As standard-bearers go, automakers’ flagships have a tall task. They must represent the company’s crowning achievements in design, technology and manufacturing. They need to be aspirational as well as inspirational vehicles. Being fun to drive is also a key part of the equation.
Audi’s 2004 A8 L is everything a flagship should be: handsome, loaded with high-tech stuff, and its chassis is an aluminum space frame. Oh yeah, and it’s a blast from the driver’s seat.
The L stands for long wheelbase, and at this time it is the only version Audi North America plans to bring to the States. The L’s 121.1-inch wheelbase is five inches longer than the standard model (on sale now in Europe), with all those five inches found between the B-pillar and D-pillar.
|2004 AUDI A8 L QUATTRO|
In other words, the back seat. It’s huge. Just right for America—call it the A8 supersized. Even though the A8 L uses Audi’s aluminum space-frame technology, the car tips the scales at 4399 pounds, 470 pounds more than the short-wheelbase version. (Just for comparison’s sake, it’s 240 pounds heavier than the long-wheelbase car it replaces.)
That means each of those five inches adds 94 pounds.
The A8 L is nine pounds heavier than the Mercedes-Benz S500 4Matic, one of the major rivals in the flagship battle, but is 65 pounds lighter than the base BMW 7 Series. Jaguar’s new XJ (AW, March 31), which also makes extensive use of aluminum, weighs just 3766 pounds, but it’s smaller than the A8 and does not offer all-wheel drive.
Audi engineers say the reason there is not a bigger difference in weight from the largely steel-bodied Mercedes is because the A8 L’s list of standard items is longer than that of the S-Class. The engineers said a better comparison could be made with the 7 Series, though the 7 does not offer awd.
|The proportions of Audi's A8 L are both enormous and appropriate, giving the car a long and stately stance. That stance is enhanced by a continuously adjustable air suspension system that keeps the big, 12-spoke wheels and tires firmly planted to the ground.(Photo © 2003 Ingo Barenschee)|
The A8 L is 204 inches long, a shade longer than the S-Class (203.1) and 7 Series (203.5). But even though the car could serve duty (and probably will) as an executive limousine, it doesn’t feel that way from behind the wheel. For that we can thank the use of all that aluminum. We know how heavy a flagship can be when steel is the metal of choice, as in the case of the A8’s sister ship from Wolfsburg, the Phaeton (AW, July 22, 2002), which weighs nearly a half-ton more.
This third-generation alumi-num space frame is made of 267 individual pieces, down from 324 in the previous model, and it comprises just 12 percent of the total vehicle weight. Audi engineers say the structure offers exceptional crash worthiness (fewer parts and fewer joints mean a stiffer chassis) and the torsional rigidity is 60 percent greater than steel. The use of aluminum is not limited to the space frame, as the exterior body panels and many of the suspension components are also made of the lightweight material.
Our first drive of U.S.-spec A8 Ls came in the South of France on a route Napoleon supposedly used on one of his conquests or retreats, depending upon which story you believe. At first, the twisty mountain switchbacks with low concrete curbs being all we had between safety and a tumble down a mountain had us longing for a sports car beneath us. Many of the bends seemed barely more than one-car wide and the route was thick with bicyclists. But once we got a feel for the car, words uttered by Audi North America president Len Hunt prior to our drive seemed to ring true.
"This car feels much smaller than it is," Hunt said, and right after he said it, we filed it away as typical marketing gibberish. How could a car that could easily haul four-fifths of an NBA team in roomy comfort feel small?
But Hunt was right. This 17-foot-long car did feel smaller than we thought it would, due to excellent steering feedback, a rock-solid chassis and an all-new air suspension. The variable-ratio rack-and-pinion steering provided a good feel on the tight, twisty two-lane roads, and firmed up at high speeds.
|A 330-horsepower V8 moves this aluminum chariot to 60 mph from a standstill in just 6.3 seconds.(Photo © 2003 Ingo Barenschee)|
Audi’s motto of "advancement through technology" is played out in this flagship. The new A8 L is a bigger, more luxurious and arguab-ly better car than the model it replaces. The suspension system—similar to that on the Phaeton—is one of those technological achievements. It allows the driver to raise or lower the suspension to better match and appreciate the road or driving conditions.
There are no coil springs on the car; rather, at all four wheels there are air-suspension bellows arranged concentrically around continuously variable, twin-tube shock absorbers and air suspension struts. Keeping everything inflated is an electric air compressor in the engine compartment and an air pressure reservoir mounted beneath the trunk. The air suspension is coupled with an electronically controlled, continuously adjustable damping system. Numerous sensors monitor the rate of acceleration of the body, the vertical movements at the four wheels, steering angle, and position of the brake and accelerator pedals to determine the optimum suspension resistance. And it is quick: The system’s response time is just 10 milliseconds.
The adaptive air suspension system is standard on all A8 Ls and allows the driver to select four damping traits and ride heights. In two days of driving, we sampled the four different suspension settings and found uses for three of them. As the roads on the Cote d’Azur were quite smooth, we spent most of the time in the automatic and dynamic modes, and found the ride and handling of the car to be superb. Once we get the car for a test on the rough highways around Detroit, the comfort mode may be our favorite, or maybe even the lift mode, which raises the A8 L’s ground clearance an inch higher than its normal 4.7 inches. The comfort mode softens the damping and provides a bit more of the luxury-car feel one expects in a car of this stature.
On a long drive from Nice to Geneva—much of it on an autostrada through Italy—we took full advantage of the dynamic setting, which automatically lowers the car at speeds in excess of 75 mph and stiffens the shock damping. While we really couldn’t feel the car hunker down as we cruised for a couple of hundred kilometers near its electronically limited 155-mph top end, we did feel the stiffer shock damping. The car felt solid and secure from behind the wheel, while a passenger was able to doze off, oblivious to the speed.
|The Audi A8 L's interior coddles and comforts, depending on perspective. From the driver's seat, the firm's multimedia interface dominates the scene, and does so intuitively. If you choose not to use the controls, the seven-inch MMI screen tips away.(Photo © 2003 Ingo Barenschee)|
All of the suspension settings are made via the multimedia interface found on the center console behind the shift lever. Audi’s MMI is one of the better multifunction interfaces we’ve used, and after spending upward of five days (two days of driving, three days being chauffeured around Geneva) in the vehicle, we found the system to be intuitive and user-friendly. Along with the suspension selections, the MMI controls all the electronics in the car, including the radio/CD player, climate control and navigation system. The MMI "terminal" features a knob surrounded by four "soft" keys that are in turn surrounded by eight "hard" keys. Hard keys are the starting points for getting the MMI menus while the soft keys open submenus. Operations are selected by rotating and depressing the center knob.
All selections can be visually confirmed on the two monitors in the car; the main MMI display is a seven-inch flat screen that pops up out of the center dash while a second monitor, a three-inch display, is positioned directly ahead of the driver in the middle of the instrument cluster. All the basic MMI functions also can be accessed through the thumb controls on the steering wheel.
Under the hood, the 4.2-liter V8 has been tuned to produce 330 horsepower, 20 more than the model it replaces. The engine’s horsepower peaks at 6500 rpm, while the 317 lb-ft of torque is available a bit lower on the tach, at 3500 rpm. From a standing start, the car hits 60 mph in 6.3 seconds, with the quarter-mile passing in 14.2 seconds. The six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic and Dynamic Shift Program from ZF has one more gear than in previous models, with a lower first gear for quicker starts.
For now, Audi will stay behind the five-valve technology it has championed for years. But do not be surprised to see future Audi engines with chain-driven accessories and four valves per cylinder, and direct injection, which is not too dissimilar from the technology used on the firm’s three-time Le Mans-winning race cars.
|If you're fortunate enough to sit in the rear, there's legroom that will please even an NBA player.(Photo © 2003 Ingo Barenschee)|
And as you would expect befitting a flagship, Audi has big plans for it in the marketplace. The company hopes to sell upward of 5000 units—more than double the best annual sales since the car first became available Stateside in 1996. Just 1515 A8s were sold in 2002, down from the 2300 cars sold in ’01. The best sales year was 1999, with 2481 cars sold.
The car will be in dealerships in late June or early July with final pricing to be announced closer to its on-sale date, but Hunt said the base price will be less than $70,000.
By definition, flagships set the tone for the fleet. With this A8 L, Audi raises its flag a bit higher.
By ROGER HART
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