Audi A6 4.2

Let's face it, Audi has always dwelled in the shadow of Mercedes-Benz and BMW. If you want an American-based analogy, it has always played Chrysler to Mercedes-Benz' Cadillac and BMW's Lincoln. Sure, Auto Union had a proud if sometimes swastika-laden motorsports history in the Thirties, but in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties Audi (the successor company to Auto Union) scored technical breakthrough after technical breakthrough, highlighted by its evolving quattro all-wheel-drive system. Still, Audi has never completely established itself as a viable alternative to the best of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, but one of its latest offerings, the A6 4.2 brings it one step closer. This is a car that offers superbly simple styling, huge technical merit, great comfort and, on top of that, it's a ball to drive. Take that, Mercedes.

Why is the Audi A6 4.2 so worthy a vehicle? You can sum it up in those two numbers separated by a decimal point: 4.2. The other variants of the A6 line -- the A6 2.8 and the A6 2.7T -- are very competent cars in their own rights, but the substitution of the 4.2-liter 300 horsepower V-8 engine sends the model into a much higher orbit. Of course, there is nothing new about dropping an oversized engine into a medium-sized car. Pontiac did it with the original GTO, and BMW turned the same trick with its fabled 2002, but it's nice to know the trick still works. Not only is the A6 4.2 a powerhouse that can vault from zero to 60 mph in a mere 6.5 seconds, but the smoothly linear V-8 power also makes around-town driving a study in luxury. And that luxurious "power-on-demand" feel is enhanced by the incredibly sophisticated electronically controlled five-speed transmission that offers more than 200 shift programs to match individual drivers' preferences. (No, you don't have to choose one; the transmission figures out the one that's right for you based on how you drive.) In addition, all this delicious power is routed to all four wheels through Audi's current-generation quattro system, which results in remarkable road holding and a feeling of complete control.

Oh, did we mention that the car is a looker? While diehard fans of chrome and Asian adherents of "surface excitement" might take issue, we see the Audi A6 as one of the purest automotive shapes out there -- everything you need and nothing you don't. It's an excellent evolution of the Audi 5000 shape that was a landmark design of the 1980's.

The interior has the same understated handsomeness as the exterior, and the cleanly styled leather seats provide sumptuous comfort. The gauges and switchgear are equally attractive and no-nonsense, and despite its luxury status the interior offers useful features like fold-down rear seatbacks that extend the cargo space to nearly station wagon-like proportions. The trunk-lid is big, and its hydraulic struts hold it far out of the way for easy loading and unloading.

On the safety front, the A6 4.2 improves on federally mandated driver and passenger airbags with front side airbags and inflatable "curtain-type" airbags that protect driver and passenger from contact with the side windows upon impact. Rear side airbags are an extra-cost option.

As to the driving experience, it is all you would expect it to be with 300 willing horsepower and a well-tuned sport suspension aided by all-wheel-drive. The A6 4.2 is just as responsive as you want it to be, while still offering the smooth ride of a luxury machine.

It's not our style to gush, but it's hard to find much to criticize about this particular piece. I guess we could take a shot at the $50K price tag, but we'd have to immediately qualify that by adding the price is not the least bit out of line versus the competition. So if you've recently made a bundle shorting Internet stocks (ouch!) you might want to take a look.

Jack R. Nerad, former editor of Motor Trend magazine, tests a car a week for his national syndicated radio show "America on the Road," which he co-hosts with Mike Anson.