After urbane styling and precise road manners  made Audi a real player in the luxury sports sedan market with the late '90s A6, the Ingolstadt Werkmeisters took a more conservative route with the third-generation A6. It became larger, more architectural than haute couture, and softer. For 2009, though, Audi decided to give the A6 an adrenaline shot right to the heart: a new engine that transforms this car from wallflower to stealth wildcat.

The current-generation A6's style has always been understated and very elegant; subtle tweaking makes it look a little more aggressive than last year's model. Chrome trim accents the A6's subtle lines, and the looks substantial without being too showy. If the Jaguar's look evokes Savile Row; the Audi's evokes Hugo Boss, the real Hugo Boss, not the cheapend t-shirts you get from the emporium a couple streets over from Rodeo Drive.

Hello,Audi's interior decorators have gotten their share of praise over the years; one look at the A6's interior reveals why. This is an extremely handsome and stylish environment, with flowing shapes and exquisite detailing; look at the chrome strip around the wood trim on the dashboard, or the way the shape of the highly-legible instrument cluster fits within the arc of the three-spoke steering wheel. The interior color scheme was smashing: dark charcoal color on the dash, side panels, and seat bolsters, with Amaretto-colored leather inserts on the seats and door panels, and a matching headliner. The quality of the leather, and some other interior materials, aren't quite up to snuff compared to the Lexus or BMW, but there's little to argue about style-wise inside the A6. In fact, BMW were smart, they'd do whatever it takes - stock offerings, pay raises, kidnapping, blackmail, virgin sacrifices, whatever - and hire Audi's interior stylists tomorrow.

The A6's driver interface looks mostly solid, but some ergonomic quirks surface, in Audi's latest attempt to delight and annoy. For instance, if you want to crank up the A/C, you have to use the temperature control to increase and decrease fan speed. Like Jaguar, Audi designers decided to invest some razzle-dazzle in the glovebox door latch, placing an open/close switch on the center console. And while all the cars in this test feature pushbutton start, Audi's system has one button to start the engine and one to stop it. Why?

The A6's ergonomics are also heavily compromised by their version of IDrive, 2009labeled MMI (Multi-Media Interface), which works no better than BMW's or Mercedes', and adds a new level of silliness: no radio controls on the dashboard. To turn the radio on and off and adjust the volume, you use a rotary switch to the right of the shifter, and use the separate large rotary wheel to control inputs, settings and the like. The MMI wheel has menu buttons surrounding it to control navigation and other functions, but as in the BMW, they're out of the driver's line of sight, and all feel alike, so you have to take your eyes off the road to use them. As bad as the BMW and Mercedes systems are, at least they leave the basic radio controls on the dash, where God, Krishna, Allah, and Bahá'u'lláh intended them to be.

Hit the ignition switch - the one marked start, as opposed to the one marked off - and you unlock the A6's warrior heart. Like the other truly potent engine in this test, the BMW's twin-turbo six, Audi tuned this new supercharged engine to be a stump-puller - 310 lb/ft of torque at 2500 rpm - and the supercharger system ensures even power delivery throughout the power band. But unlike the BMW, which hits hyperdrive from a standing start, the A6's engine pulls its punches until 2500 rpm, at which point the blower kicks in, and launches, more like the Millenium Falcon in Empire Strikes Back than the original movie.

The sequential-shift six-speed transmission, plays wonderfully with the devilish engine. While supercharger whine, a typical bugaboo on this type of engine, has been massaged into near-nothingness, this engine trumpets its existence louder than the BMW. The numbers show the BMW as slightly faster than the Audi, but if you're into adolescent bursts of power, this Audi won't disappoint.

Audi_A6_SedanIt won't disappoint on a winding road, either. Although the Audi's front-heavy handling balance makes it feel less eager in tight corners than the BMW, on fast sweepers and the Interstate, the A6 is every bit the Bavarian's match. The same is true of the A6's steering, which is quick, accurate and communicative. The A6's handling capabilities do little to compromise ride quality, which is first-class.The Audi is also a first-class value - the Premium model tested, with navigation, the performance package, heated rear seats, and rear side airbags, stickered at $57,000. Well, a value for this class, if you want to penny pinch, Hyundai just set up shop down the road.

So if the Audi can match the BMW on a performance basis, and best it in the styling and value departments, what's with the second place finish? The A6's loss is a narrow one, to be sure, but in subtle ways - the refinement of the powertrain, the quality of the interior materials, and the offbeat, gimmicky ergonomics, to name three - the Audi just doesn't quite measure up. The Audi feels solid; the BMW feels like it's been laser-carved straight out of Mount Rushmore.

In other words, the Audi is great to drive, but the BMW's sublime. Still, greatness is nothing to sneeze at, especially when it's value-priced, so this rocket-man Audi nabs second place.

Performance: 5/5

So much for the A6's boring rep - the new supercharnged engine blasts the A6 forward with amazing urgency

Ride: 4/5

Compliant without being harsh

Handling: 4/5

Feels a little larger and ever-so-slightly more ponderous than the BMW

Exterior: 4/5

The best looking of the Germans: stylish in an almost architectural way.

Interior: 4/5

A stylistic knockout; wacky ergonomics and some cheap materials cost the Audi a perfect score.

Fit and finish: 4/5

Certainly well made, but seems more mass-produced than bespoke

Toys: 4/5

This A6 is extremely well equipped, and attractively priced.

Desirability: 4/5

A kick in the pants to drive, with a yee-haw factor that's rare in this class