Gold
What I liked about the Audi S6 and S7
- Big power, big fun
- All-wheel-drive grip adds a layer of safety
- Reasonable pricing compared to the compeitiion
What I didn't like:
- S7 has a massive price premium
- Could be faster
- Price tag is still pretty hefty
- S6 and S7 are the new hot-rod versions of the A6 and A7
- Price range: $72,795 - $98,120
- EPA fuel economy estimates: 17 MPG city/27 MPG highway
- Where built: Germany
- Best rivals: Cadillac CTS-V, BMW M5, Mercedes E63 AMG