Five-series: two words that have dominated the executive sector over the last decade. But in months, things haven't been going to plan for BMW's brand icon. Improved rival products and controversial styling means European sales have dipped.
Step forward the new Audi A6. Its predecessor was happy to take a rear seat as Mercedes and BMW fought the battle of business class. Instead, Ingolstadt concentrated on retail customers. In 1999, global sales of the A6 were 40,615 but they reached 70,824 last year. Now the A6 is ready to fill the 5-series shaped hole in the market.
When new A6 goes on UK sale in June, Audi expects to sell 4,500 saloons alongside the current A6 Avant. In its first full year more than 8,000 units are expected to be sold – down slightly on the 8,700 units sold in 2002 but still bucking the trend of overall decline in this sector. Most of the business will be conquest sales from BMW or Jaguar customers.
Executive cars used to be synonymous with fleet. Not any more. Business sales of current A6 have slumped 20% so far this year as retailers cash in on drivers opting out of traditional company car schemes to avoid big tax bills.
What really makes the car a threat to its rivals is its size. In the small gap between old A6 and new A8, Audi has created its own micro segment. Length is up by 120mm while wheelbase increases by 83mm. In real terms that means better rear leg room, better boot space – 546-litres make it bigger than an A8's – and better handling.
Audi has some controversial styling of its own. Head turning looks put it on the radar of the fashion-conscious buyers Audi is looking to attract. Out goes the boring jacket and tie, in favour of a style offensive that could make this car hard work on the showroom floor.
So skip the walk round after pointing out the coupe-like roofline and get prospects in the cockpit where the difference is deafening. From a quality assuring 'thud' as the door closes to the first touch of leather steering wheel, the A6 screams class.
The new A6 also comes with new Euro IV engines. From launch customers will choose from four powerplants – 335bhp 4.2-litre V8, 255bhp 3.2V6 FSI, 177bhp 2.4V6 FSI and 225bhp 3.0V6 TDI. By September the entry level 2.0-litre TDI will be on stream, accounting for 60% of sales.
The A6 is as striking as the Audi dealerships. This car hints at future products and shows Audi is a brand that knows the way forward.
Strengths: Build quality, class-leading space
Weaknesses: Badge snobbery, overly firm ride
Opportunities: Capitalise on BMW's controversial styling
Threat: New corporate face could put customers off
USP: The next must- have executive
Prices: £24,175 to £42,775
Engines: petrol: 2.4 V6, 3.2 V6, 4.2 V8; diesel: 2.0 4cyl, 3.0 V6.
Performance: 0-62mph 6.1-8.9secs; top speed 144-155mph
Efficiency: 223-278g/km CO2; 24-34mpg
Transmission: 6sp manual, 6sp tiptronic
Servicing: Variable – according to service indicator
Rivals: BMW 5-series, Mercedes-Benz E-class