LESS than a year ago, South African-born Audi US head, Johan de Nysschen, was poached by Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn to run Infiniti’s global operations from its new Hong Kong headquarters.
It’s a calculated move by Ghosn, intended to breathe new life into an underperforming Infiniti and no-one is seemingly better suited to the challenge than De Nysschen. He turned round an underperforming Audi America and made it a part of what is now the desirable German troika in the eyes of States-side buyers. These days, the Ingolstadt-based company can’t keep up with demand.

Of course, fuelling any motor company’s success is product. Audi knows this better than anyone, hence why it has a model to suit every taste and most pockets, from the A1 1,2 TSI all the way to the R8 V10. Here we test one of its mainstream cars that’s doing particularly well in long-wheelbase form in China, the Audi A6 in 3,0 TDI Quattro S tronic form. It’s the A6’s second shot at impressing us after the 150 kW 3,0 TDI Multitronic underwhelmed in its September 2011 road test.
Our exposure to Infiniti’s range has so far included various FX models (of which the FX30d is part of our long-term fleet) and the smaller EX. Both model ranges have impressed the CAR team, but not quite to the degree to garner universal praise and persuade us to choose them over their German rivals.

The M saloon, however, stands a very real chance of making fans of the South African buying public. Launched in 2009, it is Infiniti’s newest vehicle locally. The South African line-up consists of eight versions: two engines, a 235 kW/360 N.m 3,7-litre V6 petrol and the 175 kW/550 N.m 3,0 turbodiesel, and four trim levels. We’ve gone for the M30d GT Premium, which denotes a healthy spec count (there is a cheaper GT model that retails for R671 000) and comfort-oriented suspension tuning.

Design

Admittedly, we all have different inclinations on what is beautiful, but few would disagree that the M has a … challenging design. Based as it is on the striking Essence concept vehicle of early 2009, the most successful aspect of appearance is the rising hip line that narrows the rear window aperture and imbues the M with a distinctive profile. However, the chrome-burdened front is a tad crass while the rear is bland, duck-tail boot lip aside. S variants improve on the design with their 20-inch wheels and darkened headlamps.

The Audi A6 is the exact opposite. Not a single line or curve has not been considered and reconsidered before being signed off for production. It’s an extremely cohesive design that manages simultaneously to look like a bloated A4 from some angles (dead-on, especially) and extremely classy from others (profile). Surprisingly for a German car, it does not appear under-tyred on its standard 18-inch wheels, but various styling addenda and larger wheels are available if you’re so inclined. It has to be mentioned that the pillars are commendably slim for a modern car, aiding forward and over-the-shoulder visibility.

The Infiniti M30D claws back some lost momentum once you slide in behind the button-laden steering wheel. The facia features a bulky hang-down section that bisects the cabin as it runs rearward. Most of the controls are sited along a flattened section in the middle, while the touchscreen provides additional functionality (although you have to reach for it if you want to use this method). At first, the control layout appears haphazard and thoughtless, but a few days spent with the M soon breeds familiarity. This is something you’ll need, as GT Premium-spec includes just about every conceivable creature comfort. Some of the highlights are adaptive cruise control, blind-spot and lane-change monitoring, a multimedia system with 10 Gb storage space playing through a Bose audio system with 16 speakers, an electric rear sunshade and something called a Forest Air system that supposedly injects the cabin with purified air (we found it resembled a climate control system).

In any comparative test with an Audi A6, the challenger has to bring its A-game when it comes to the quality of its construction and materials. And the M mostly survives comparison with the A6. The cabin is a hotchpotch of textures and finishes, but everything is deeply padded or covered in leather (one area in which the Infiniti trumps the German) and the wood trim, however questionable in colour, is apparently real.

Finally, when it comes to space utilisation, the smaller Infiniti has the measure of the A6. It trumps the Audi for rear legroom and lags only slightly in terms of headroom front to rear and luggage room (352 versus 384 dm3). Both vehicles are great for four adults but less so for five due to the intrusive transmission tunnels.

To spec this version of the Audi to roughly the Infiniti’s level works out to an eye-watering R100 000, shifting its price R40 000 beyond the Japanese vehicle’s. That said, if you can live without sat-nav, the Bose system and a few other nice-to-haves but not must-haves, its base price of R672 500 compares extremely well with the competition. The standard specification is fairly generous, with items such as a reverse camera and electric seats included in the price.

A large component of Audi’s recent success is nestled in the company’s realisation that buyers’ perceptions of quality lie rooted in a vehicle’s cabin. Get the plastics right and you’ve got half of them hooked. Audi cabins look good, work well, feel robust and offer myriad personalisation options. The A6’s austere style may not engender a feeling of warmth and comfort in a similar vein to the Infiniti’s, but not a single button or control isn’t perfectly placed and doesn’t work with precision. We do have one problem with the Audi A6’s cockpit, however (and it’s something we’ve noticed on a few VW Group vehicles): the leather feels too much like plastic and on this A6, which happens to be our long-term fleet vehicle and at the time of test had about 18 000 km on the clock, the trim had become shiny. Upgrading to more premium Valcona leather costs a reasonable R4 200, but it’s an upgrade buyers shouldn’t have to make.

Under the Bonnet

Firing these saloons forward are two 3,0-litre V6 turbodiesels that deliver similar power figures (the A6’s 180 kW versus the M’s 175 kW), while the Japanese car has a 50 N.m torque advantage. Working in the Audi’s favour is a lightning-quick dual-clutch transmission and 123 kg lighter kerb weight. The M drives its rear wheels through a seven-speed torque converter auto-matic transmission.

We tested both vehicles on the same day and in similar conditions and found the difference in their performance results very surprising. Granted, the Infiniti is much heavier, but it does have 50 N.m extra. Why then was it 1,68 seconds slower from zero to 100 km/h and convincingly beaten in every in-gear acceleration measurement (by almost a second from 100 to 120 km/h)? Blame must go to the lacklustre engine, which proves somewhat reluctant to rev into the upper reaches of the rev counter (and when it does, it exhibits some roughness), and the lazy transmission. Experienced in isolation, the M30d’s performance certainly feels adequate, but the Audi shows what can be done with the latest in engine and transmission technology, and what the advantages of lighter mass are. The German vehicle’s engine is a peach: it revs freely, never sounds or feels strained and performs admirably. And this is one of the best applications of the dual-clutch transmission we’ve experienced; gone is the annoying delay at slow speeds that plagues other versions. Lastly, despite its strong performance, the A6 also beat the M30d on our fuel route, using 7,8 litres/100 km versus 8,0 litres/100 km.

On the Road

So far, so mediocre for the Infiniti, but surely it can claw back some lost ground on the road, an area in which mainstream Audis have generally been underwhelming.

On sensible 18-inch wheels and tyres, the Infiniti shows a great deal of compliance in town driving. It manages to cushion most impacts without feeling overly wallowy. It can at times feel a bit ponderous because of the low-geared steering and the fact that it lacks the S model’s four-wheel steering system, but we won’t mark it down for that because it’s an executive saloon that’s ultimately designed to cocoon its occupants. Refinement is excellent, no doubt helped by standard double-glazing. However, we don’t intend to damn the Infiniti with faint praise; the fact remains that other vehicles, most notably the BMW 5 Series and Jaguar XF, manage the ride/handling balance far better.

Quattro all-wheel drive and a surprising 57:43 front-to-rear mass distribution (surprising given the fact that the heavy turbodiesel is mounted longitudinally and slung relatively far forward) endow the A6 with an athletic demeanour belying its size. It shows fine grip and poise when driven with vigour on challenging roads, while the steering is sensibly geared, direct and devoid of the odd, inconsistent weighting that is common to many Audis.

Even the ride is fairly good. It doesn’t cushion passengers from impacts as well as the Infiniti, but it’s by no means harsh. A smidgeon more compliance would be welcome at city speeds, however, while tyre roar becomes very intrusive at higher speeds (highlighted because everything else on the Audi is so hushed).

Both vehicles showed great composure during our 10-stop emergency braking tests, with the Infiniti just shading the Audi in terms of braking length and average stopping times. Both vehicles have firm pedals underfoot, and we were glad to find the A6’s pedal lacked the overly assisted feeling of old.

Test Summary

German executive saloons – specifically the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes E-Class – manage an enviable balance of prestige and desirability that few can match. Lexus has tried and fallen short, even though its latest GS is excellent, while Jaguar’s brilliant XF remains a perennial also-ran.

Audi is in the same position. Although the Ingoldstadt-based manufacturer's niche products sell well and the marque has immense appeal in lower passenger car segments (think A1 and A3), in the executive-saloon market, however, it’s yet to attain the standing afforded to the 5 and E. That being said, this Audi A6 is the best one we’ve tried and comes closest to knocking the 5 Series off its perch as the best of the bunch.

Where does that leave the Infiniti? Were it not for its below-par drivetrain and bullish pricing, it would have stood a better chance against the Audi. But, until we sample the M37 and find that that vehicle poses a bigger threat to the German establishment, we sincerely hope De Nysschen injects the brand with some of the magic he brought to Ingolstadt.