"I have seen the future, and it works." I first came across these words when they were used by the inimitable Royce Creasey, writing in Bike magazine about his favourite obsession, feet-first motorcycles. Then, he was talking about a radical new type of motorcycle called the Quasar, created by Malcolm Newell and Ken Leaman in the late Seventies. OK, so it had the engine and transmission of a Reliant Robin, but it also had a roof and a hammock instead of a seat. Creasey likened the experience of riding it to being at the controls of a fighter jet, such was speed and security of its handling, thanks to the incredibly low centre of gravity.
Fast forward to today, and the fighter jet analogy still applies, though at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is technology that defines the character of the new Audi A6 completely, but long gone are the days when manufacturers would boast of the size of the hard disk built into their cars, or compare it to the number of computers which took man to the moon. Quite simply, the A6 would not be the car it is without this all-pervasive technology, but although it is omnipresent, it is also completely unobtrusive.
Audi first unveiled this seventh generation of its ‘sporty executive sedan' on the island of Sardinia, where it proved to be agile and sure-footed on the island's tortuous, narrow roads. No such challenges are presented by the roads around Abu Dhabi which are wide, flat and arrow-straight, though mercifully, we have the Yas Marina Circuit for some (almost completely) unrestricted fun.
First things first. The new version of the A6 is, as you would expect, more powerful, faster, better equipped and better finished than its predecessor. But in a radical departure from current car-making orthodoxy, it is also lighter, smaller and more frugal, despite offering larger interior space. The front wheels have been moved forward 70mm, creating more space in the cabin and a shorter front overhang which actually makes the car appear longer.
In the body, extensive use of aluminium (now 25 per cent of the car's structure) and careful weight management throughout all of the car's components have led to a significant reduction in weight, despite the presence of quattro drive, stop-start systems and other technologies. In the Middle East, we get a choice of two petrol engines; a normally aspirated 2.8-litre V6 FSI producing 204bhp and 280Nm of torque, and a 3.0-litre V6 TFSI supercharged lump pushing out an impressive 300bhp and 440Nm of torque.
Both engines drive through a seven-speed S-tronic twin-clutch gearbox and permanent quattro four-wheel drive, with the further option of a sports differential for the rear. We'll have to wait a while for the inevitable S and RS versions to follow, but Audi was kind enough to bring over a couple of their deeply impressive 3.0-litre TDi diesels to try.
On the road it's time to start experimenting with the MMI Touch and try out the various driving settings. To be honest, the ‘Comfort' and ‘Efficiency' settings err too much on the side of caution for such an overtly sporting car, dulling the throttle response and changing to the highest possible gear earlier than you would choose.
In these softer settings there is a greater degree of body roll, but for schlepping up and down the highways there's nothing you can fault. ‘Auto' is better, responding to your driving style and sharpening all the responses when called on to do so, but the best is ‘Dynamic'. This will allow you to hold on to a gear all the way to the limiter, and has the ability to double-downshift on fast approaches to a bend. You have a choice of ways to change gear — leave it in auto, push the lever right for a sequential change, or use the paddles fixed to the back of the wheel. Best option? Leave the shifting up to the computer while you concentrate on where you're going.
There is a final option in the driver settings, and that's called ‘Individual'. For enthusiastic owners, this will be the default setting. It lets you set the car up the way you prefer, with the opportunity to fine-tune the driving dynamics to suit your own driving style. We didn't have time to experiment, so any time Audi wants to let us have an A6 as a long termer, I'll report back…
The overriding impression though is the extent to which each selection on the MMI controller alters the character of the car. Where previously in some cars pressing the ‘Sport' button made it louder but not faster, switching from Comfort to Efficiency to Dynamic fundamentally alters the character of the car, changing the way it communicates with you through its responses to your inputs. Deeply impressive.
Riding in the back as a passenger gave me the opportunity to consider the interior. It is beautifully finished, all soft-touch plastics, real wood and silkily brushed aluminium. There's a highlight band of the metal sweeping across the full width of the dash, and it integrates the various elements very nicely. Not so nice on our demonstrator car was the colour scheme — heavy black roof lining and dash, dark wood inserts and disturbingly bright custard-yellow leather on everything else. Fortunately, there are much more aesthetically pleasing combinations available.
The driver's seat is very comfortable, grippy and supportive, though I thought it was a little short under the thighs. I thought at the time and confirmed later this was only because I couldn't find the lever to lengthen it.
In the back there was plenty of room thanks to the extended wheelbase, but an unfortunate location for the door speaker puts it just where your knee wants to be.
Finally, the bit I'd been waiting for all day —time to get out on the track. We're using the North Loop of the circuit, shortened slightly but with an interesting new downhill combination onto the back straight — first a hard left over a blind summit, then a fast right followed by a fast left that lets you unwind across the full width of the track. Highly entertaining. We're out on the track alone in the cars, but under strict instructions not to overtake the leading instructor. Happily, our instructor Jason sticks strictly to the road speed limit of 120kph, he just doesn't slow down for the bends! As always, it takes a few laps to relax into the car, to get out of my bad habit of ‘overdriving' everything and just let the car and technology do their thing.
Then it really begins to flow, and allows you to get on the power early for a beautifully controlled and subtle four-wheel drift. In reality, I suspect the computer really flatters a ham-fisted driver such as myself, rather more than I'd like to admit. No matter, Jason and his little flock managed to get through our allocation of laps rather quicker than anybody else, and we had time for a couple more. The A6 is a lot of car to be flinging round a track with such abandon, but it didn't once complain.
The final session is where it all began to get a bit surreal. This was where we experienced the Adaptive Cruise Control and Self-Parking systems. ACC uses a combination of radar, camera, infra-red and ultrasonics to hold station behind the car in front, up to speeds of over 200kph, and down to zero. That's right, it will brake to a complete halt without you touching the pedal at all. And that's a very difficult thing to do (if you do brake manually, you disengage the ACC and have to start again). But no, our instructors insisted — don't brake, let the car do it for you. That takes a great deal of nerve the first time, and I for one found it a real test of self-control.
Next we had Self-Parking, both parallel and reverse. Simply tell the car you want to park, drive along until it detects a suitable space, and then leave the rest to the car. It will slot you into the space perfectly first time every time, and you don't touch either the wheel or the accelerator, it will drive and steer itself. Your only responsibility is the brakes. And it will get into a tiny gap — 250mm either side of the car — without hesitation. An object lesson in how to park.
And this is where we get to the future. The Audi A6 is a car that can virtually drive itself. It can hold station in traffic, and with the Lane Assistance function, steer too. You probably really could travel from Abu Dhabi to Dubai without touching anything, including the wheel. It is a car that can park itself, steering accurately into the smallest space. It is a car that can brake itself, including to a full emergency stop, if it sensed the need to. It has a head-up display just like that fighter jet it so closely resembles, and who knows where it will go when we finally get the Google Maps-based sat-nav already available in Europe.
I have long been wary of computers taking away information from the driver, interfering with the driving experience and detracting from the pleasure and skill of controlling a car. But in the A6, I encountered something new. A car where the presence of technology is such that it adds a new dimension to the whole experience, elevating the act of driving to a new level. This has been my glimpse of the future and, for the first time for me, it works.