Four Ring Cycle

1997’s A6 saw Audi choosing bravery over stylistic torpidude. A lesson they could do well to re-learn.

Was this the earliest application of the lower-door-mounted rub-strip? Image: autowp-ru

By the early 1990s, Audi appeared to have run out of steam as the successes of the previous decade began to fade. Having lit up the automotive firmament with technological marvels such as the Ursprünglich Quattro coupe and the aero-influenced C3 100 / 200 series, the early ’90s saw the four rings of Ingolstadt comparatively becalmed.

Consolidation was the operative word, the feeling along the Danube being that enough had been done to take BMW and Mercedes on their own terms. Shock and awe then, seemed no longer a requirement. But while much had been achieved image-wise, Audi’s products still presented a notably uneven proposition by comparison to fellow Bavarian and Swabian rivals.

Stylistically too, Audi’s designers appeared to have turned the thermostat down, with models like the ultra-conservative C4 100 / A6 of 1990 winning out over more avant garde proposals. But the centre would not hold and as the new decade arrived, change was once more afoot. Following the completion of the advanced and elegantly styled aluminium-bodied A8, Audi was faced with a choice for the next generation A6, scheduled for 1997. Should they once again play it safe or take a gamble?

Image: trueautosite

In 1992 Ingolstadt management was presented with three full-sized clays to establish the visual identity of their vital midliner. Fortunately for its stylist (and for us) the most radical of these proposals was selected. The car’s designer was Claus Potthoff, graduate of the prestigious Pforzheim Technical College, the alma mater of many a car designer over the years, including fellow graduate, (and current Volvo design chief) Thomas Inganlath.

Potthoff subsequently joined Mercedes-Benz, working under the eminent Dr. Johann Tomforde at Sindelfingen on advanced design projects, before being headhunted by Audi’s Hartmut Warkuss in 1991. With his C5 proposal frozen for production in 1994, its debut was three years later at the 1997 Geneva motor show.

Based on a stretched variant of the B5-series Passat platform, the C5 employed a more sophisticated chassis with aluminium chosen for its suspension arms and links. Mostly however, it was standard Audi fare: Longitudinally mounted engines, from a VW-sourced 1.8 litre turbo four at the lower end, to Ingolstadt’s own five valve 2.8 litre V6. Four-wheel drive was available with most engine sizes. Later on, a 4.2 litre V8 filled out the engine range in high performance S6 and RS6 models with Quattro (naturally) as standard.

But while the mechanical specification offered few surprises, the A6’s styling certainly did. While previous mid-line Audis retained a distinct three volume silhouette, the C5 adopted a more fastback appearance, with a shallower rear pillar sweeping gracefully to a short boot. Surfacing was minimalist in the extreme with carefully calibrated radii and flush detailing; the uninterrupted slope of the bootlid being a particularly effective and highly distinctive feature.

Image: radka maric

Decoration too was kept to a minimum, with thin slivers of bushed steel accentuating the soft, yet extremely disciplined forms. Inside too, Audi moved the game on. While not radical in form, the beautifully finished cabin featured more brushed aluminium amid the high quality plastics instead of the more accepted wood and chrome. Others would follow. Visually then, the A6 was a stunner. But it appears not everyone agreed.

Speaking to Automotive News’ Greg Kable in 1997, Potthoff was philosophical about the car’s mixed reception. “I don’t expect everyone to heap praise on the A6. When you set out to provoke emotions through a particular design, you cannot hope to please everyone. If we brought the car to market and it was immediately accepted, I would be terribly worried.”

Image: dieselstation

He needn’t have been concerned. The A6 proved a success and visually at least, made arch-rival BMW’s class-leading E39 5-Series all of a sudden appear like yesterday’s car. Comparison with Mercedes’ W210 E-Class or Jaguar’s S-Type however, placed matters in the sharpest relief; the A6, in saloon or equally accomplished 5-door Avant bodystyles showing up Sindelfinen and Whitley’s creative myopia in the most humiliatingly decisive fashion. UK auto journalist Paul Horrell described the Audi as “almost unbearably desirable: a shape that’s avant-garde yet almost anal in its elegant restraint.”

The saving grace for Audi’s rivals were habitual Ingolstadt demerits of over-servoed brakes, an unsettled ride quality and nose-heavy understeer traits – at least in front-drive form. Car magazine found the smallest engined 1.8 Quattro Turbo to be the dynamic sweet spot, less weight forward of the front axle lending it a wieldiness the larger engined versions lacked.

It also marked Ingolstadt’s first foray into the SUV market with the well executed and influential Allroad model. Subaru had got there first of course with the 1994 Legacy Outback, but the A6 brought the highriding, tough-looking aesthetic into the prestige segment.

The C5 codified the A6 silhouette, breaking a stylistic tradition stretching back to the 1967 NSU Ro80 and set the mark for Ingolstadt’s most stylistically cohesive and utterly desirable generation of cars ever. But while the A6’s successors may have adopted its silhouette, they did so in far less arresting fashion. So much so that today’s iteration has become a virtually invisible piece of street furniture, shortly to be replaced.

Twenty years on from the C5’s debut, Audi once again find themselves once more in the stylistic doldrums. Tainted by parent, VW’s emission woes and worryingly bereft of how to move the Ingolstadt aesthetic forward, Audi’s Marc Lichte really ought to go to the back of the cupboard, dust down that bottle of bravery pills and perhaps pop a couple. What possible harm could it do?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

16 thoughts on “Four Ring Cycle”

  1. I absolutely agree with the statement that Audi’s generation of A4 B5 (and, to a lesser extent, B6), A6 C5 and A8 D2 were and still are the most attractively styled Audis by a large margin.
    The C5 was heavily criticised for its Bauhaus looks, best epitomised by the extremely conservative ADAC monthly members’ magazine that characterised the rear light design in particular as hard to swallow.
    Audi threw all this over board in the interest of improved sales in the Chinese market, so we probably never again see such designs again.

    The C5 initially marked an all time low in Audi reliability. There were numerous minor and major items like short lived air mass sensors that got wet and died in rain due to a design fault of the air cleaner box, a bag in the fuel tank intended to suppress noise from fuel sloshing around under acceleration but made from a non-fuel-resistant material that dissolved over time, subsequently ruining the injection system, short lived ball joints in its complex front suspension and many more troubles. A long term test C5 at German magazine ‘auto motor und sport’ managed to break down seven times in half a year and produced innumerable dealer visits to have minor niggles corrected, putting it in company of early CXs or Ro80s as record holders for unrealibility.

  2. This is probably the latest Audi that I have a good amount of time for. I’m not sure I appreciated at the time how much it foreshadowed the themes of the decade that followed – if you exclude the rather specific case of the TT, with hindsight this car really foreshadowed a major step-change from the rather flimsy and thin 1990s aesthetic towards something much more ‘substantial’ in the 2000s. Still looks contemporary in many ways – Audi’s design language really hasn’t moved on very much in 20 years, has it?

    1. Audi’s design language has moved in the wrong direction.
      Subdued clean German industrial design has morphed into brash and fussy accumulations of silly gags, just only a bit less than in products from Munich or Stuttgart.
      Not only the external optics have gone haywire, the interior has deteriorated as much and quality slipped through decontenting. Where a B6 or C5 felt like a vault a B9 or C7 distinctly resembles the tactile qualities of can of Coke in comparison.

    2. No, there isn’t much since this car that impresses. There have been a few, yes, but none quite tough this car’s deep down design integrity. It’s timeless industrial design and the problem, for marketers, is how to do the inevitable next model. Occassionally a design is too good to dump after 7 years. With money spent on technical improvements a car like this can keep selling, I think.

  3. My daily driver is an A4 B6 series, closely resembling a scaled down version of the subject A6. One of the first (2001), in our hands from new, and currently on 160,00 miles. As above, the quality of its design, materials and construction, not least the interior, is a continuing pleasure, as is driving the thing.

    Random offers to buy it are routine, but it’s currently seeming a good prospect for a lifetime car.

    Alongside it sits a later B8 series A4, more capable in certain ways, but a less likeable car. For most errands and missions, the B6 keys remain the ones I reach for. Long hauls with several passengers are the main advantage for the later one.

    1. Couldn’t agree more with your point of view.
      After my Alfa dealer managed to lose me as a customer after more than twenty-five years I bought an A4 B6 Avant. In about fourteen years it did more than 500,000 largely trouble free kilometres until it developed some faults that would have been perceived commercial suicide to correct after that mileage. I switched to a B8 and regret it every day. The longer I have the B8 the more I miss the B6 -meanwhile, I came to the conclusion that my money would have been better spent in correcting the B6. My B6 had seven miles boots in form of the V6 Diesel, being capable of covering long distances at astonishingly high average speeds with absolutely no sign of stress. In comparison, the B8 feels flimsy and insubstantial and also annoys with its overdose of electronic nonsense.

  4. Nice article, Eóin. I like the C5 and, to a lesser extent, the C6 that replaced it – although I really hate the centre console of the C6, too fussy and full of switchgear. I wonder what you and fellow DTW crew think of the C6?

    Compared to the W210 and the S-Type, the A6 C5 was the right balance between boldness and attractiveness. As a 17-year-old in 1998, when the first units were delivered in Brazil, it was love at second sight: at first, I found the rear end too revolutionary, but the thing grew quickly on me. Design-wise, the wide-body V8 versions are even better, especially the RS6, and maybe I’ll replace my CLK with a late C5 V8 or an early C6 V8.

    Just one small correction: the BMW internal code for the 5-series is E39 – whose design, although classic (in my 5-series book, it is second to the E34), pales in comparison to the A6 C5.

  5. Sorry to be pedantic, but shouldn’t it read “Pforzheim Technical College, the alma mater of many a car designer over the years”, rather than “alumni”?

    Very enjoyable article, I’ve always rated this era of A6 as a piece of styling. Sadly, they seemed not to be brilliant technically, I personally heard reports of hard, crashy suspension and a front weight bias that was excessive even for an Audi. I’m much more familiar with the A4s of the time, which were probably a better proposition technically, but nowhere near as stylish. Perhaps you can do an article on the A8 some day? Their understatement has always led to them being critically and commercially neglected in a sector of the market that increasingly prioritises conspicuous ostentation.

    1. All Audis from that generation have very hard suspension. If you have a heavy engine hanging out in front that far, you run the risk to excite it with its natural frequency and let the car hop up and down if engine mounts and front springs aren’t very stiff to get a high natural frequency. Otherwise the front weight bias isn’t any worse than in any other Audi. It at least gives clearly defined cornering behaviour (can’t confirm the excessive understeer that’s often blamed on them) giving the average driver instand confidence and encouraging fast driving around not-too-tight bends. In real life, the Audi is a much more relaxed bahn stormer than any BMW so beloved by the motoring press.

    2. My thanks to Eduardo and Andrew for the corrections. I normally rely on Simon, our editor for a final once over before publishing, but having discovered him snoring peacefully amidst the remains of a case of high-glycol content Venezuelan moscatel, the result of a three day bender, I should have realised. It’s safer not to disturb him at times like this, so I can only apologise. Amends duly made.

  6. This generation of A6 also marks the transitional period when Peter Schreyer took over from Hartmut Warkuß as Audi chief designer. Schreyer was appointed in 1994, so he either took office right after C5’s design had been frozen, or was already involved in the process. He would undoubtedly had significant input when it came to fine tuning certain details.

    The C5 marked the start of an immensely satisfying period at Ingolstadt that brought about landmark cars like the original TT and A2, and ended with the D3 A8 (the C6 A6 would also have been styled under Schreyer, but significant details like the ‘Tornado line’ seem to already bear the signature of his successor, Walter de’ Silva).

  7. This, together with the A4 that followed and the A2 are the Audis that I admired and liked. Afterwards it all got worse. The most notable step towards ‘bling bling’ for me was when they reskinned the A4 B6 to become the B7, complete with tornado line, awful grille and misshapen lights.
    A friend of mine had a B6 Avant, nice to look at, but absolutely unuseable rear seats and nonexistent suspension. The gearbox failed terminally after seven or eight years, which apparently was a very common issue with these cars. After this disaster he swore to never buy Audi again and now drives a Seat Leon.

    1. The B7 was a perfect example of how not to do things with its incredibly ugly grille and the silly shaped light units. There also was some serious decontenting in comparison to the B6, not least a vastly reduced use of zinc coating. The B7 was the first Audi after a long time to have serious corrosion problems and the B8 is even worse.
      That’s the result of product optimisers thinking in three year cycles of fleet lease contracts.
      My own B6 was reliable over more than 500,000 kilometres and when it decided to pack up my dealer told me that the regular life expectation for this engine normally would be more than 800,000 kilometres in case the camshafts hadn’t been worn out at 250,000. I’m in serious doubt about my current B8 doing half that distance before falling apart.

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