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Audi S6 Avant (C4) | The Brave Pill

Big, boxy, fast - and 96 per cent of the way to the moon

By Mike Duff / Saturday, February 8, 2020

As the list of Pills continue to grow so it becomes harder to discover true terra incognita, to venture to those little-explored parts of the map that haven't featured before. We have had several fast Audis before, but this appealing - and possibly peeling - first-gen S6 manages to break new ground in at least two areas.

First of all - drumroll please - it is the first five-cylinder Pill; at least the first that is designed to run on five cylinders. Some of our earlier offerings might have been a bit short on compression. More impressively, against some very tough competition it is also the one with the weightiest odometer reading. With 217,000 miles showing it hasn't quite managed to get to the moon yet - NASA reckons a minimum of 225,623 miles is required to claim that feat. But the score is enough to pip the 215,000 mile W210 Merc E55 AMG that kicked off 2020, and makes the 200,000 mile E39 M5 that featured last October look like a barely used garage queen.

So well used and, on the evidence of this advert, well looked after too. The current vendor has owned it for nine of its 26 years and is asking £5,500 for it, which is about half what you would be asked to find for a cosmetically tidier sub-100k miler if you were able to track one down.

Anyone coming to a car like this from a modern S-branded Audi would find much familiar, the company starting as it meant to go on with the sub-brand. The original S2, launched in 1990 as a hotted-up version of the 80-based Coupe, featured a retuned version of the 2.2-litre 20-valve five-cylinder turbo engine from the Quattro and all-wheel drive. This spawned both saloon and Avant variants, with Audi quickly finding sufficient demand for an uber-fast wagon to repeat the process. The bloodline then split, with the considerably quicker Porsche-fettled RS2 for those determined to give children and dogs the greatest accelerative thrills, while the larger S4 - based on the bigger Audi 100 - launched in 1991 to be more spacious and sensible.

But this isn't an S4, you're thinking, while wondering about the health of PH's resident fact-checker, Enzo the hamster. That's because Audi introduced its spiffy new model naming policy in 1994 when the C4-generation 100 was facelifted, and turned into the A6. As an S4 version of an A6 would have been plain silly, the range-topper got a numerical promotion to become the S6, although the rest of the package remained pretty much identical.

Strangely both S4 and S6 had the option of a second, completely different engine in some territories, a 4.2-litre V8 making 286hp which was offered in place of the 227hp five-pot. Beyond a more macho soundtrack the purpose of the brawnier engine was limited by the ease with which the smaller turbo engine could be tuned. Our Pill is sporting just such an upgrade, one the vendor reckons means it is now putting out around 280hp.

The S6 Avant was a car without competitors when it was new, with the playbook for S-badged Audis already well established. Performance was ample, grip was huge, traction was dependable and handling was predictable but understeery on tighter stuff. It wasn't a pulse-quickener, but it wasn't meant to be - high speed cruising is what any S6 does best, and the five-cylinder's turbocharged torque will be sufficient to mean it still feels fast by 2020 standards. Indeed, for a measure of how far ahead of its time it was, consider how close the lightly tweaked power output and 1,700kg weight put it to the Golf R wagon today.

To modern eyes the cabin of any Audi from this period seems as austere and short on toys as Christmas at Scrooge's house, with this S6 being no exception. It has digital climate control, which was still a novelty in the mid-1990s and which I suspect was an extra-cost option. It also seems to be boasting the switches for seat heaters, also pretty posh in the era before Tony Blair came to power. But beyond an aftermarket stereo, that's it on the equipment front. Cabin decoration includes lashings of the orangish wooden trim that Audi used to love to combine with grey leather, and also a row of supplementary dials that a previous owner has added an aftermarket oil pressure gauge to.

The cabin is showing a fair amount of wear, as you'd expect from two journeys around the clock, with worn carpets and what looks like scuffed trim. Our vendor also reports that the front end received a partial respray a few years ago, but that the bottoms of the front wings have started to rust again. The MOT history doesn't report any structural corrosion, but does tell a tale of worn suspension components, a slowly disintegrating exhaust and a recurring engine oil leak that seems to have finally been cleared up last year.

For those who may reckon this S6 doesn't look adventurous enough, try finding somebody who has attempted to keep a rare, elderly Audi in fine fettle and count their grey hairs. While Mercedes offers excellent parts support for older cars, and BMW's is reasonable, Audi seemed to regard products from this era as being almost disposable items with blank-faced service advisors reporting "computer says no" to parts requests within a few years of models going off sale. That means tracking down obscure components can be a serious pain, and involve far-flung scrapyards. As a plus, a car like this car really help with language skills - like asking for a rear subframe assembly in Polish.

But as our Pill has got so far, it seems well set to go a fair bit further. As well as detailing known issues the advert text reveals a reassuringly heavy level of routine care and attention, even as mileage accumulation has tailed off in recent years. Anyone seriously considering it would probably want some more details on what was included with the engine refurbishment at 184,000 miles - a benchmark the S6 went through around 11 years ago. But new front pads and a timing belt that's only 4,000 miles old are reassuring details.

Perhaps the biggest issue with this late middle-aged S6 is the same one that has faced the car since new: very few will recognise it as being anything more than a big, boring Audi. Blokes at the pub will be asking the next owner if they run it on used cooking oil. There's plenty of courage in choosing a car like this, but it's not the kind that will ever win bravery awards, or likely even much respect from friends and family.

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