(Pocket-lint) - The humble estate is often seen as the dreary alternative to the saloon, lacking the dynamic thrills of sporty siblings, while lacking the contemporary appeal of the SUV and its lofty driving position.
But once you get to the big estates, like the Audi A6 Avant, things are far from dreary. Cutting design, performance that would embarrass your typical SUV, and enough space to take an old washing machine to the local recycling centre, there's a lot more appeal to the estate than you might at first think.
Design that's far from boring
Most Audi A6 Avant models you see on the road are in 'safe' colours – somewhere between silver and grey or dark blue and black. For the new A6 Avant that really won't show off the design. We can't say we've seen many Tango Red models on the road, but we wish there was more.
The design is beguiling, drawing you in with folds and creases to the body work, nipped and tucked with precision and with the advantage of lots of glass. There's no worry of small rear windows or a lack of visibility – and while it's not quite like sitting in a conservatory, retract the blinds (split front and rear) on the glass roof (a £1950 option) and it's positively enlightening, resulting in a spacious open cabin.
While SUVs win praise for headroom and shoulder room, it's in estates that you get real, usable boot space. There's some 565 litres here, but you get depth which is often what lacks in SUVs. That's why the boot of the Avant is a natural place for your dog, an expansive area for luggage or perfect for heading to the golf course.
The 20-inch wheels of our review car add to the appeal. We think there's a great proportionality to the A6 Avant – it's one of the best looking of the big premium estates, especially in this S Line trim, but the price soon soars to the £50k mark once you opt for the larger engine in our test model.
A tech-centred interior
Audi started its latest run of updates with a new Audi A8 and we've seen the interior design it ushered in spread across a number of models, including the all-electric e-tron SUV. Key to the experience is what the company calls MMI Touch, transforming the centre console into a pair of displays. There's the main entertainment display up top, with a secondary display sitting beneath it.
It's a pairing that gives a futuristic feel to Audi's recent models and the A6 Avant is no exception. MMI Touch does away with many of the physical buttons, while also ditching the old MMI controller dial. Now it's all touch, with a reassuring haptic feedback when you push on the display. Yes, it's not a whimsical jab at an icon, you actually need to push it, so it remains a tangible experience.
MMI Touch is standard, but the experience is boosted with Virtual Cockpit, part of the Technology Pack, which at £1495 is a sizeable option to tick – but does give you some of the most enticing options. That 12.3-inch full colour customisable driver display is the big sell, but it also includes the Audi Phone Box (a space in the centre armrest for your phone, boosting the signal, offering a Qi wireless charging pad and creating a second Bluetooth connection to the car – so two phones can be connected at the same time).
Of course you get a lot of technology as standard, like smartphone preparation. That includes Bluetooth connectivity and Apple CarPlay or Android Auto via a cable connection as standard – something you won't get from rivals BMW.
MMI Touch offers some customisation on the secondary display, letting you drop in things like your favourite radio stations, so you can easily get to them with a touch. The features on that bottom display change depending on what you're trying to do, so it's a dynamic space.
One element that doesn't work so well is text entry. Previously there was a clickwheel dial – in some cases with a touch top for scrawling letters upon – and this made text entry easy. On the move, having a physical dial to grab provides better control than a touch surface. With MMI Touch, if you're trying to drive and enter a new destination – even as a passenger – it's a little more fiddly than it was before. For the driver, well, it's a distraction from the road, and not advised.
There is a way out, however, and that's voice. Voice in cars isn't (yet) as natural as Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa; despite the protestations of car manufacturers, it's just not the same experience. Audi's voice experience is pretty good, however. We ran a couple of key destinations through it and got the results we wanted – and that's not always the case with in-car voice systems.
Of course if you're using Android Auto you'll be able to access Google Assistant with a hugely wide array of information at your disposal – and Siri is fairly competent too – but the downside is that you then don't get the glorious full screen navigation from Virtual Cockpit. You get some crossover, but unless you use Audi's native mapping solution, you don't get the full experience. Decisions, decisions.
Elsewhere there's no lack of quality in the interior. Sumptuous seats provide plenty of comfort, although those back seats feel a little more bucketed to give you headspace; there's the sense that you're sitting down into them. Overall, there's plenty of space and having put five adults into this car in comfort, it's certainly a practical estate option.
Enticing performance once you leave the low revs
The sporty interior feel is something that almost translates to the on-the-road experience. Certainly, once you're underway and hop over 2000rpm so the turbo is spinning, you'll get an exciting drive. Our test model was the 50 TDI – that's the larger 286PS 3-litre diesel – paired with Quattro all-wheel drive, giving a spritely 0-62 speed of 5.7 seconds and great control on mixed surfaces through speedy corners.
Drive modes give you the option to pick how the car drives – Dynamic (sporty), Eco, Calanced – with a custom option to pick the parts you want, such as heavier steering, normal gearing, and so forth.
There's a high level of refinement to the ride, with adaptive suspension included on this model (another £1150 option) providing plenty of absorption when needed on suburban roads. The A6 Avant is nice and quiet when it needs to be, but that 286PS engine cuts through with a growl under harder acceleration. No, it's not the cacophony of the RS6 Avant, but it's no damp squib.
But there is a problem: at low speeds things can feel a little disconnected. The steering is so incredibly light that it's almost comical and the 8-speed gearbox feels a little unresponsive at low speed. While the steering has some appeal (it makes parking easier), urban drivers might find the low-rev driving a little irritating.
It doesn't feel like it has the immediacy to pull away with pace and control, leaving you to accelerate hard to get away with more urgency, then lift off and/or brake before things get carried away and send you through the car in front. Changing the driving mode or into Sport mode doesn't alleviate this either – it's just not a great car for stop-start driving.
None of that matters once you're underway and get into the motorway, where you can wriggle down into your seat and enjoy the comfort and tranquillity, or on more exciting A roads with twists and turns – in those cases, Sport mode keeps revs high, hangs on to gears a little longer so you have the power when you want it.
This 50 TDI reports 48.7mpg (NEDC) on a combined cycle with CO2 emissions of 151g/km. There is a smaller engine option, the 204PS 2-litre diesel (which reports 64mpg (NEDC) on a combined cycle with CO2 emissions of 121g/km), but there's no petrol (in the UK anyway) and no e-tron (electric or hybrid) version currently offered in the range – although you might consider the VW Passat GTE as an alternative. For many the smaller diesel will probably offer all the power needed and it's a bit cheaper too. Both engines are mild hybrid, which helps boost the efficiency too.
The Audi A6 Avant is a tech tour de force, offering great design, lots of space and all the practicality you could want from an estate car.
You get a lot for standard in this premium segment – but there's an options list as long as your arm that will see the price rising rapidly if you begin ticking boxes. Some are well worth it though: the shift to the touch-based MMI Touch tech suite makes things very modern, with Virtual Cockpit through the Technology Pack an option we'd definitely recommend.
There are currently only two engine options for the UK and for those slowly turning off diesel that might be a limiter; that said, the smaller diesel is efficient and likely to suit most drivers, especially those covering long distances.
This high-end estate space is competitive, with the larger E-Class Mercedes and wide engine choices of the BMW 5 Series, hybrids from VW and healthy competition from Volvo. But there's no lacking in quality and refinement from the new Audi A6 Avant.
Volvo is synonymous with estate cars and the V60 is a shining example. It's more affordable than the Audi and has some rivalling engines, even if the tech and interior doesn't quite come up to muster. That said, there's a feeling of originality and progress in Volvo as well as plenty of space which makes for a serious alternative.
VW Passat GTE
While Audi is putting its e-tron eggs into the EV market, sister brand VW has a hybrid estate on the road in the form of the Passat GTE. The Passat is one of the biggest estates out there and while the exterior is less sporty and exciting than the "luxury" brands, it's hard to argue with the practicality. Forget Dieselgate for a while and consider how you might take advantage of 31 miles of pure electric driving instead.