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2004 A8L First Drive: A Dark Horse in the Running

Louisville, KY – Recently, Audi of America chose Louisville, Kentucky and the running of the world-reknowned Kentucky Derby as a backdrop for many amongst the automotive media to take their first try behind the wheel of its all-new A8L sedan. One can easily draw the parallel between the heavy emphasis on breeding that permeates throughout horse-racing community and also that of the biggest and most luxurious vehicle to roll out of Ingolstadt with the four-ringed crest adorned to the front.

This new flagship of the Audi brand represents the pinnacle of what Ingolstadt is capable of producing, and even though A8 sales numbers are the smallest of the Audi line, the staff from Audi of America are quick to emphasize that the A8 is one of their most critical models as reception of this top-tier model of car largely defines how the brand itself is perceived.

Like the auto industry, there are those favored competitors at the Kentucky Derby; those who captivate the finicky public or the super-analyzing bookmakers. The professional bookmakers will base their odds on measurable factors such as performance or perhaps pedigree. Still, those horse-racing aficionados amongst the general public will choose their bets based on other factors, such as prettiness, the design of a jockeys jersey or who amongst the rich and famous might own a particular horse. This year, a horse by the name of Atsawhatamtalkinabout , was a popular choice as none other than Steven Spielburg was a co-owner, adding some additional energy.

And, while the A8 may not have made its showing yet on the MTV Cribs television show or as a prop in a rap video, we hear that celebrities such as actress Charlize Theron and radio talk-show host Howard Stern are just a few of the jet-set crowd coming over to the Audi side.

In this particular segment consumers, just like those wagering at the Derby, might make their choice on just about any factor. Making certain that every aspect of the car is top notch is one major concern. Pedigrees are almost always considered, and lines such as BMW, Mercedes Benz and Jaguar all fight for the attention of that same group of automotive consumers. For that reason, it is critical that Audi get the flagship right, as they feel respect for the brand travels down from this level.

As if to emphasize their point, on the day prior to the running of the Derby I was approached by a couple in their 50s as I stood next to my assigned black A8 preparing to start the drive across from Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel. In town for the race and most certainly the accompanying festivities, the couple wandered over to the A8, parked handsomely on its 18-inch optional alloy wheels. They inquired if it was my car, and though I had to admit that it was not, I offered to them the opportunity to take a closer look and opened the door.

The wife slid into the car and her attention was immediately drawn to the A8’s new multi-media system (also referred to as MMI). Though deactivated as the car was turned off, the handsome polished aluminum controls impressed her greatly. As she raved from inside the car, the husband pointed out that they currently owned a Mercedes Benz S-class. He suggested that he had settled. He’d previously considered the BMW 7-series, but was lukewarm on the design and even colder on BMW’s own i-drive interface that comes standard in the 7. He did add proudly, “Our son has an S4, and loves it.” Perhaps there might be two Audis in the family before too long.

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Sizing Up the Competition

Back to choosing a winning steed in this class, Audi has three primary favorites it will have to beat. While other entrants such as Jaguar, Lexus and Infiniti are certainly present, it is fellow teutons Mercedes Benz and BMW that Audi will have to slug it out against. Additionally, arguments of purchasing the more expensive A8L over its new corporate sibling, the Volkswagen Phaeton, will most assuredly arise.

There may be opportunity with the once-strong BMW 7-series. Though it hasn’t lost the great and muscular dimensions that BMW’s are known for, the new car is a haphazard design that the public either moderately likes or flat out hates. Chris Bangle’s most recent interpretation of the car has caused a stir, though we’re not sure the often-touted public relations theory that “even bad press is good press” transcends into the automotive realm.

Coupled with BMW’s confusing i-drive system, the new 7 has been controversial enough to make even staid Bimmerphiles think twice in their automotive choices, much like our friend at the Brown Hotel.

Take note though – BMW plans both a simpler i-drive system and a subtly restyled 7 to debut at the Frankfurt International Auto Show in September, and if Audi has learned anything over the last thirty years, it is to not underestimate BMW.

At Mercedes-Benz, the competition is perhaps a bit stronger. Though Mercedes is becoming the old-person’s German car, it is still a benchmark in the industry and a handsome, albeit conservative, competitor.

While rear-wheel-drive only layout certainly has its limits, we hear that Mercedes is readying their own all-wheel-drive 4Matic versions of the S-class. Mercedes also offers a range of motor choices and the additional body configuration of a coupe providing several more choices than Audi currently offers in this class. And while we can expect an S8 to counter the all-new AMG, and perhaps several other engine choices, a coupe to counter the two-door S-class seems not even to be a consideration at Audi right now.

Even within the Volkswagen Group, the A8 is about to face some strong competition – the all-new Phaeton is now rolling off of its state of the art line at Volkswagen’s glass factory in Dresden. It represents a highly attractive offering that will most certainly come in at a lower price level than the Audi.

The launch of the car is important to the Volkswagen brand. With that in mind, Volkswagen is getting aggressive about marketing to that D-class target market. Buyers of the new car, unlike the A8, are encouraged to visit the Dresden factory and even choose their own custom colors. This is one aspect we’re surprised Audi hasn’t offered before, or at this point even duplicated.

Even though the Volkswagen shares some of the Audi’s D-class componentry, one facet it does not share is the A8’s aluminum space frame. The Phaeton is a heavier steel design. It is also much more conservative in appearance and somewhat drab looking when parked next to the A8.

Further, the market has yet to prove whether Volkswagen will be able to polish its badge enough to become as sought-after as other marques in this category. Only time will tell how serious a competitor the Phaeton will be for the A8L.

A Bit of History

Within the walls of Audi’s Ingolstadt headquarters and amongst its staff, the new A8 is also referred to as D3, meaning it is the third generation of their D-chassis cars. First came the Audi V8, and then later in 19XX came the D2-based first-generation A8.

At the time, this first generation A8 was a bit of an oddity. Audi wagered a large investment on the co-development of the ASF (Audi Space Frame) with aluminum-expert, Alcoa. Technologically, the previous A8 was ground-breaking. However, its handsome, yet very conservative styling didn’t exactly yank at the heart-strings of buyers, though it’s appearance was not without appeal.

Quite obviously, the all-aluminum first generation A8 was worth the gamble. Because of this move, Audi is years ahead of most of its rivals in technologies surrounding use of aluminum in automobiles, and continues to reap the rewards of the lighter and more rigid metal that proves quite difficult to work with.

Nevertheless, competitors are beginning to see the light (sorry – bad pun). Jaguar has just launched its first modern aluminum car with the XJ and BMW experimented with the lightweight substance when it built the short-lived Z8 roadster.

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A Look at the ASF

Not to be confused with the three generations of D-class Audis, the ASF (Audi Space Frame) also debuts its third generation in the introduction of the new A8. With its production birth in the previous A8, Audi evolved the technology as it developed its small A2 city car, representing the second generation ASF. With the new A8, Audi has improved even further and the third generation ASF proves it through an increase of 60% in torsional rigidity. Further, Audi estimates a weight savings of over 300 lbs.

This increase in rigidity and decrease in weight are achieved through several means. Audi’s increased proficiencies in the use of Aluminum allow for more intricate castings and an increased use of varied extrusions resulting in fewer numbers of castings. While the first generation A8 (ASF Mark I) used 334 aluminum parts, the frame of the new A8 (ASF Mark III) uses only 267. For instance, the new car’s frame segment that provides the structure beginning at the A-pillar and extending the length of the roof above either side of windows and continuing on down through the C pillar, a part that has several shapes throughout its length, now has perfect cross section shape at all lengths through Audi’s improved hydro-forming processes.

Audi actually estimates a weight savings of 40% vs. the calculated weight of an equivalent car built of steel. This aspect of the A8 presents several clear advantages. Its structural weight is the lowest in its class, providing improved fuel economy, performance and allowing Audi to jam pack even more technology as the added weight of such niceties has been counterbalanced through use of the lightweight metal.

Conservative & Attractive Exterior Design

Outwardly, the new A8 is a gentle mix of progressive design and stylish conservatism. Audi chose not to debut the bold new shield grille on the new car, instead choosing to use the current split-grille design found on the A4 and A6. Though recent Audi concept cars such as the Nuvolari coupe certainly show a new direction, the A8 manages with a thoroughly modern interpretation of Audi’s current production car design and takes many cues from 2001’s Avantissimo show car.

Other new elements such as gentle body creases and generous use of chrome in the weight-line are new elements that evolve the older Audi look even further. More functional, LED lighting is also now implemented in the taillight clusters.

Interior

It is a rare occurrence when the automotive press is virtually unanimous on anything. So when they are, as is the case in their praise of Audi interiors, one can bank on the fact that the driving environment of almost any Audi will be a delight in many respects. In development of a new flagship, Audi had to best even its own towering standards.

As with the exterior, the Avantissimo concept car was a significant inspiration for the A8’s interior. The nautically-inspired dashboard and arching center console have a much more upscale appearance than the previous car and, along with the MMI interactive vehicle control, are almost identical to the 2001 show car. Audi has cleaned up the center console’s design even further by adding a much more compact and modern parking brake design to the configuration. While perhaps not as performance-oriented, the feel is befitting of the luxury segment the Audi intends to dominate.

As if to emphasize the aluminum construction of the A8, Audi has made generous use of the light metal, polished to an attractive satin silver finish, on an extensive range of interior elements. From seat adjustment control buttons and the BOSE audio system badges on the speakers to the beautifully crafted MMI controls, the presence of the metal takes the interior feel even more upscale.

Audi’s now trademark door-panel and dashboard weight line inserts accent the aluminum with a handsome wood grain. However, it is around these new inserts where we found one of our few grudges with the A8. Along the bottom of the wood, there is a contrasting segment that has been added with the new car. While it would look absolutely stunning in that same satin aluminum finish, it has instead been fitted with what seems to be the same drab fiberglass finish as the inserts in the bottom-of-the-range A4 1.8T. Perhaps this was a cost-cutting move on Audi’s part, but to not even offer Aluminum or some other high-end substance as an option seems to be a big mistake.

Multi-Media Interface (MMI)

A concept first shown in 2001’s Audi Avantissimo concept car, MMI is the Audi’s answer to the BMW i-drive system. As it was launched, the BMW system was panned for unintuitive interface and overly complicated operation. It would seem Audi learned from BMW’s mistakes in the creation of MMI.

At the heart of it, the system is made up of a large screen that appears as it rises from its hidden position behind the wood trim on the central dashboard. A handsome control panel with generous use of polished aluminum accents is found just aft the gear-shift lever on the center console. Additional system controls are found on Audi’s attractive new steering wheel with rollers on each side, controlling menu operation on the left of the wheel and volume on the right.

Operationally, Audi engineers limited MMI to four menu levels with the same model of operation for each component.

Components themselves are chosen via keys at the outer sides of the main control panel, one each for “RADIO”, “CD/TV”, “NET”, and “TEL” (telephone) on the right and “NAV” (navigation system), “INFO”, “CAR” and “SETUP” on the right.

From there, selections are made via the push-button rotary control. Options at the corner of each screen correspond to the four keys around the push- button/rotary control, while the “RETURN” button allows the user to navigate back one level.

To note, North American cars are not equipped with television functionality, so that button controls only the CD control.

To further keep things from getting too complicated, Audi kept the multiple-zone climate control separate from MMI. The system, mounted in a traditional position on the center console just in front of and above the gear-shift, has controls at that position for both driver and passenger. Further controls are found at the back of the center console so that rear-seat passengers can also control their own temperature settings.

BOSE Audio

The relationship between BOSE and Audi began more than ten years ago when Audi was the first car company from Europe to work with the New England based sound engineering company. Today, a BOSE audio system is offered in every new Audi sold in the United States.

Befitting its place in the Audi lineup, the A8 gets a highly advanced new audio system and the first in an Audi to feature true surround sound performance. The heart of the A8’s audio offering is based upon the BOSE Cabin Surround architecture. Front and rear channels provide a 360-degree listening field, allowing occupants to experience music with the “ambience of a concert hall or the sense of being on stage and in the middle of the performers”.

Unfortunately, even for those drivers in this market segment, most of today’s CD recordings are not produced on a level to be truly effective with surround sound. To account for that, the A8 system also makes use of BOSE’s Centerpoint technology. This proprietary technology processes existing stereo and matrix surround recordings into five independent channels. It then delivers multi-channel surround sound – even from a basic stereo recording.

While Centerpoint counters the problem that arises from the prevalence of most stereo recordings, BOSE has incorporated its AutoPilot noise compensation circuit technology to counter various external noises that may intrude on the A8’s stereo performance. The new system on the Audi has one of the most effective ways available to compenstate for various unwanted noises such as the hum of tires on pavement, the sound of rain hitting the windshield, wind noise from an open window, etc.

Rather than simply relying on the less effective speed-dependant volume control, a built-in microphone continuously monitors the sound inside the A8. A compensation algorithm engineered specifically for the A8L automatically adjusts the music signal to automatically adjust for the invading ambient noise.

The effect of the system is truly impressive. Even driving in stop and go traffic can be quite pleasant with the right collection of music. We can’t help but wondering though how much better this truly impressive system would be if mated with an optional video package that might include either a drop-down ceiling-mounted video screen or screens in the backs of the front-seat headrests and mated to a DVD video player of some sort. While such a system might be overkill for most A8 buyers, Audi would be smart to offer something such as this as an option package on their flagship model.

Engine & Transmission

As the A8 has been improved and refined, so too has Audi’s 4.2-liter, 40-valve V8 engine. Power is raised by 20hp to a peak 330hp. Torque is also raised 15lb-ft to 317lb-ft.

Mated to this latest iteration of the 4.2, Audi has placed a brand new 6-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission bestowed with several benefits. Gearshift speed and quality are improved, but no less important is the addition of a sixth gear. Having a greater choice of ratios, and therefore a greater spread, Audi was able to improve both fuel economy and acceleration performance over the equivalent 5-speed Tiptronic. First gear is actually 30% shorter than the previous Tiptronic. On top of that, this new transmission is also able to handle up to 443lb-ft of torque and at the same time weighs in at 1kg less than the outgoing 5-speed.

Suspension

One unique aspect of the new A8 within its segment is the car’s new adaptive suspension. Like many of the A8’s features, this new component is controlled through the MMI interface on the center console by choosing the “CAR” button.

The system itself is an evolution for Audi. Like the Avant/SUV hybrid Audi allroad, the new suspension is an air suspension. An air compressor at the front of the car feeds air to a holding tank at the rear of the vehicle. The air contained is used to pressurize air shocks at the front and rear, changing not only the handling characteristics from luxurious to sporty, but also changing the ride height.

Four ride modes can be chosen including: Dynamic, Automatic, Comfort and Lift.

Dynamic mode is the most sporting of the choices afforded to a driver. It is optimized for more sporting handling, and has a standard ride height of 100mm; 20mm less than Comfort or Automatic modes. As the car passes 75mph, it lowers an additional 5mm for improved stability and aerodynamics and as it slows, it raises back to 120mm at speeds below 50mph.

In Comfort Mode, the ride height of the A8 is approximately 120mm. This mode can be operated in all speed ranges and is optimized for the most comfortable suspension dampening settings.

Automatic Mode is a bit of a hybrid. Around town, it runs at roughly the same settings as Comfort Mode, though it lowers by 25mm at speeds over 75mph. As the car slows back down, it raises back to 120mm when it drops below 50mph.

Lift Mode is perhaps the most remarkable of these four settings. Unlike anything from its competitors, this mode raises the A8 25mm and operates up to 62mph. The system is handy on rough roads, large speed bumps and more. Additionally, coupled with quattro all-wheel drive as it is in the case of the A8, this large luxury sedan would probably provide better performance in heavy snow or limited off-road situations than some SUVs, making the A8 perhaps the world’s most elegant automotive equivalent to the Swiss Army knife.

Where it Stands

Earlier Audi D-class cars were good for their day, offering competitive levels of luxury and combining them with quattro all-wheel drive. However, those cars did not exhibit the tailored class of their pre-war Horch predecessors. Cars of that time exuded class, performance and luxury levels high above those of most cars of the competition of their day. With the new A8, Audi has seemingly recaptured this level of production. Whether it’s the honed detailing of the polished aluminum MMI controls, or the tailored leather of the seating surfaces, the new car makes a convincing argument as to why a customer of this caliber would seek out the Audi over its other extremely attractive alternatives.

While we may sound absolutely glowing on the car, it does have its shortcomings. If Audi is as serious as they claim about the D segment, then custom tailoring like the Volkswagen Phaeton, video entertainment system and additional engine choices seem to be a must.

That said, patience is a virtue and it is important to remember that this A8L is the first of its kind to appear in the USA. As is Audi’s habit, models such as an S8, A8 W12 or even RS8 or diesel models could appear as the product evolves in this market. We just wish they’d take a page from BMW’s book and offer more of it up front rather than trickling in throughout the product lifecycle.

In any case, the new A8L is a true thoroughbred. Much like the Kentucky Derby’s winner, Funny Cyde, the Audi is showing itself to be a dominant player. Numerous comparisons throughout the automotive media comparing the new A8 to cars such as the BMW 7, Mercedes-Benz S-class and even the new aluminum Jaguar XJ have resulted in a clear show of dominance on the part of the Audi A8. And, unlike the gelding Funny Cyde, unable to reproduce, Audi and Alcoa have shown that further recreation of the ASF will continue to benefit the thoroughbreds coming out of Ingolstadt.

COUNTERPOINT – Brad Beardow, VWvortex.com

Any time I get a high-dollar vehicle out of the VW/Audi press pool for a week, my wife likes to look at the window sticker and inform me exactly what percentage of the price of our house this particular vehicle might cost. Let me tell you, when we start inching towards the 50% mark, she becomes more than just a little skeptical. Can any regular production vehicle really be worth more than $80,000?

The above question is undoubtedly rhetorical in nature, but I can tell you that this is one special vehicle. Our Mr. Achorn has offered some lovely detailed descriptions regarding this car’s aesthetic and ergonomic qualities and I’m here to tell you that actually driving this car is a rather nice experience as well. Much more nimble than its two-ton+ curb weight might suggest, the fact is that I found this long wheelbase limousine to be almost as fun as the S4 I tested just a few weeks prior. With the air suspension set on Dynamic, turn in is crisp, the ride firm and controlled, body roll is a non-issue and the only real negative is the noise that seems to come from the rear suspension when traversing choppy road surfaces.

The 6-speed Tiptronic provides gear ratios perfectly matched to the engine’s torque curve and has a truly useful sport mode that provides increased throttle response, quicker, firmer up and downshifts, and seemed to make the manual Tiptronic mode somewhat superfluous. The big V8 has no problem moving this behemoth with authority and possesses a wonderful Jeckyll-and-Hyde personality when it comes to noise – smooth and quiet when cruising, and a pleasing guttural roar when asked to play ‘Ronin’ for a moment or two. Brakes are so good that I have no real recollection about them worth noting and, to be honest, I drove this car much harder than 99% of its intended audience will ever attempt.

The A8L is a big fancy car that has more athletic prowess than many cars half its size. It also costs 50% or so of some people’s homes. Obviously, for those of us thinking about this car in those terms, owning this Audi is probably not really an option. Still, it is nice to see, if only for a week, just how the other half lives (drives).

COUNTERPOINT – Jamie Vondruska, VWvortex.com

Expectations are always high when you’re about to take the keys to a high-end luxury sedan and the A8L is not an exception. More often than not these days though, reality doesn’t always live up to the expectations – the A8L *is* an exception in this case.

As is typical with Audi these days, the detailing on this car is truly impressive going beyond anything they have previously done – beautiful wood veneers, soft-touch leathers, Alcantera inserts, aluminum accents everywhere you touch and more. The interior ambient lighting package at night would give a mega-yacht a run for its money with soft-white LED’s hidden in door panels and under seats spilling light on to surfaces – very nice. Even the MMI is well thought out with logical controls and a color coded graphic user interface that shows Audi really didn’t want another BMW iDrive debacle on their hands. Audi kept the HVAC system controls separately adjustable and I think the radio controls should be separately adjustable as well, but otherwise the system works well.

The A8L is, well, long – real long. The back seat is near-limousine in size, yet the car doesn’t feel nearly as cumbersome as its size would suggest – dare I say it almost feels nimble for its size. Ride and handling is a good compromise leaning more towards the sporting end of the spectrum, but the driver can choose from a variety of comfort settings to suit their taste. The engine really sounds sweet when pressed hard, with a great growl, yet very refined at more sedate cruising speeds.

My only real gripe is that Volkswagen and Audi only seem to have the air suspension system about 90% sorted out properly. The Audi A8, Phaeton and Touareg equipped with the air suspension all suffer from a certain amount of banging and thumping, particularly in the rear of the vehicle. It is as if the air bladders can’t absorb the large impacts as well as a traditional steel spring setup and consequently impacts get transmitted right to the body much more directly making it very hard for the body to cope and resulting in some quiver and shake over large bumps. Mind you this is all nitpicking as a large number of people probably won’t notice this behavior but hopefully Volkswagen and Audi will continue to refine this system over time.

Phaeton or A8? I’d have to give the nod to the A8 (black please), but it is very much a personal choice.



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