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Audi challenges BMW, Mercedes with all-new A6

Audi has the momentum going into the auto makers' latest showdown, with the A6 cementing its position as a design– and technology-focused brand

The new Audi A6 is displayed ahead of the Geneva International Motor Show on March 6, 2018.

With the unveiling of Audi's new mid-size A6 luxury sedan at the 88th Geneva International Motor Show, the stage is set for a grand showdown between the three German luxury powerhouses.

Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz each now have an all-new contender vying for the mid-size luxury crown. Prestige, and profits, are on the line.

These cars – the A6, 5 Series and E-Class – remain the heart and soul of each brand in spite of the rise of SUVs. These three rivals have been competing, in one form or another, for 50 years.

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The momentum going into this latest showdown is with Audi. Over the last decade, it has steadily been closing the sales gap with BMW and Mercedes.

"Last year, we had almost 18-per-cent growth compared to 2016 in Canada," said Bram Schot, member of the board for sales and marketing at Audi. He likened the company's growth to a coral reef: slow and steady.

Audi CEO Rupert Stadler presents the new Audi A6 in Geneva on March 6, 2018.

Just 10 years ago, Audi was in a distant third place in terms of sales among its German rivals. Nationally, Audi sold roughly 9,000 vehicles in 2008. In comparison, BMW and Mercedes each moved over 20,000 vehicles in Canada that year, according to data from GoodCarBadCar. Last year, however, Audi's sales trailed BMW's (excluding Mini) by fewer than 3,000 units. If this trend continues, Audi could soon steal the luxury crown away from its rivals in Canada.

"I'm not afraid of my competitors, not at all, but I've got respect for them," said Schot, speaking after the A6's unveiling. "Of course, we want to be number one, but not just for the sake of it. It has to be an economically sensible thing to do."

The A6 cements Audi's position as a design- and technology-focused brand. It will go head to head with the Mercedes E-Class, which was unveiled at the 2016 Detroit motor show, and the BMW 5 Series, which debuted last year.

There's not a vast ocean of difference in terms of price or performance between these three archrivals. Each one will offer all-wheel drive, a choice or four– or six-cylinder turbocharged gasoline engines and the very latest driver-assistance systems. The 5 Series handles brilliantly. The E-Class can smooth out the worst roads, and we'll find out what the A6's strength is when it arrives in dealerships later this year.

Style, both inside and out, is where these German mid-size rivals take drastically different approaches.

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"Traditionally, Mercedes and BMW, they had rear-wheel drive," said Marc Lichte, head of design at Audi. "So that means that at BMW and Mercedes, the cabin is always further back: short overhang, long bonnet, cabin back."

The A6 will go head to head with the Mercedes E-Class and the BMW 5 Series.

Audi, meanwhile, always touts its Quattro all-wheel-drive system. "We want to visualize Quattro. That's why our cabin sits exactly between all four wheels. That's really a big difference to our main competitors," Lichte said.

The advantage for Audi is that this cabin-forward design allows more interior space and gives its cars a distinct profile. The downside is handling; Audi's all-wheel-drive cars tend to understeer more, offering a less engaging driving experience. All-wheel drive is quickly becoming a standard feature across all three German sedans though.

From the driver's seat, the A6 feels the most sleek and futuristic with its dual-touch-screen layout. The dashboard and all-glass instrument panel comes straight from the up-market A7 and flagship A8. By comparison, the BMW 5 Series' cabin is conservative, and the Mercedes E-Class is more overtly opulent.

"Mercedes and BMW, they have over 100-year histories – Audi doesn't," said Lichte. "Audi became successful in the last 25 years because of this progressive way. Audi's doing everything differently: four-wheel drive instead of rear-wheel drive, body in aluminum instead of steel."

The A6 is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year – tracing its roots back to the 1968 Audi 100 – but it's the youngest mid-size sedan among its German rivals. The Mercedes E-Class dates back to 1993, but can trace its roots to the 180 sedan of the 1950s. The BMW 5 Series name is the most prolific, evolving through seven generations since 1972, and before that from the Neue Klasse sedans, which debuted at the 1961 Frankfurt International Motor Show. Each offering is an extremely refined product.

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Of note on the new A6 is its class-exclusive 48-volt mild-hybrid system, said to save up to 0.7 litres/100 km, and its rear-wheel steering system. The first engine on offer will be a 3.0-litre turbocharged V-6, good for 340 horsepower and 369 lb.-ft. of torque. Official figures put its 0-100 km/h acceleration time just ahead of the E-Class and just behind the BMW 540i.

Despite the fact that one in every three vehicles Audi sold in Canada last year was an SUV, Schot said the mid-size sedan segment is stabilizing. "We're more than happy with where the segment is going," he added.

"For all manufacturers – BMW, Mercedes and Audi – [mid-size sedans] were the car," Schot said. "This car is important for us because it's the optimum between [sales] volume and [profit] margin." Bigger cars such as the A8 are more profitable but lower volume, while compact cars such as the A4 sell in greater numbers but are less profitable. "So [the A6] is actually, from an economic point of view, extremely important."

Pricing and Canadian fuel-economy figures for the 2019 A6 will be announced closer to its arrival in the fourth quarter of this year.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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