I think AZX5Gunner summed it up quite well.
When comparing the 556 to the AR, I think there are a number of factors to take into account.
The 556 is based upon a highly evolved AK action which I feel offers a longer service life than typical DGI ARs (especially those with a carbine length gas system). Since the action is subjected to super heated gas, the lube is normally cooked off in relatively short order, not to mention the increased stress related to rapid temperature spikes when fired. Carbine length gas systems in the typical AR will also suffer gas port erosion at an accelerated rate as related to the increased gas temperature and pressure levels due to the gas block being closer to the action.
With the 556, (basically a 551 action) you have a reasonable amount of barrel length to allow gas pressure and temperature to drop prior to entering the gas piston tube. Secondly, the piston tube will vent off excess gas to further prevent overheating the BCG. The end result, is an action running cooler, allowing the existing lube to remain longer, reducing the overall maintenance requirement.
On top of those benefits, the 556 bolt itself is obviously AK inspired and lacks the cam pin hole and multi-lugs which have been a common weak link in the AR system. Even the piston ARs don't completely eliminate this issue, albeit they are an incremental improvement.
Finally, we get down to some of the more practical considerations. We've seen a number of AR manufacturers developing their versions of a piston action for the AR. Oddly enough, for less than the cost of most piston uppers, one can usually purchase an entire 556 rifle.
The 556 isn't without it's issues however. The initial release was a bit rushed, and I found some of the initial QC issues to be pretty much inexcusable. However, due to the general excellence in the 55x design, it's overall functionality and well known reliability have gone a long way to show the 556 has what it takes to be a great platform. I honestly think SiGARMS could have taken it a bit more seriously though. As evidenced by their choice of factory accessories among other things.
It seems most of the harsh criticism centers around aesthetics, and the fact that the 556 isn't the genuine Swiss original. The fact is, the 556 has addressed and corrected many of the original complaints leveled against the original 55x guns when compared against the M4. On 10-8 Forums, I recall an article in which numerous users had disdain for the pivoting trigger guard which pivoted when they didn't want it to. Rock'n Lock mags, proprietary mags, non-adjustable LOP stock, Heavy overall weight. Objectively, it seems the 556 addresses all these issues. Most people prefer the 551 handguards (I do too) but folks who have used the 551 extensively, have stated the factory 556 handguards actually give better heat insulation.
I've handled the original Swiss 55x rifles, and I'll freely admit they do have an edge in fit and finish. However even if the Swiss guns were available in the US, they'd likely cost about what Canadians are paying for them now. (around $2500 to $3000) so it seems the small trade-off makes the 556 FAR more marketable in comparison. Most Americans are pretty well served with a typical AR. Only a select few are likely to spring for $3K to go for a 55x. Therefore, the 556 with all the functionality of the Swiss original is a great value for the money.
My body of experience includes ARs from several makers, Steyr AUGs, HK SL8s, and of course (as my screen name would imply ;-) FNCs and FS2000s. IMO, the 556 rates with the best of those.
Handling, the 556 is a bit front heavy, but it does help keep the front sight on target under fire. It's hard to describe, but the action cycles far smoother than an AR does. I suppose it has a lot to due with the BCG being pulled back into battery as opposed to being pushed back . My 556 is more tolerant to sub-par magazines than most ARs I've shot. As mentioned above, the 556 trigger is excellent for a factory stock carbine.
Sorry if my post got a bit long winded. I will say, it's nice to present a positive point of view regarding the 556 without having to undergo a barrage of stereotypical naysayers bent on slandering the 556. Sadly, that appears to be the norm on most other boards, even the one specifically related to SIG products.