A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing
The Audi A4 is one of the best entry-level luxury sport sedans on the market. It is quick, stable, attractive and luxurious. In even its most basic configuration, the A4 offers incredible value to discerning buyers. When Edmund's editors first drove one of these amazing cars in 1996, we knew that good things were in store for this formerly troubled company.
Since the A4 was introduced, Audi has continued to roll out interesting and innovative cars. It seems that the bad old days of the Eighties are forgotten; company products that were once regarded as unreliable and unsafe in America have enjoyed a rebirth of reputation that once again places Audi's rings in the same rarefied atmosphere as the Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star and BMW blue-and-white propeller.
All that glitters is not gold, though, and we have found that some of Audi's shine wanes once we get past the wonderful A4. When editor-in-chief Christian Wardlaw tested the A6 last year, he found the car technologically advanced and sumptuously appointed, but unattractive and underpowered. Recently we got our hands on an A8, and walked away wondering what all of the fuss was about. This is not to say that the A8 is a lousy car, but its name makes us think "twice as exceptional as the A4," while its price and performance makes us think "bigger and much more expensive A4."
The A8 has aluminum space frame (ASF) construction, designed to make the car lighter and more nimble. Developed with aluminum manufacturer Alcoa, the A8 is the first mass-produced aluminum bodied car sold in this country. In addition to an aluminum body, the A8 also has an all-aluminum suspension and an aluminum engine. The A8 we tested came equipped with the 4.2-liter twin-cam V8 engine that is standard on all Quattro models. This motor puts out 300 horsepower and 295 foot-pounds of torque, numbers equal to the Seville STS and slightly more than the BMW 740iL and Mercedes-Benz S420.
The A8's performance package looks great on paper. It has a good power-to-weight ratio, with a rigid body structure and modern suspension. This combination means that the A8 is light on its feet, but the P225/HR16 all-season tires do not offer the grip necessary to make this vehicle feel truly sporty. The 4.2-liter engine has excellent mid-range and high-end power, but the A8's Tiptronic auto-manual transmission does not help provide the car with as much oomph off the line as the Cadillac Seville. The brakes, on the other hand, are top-notch, bringing the A8 to a faultless stop time after time.
During a run on our test loop through the mountains of Colorado, the A8 was solid and comfortable. The compliant suspension was perfect for absorbing the pockmarked secondary roads that are part of our testing, and the sharp steering allowed us to easily place this rather large car when entering turns. Turns, however, are what the Audi does not handle well. As previously mentioned, the tires on the A8 gave up their grip easily, breaking away from the pavement progressively, but much too early for a car with touring sedan aspirations. The powertrain's lack of low-end grunt further diminished this sedan's ability to move quickly through the twisties; even when using the Tiptronic transmission's manual mode, we were unable to get the A8 to pull authoritatively out of a tight corner. Having driven a BMW 740iL on this same loop shortly before testing the A8, we can only say that Audi has not yet reached their goal of matching BMW performance in the large car category.
The interior of the A8 offers some redemption for Audi's engineers. The spacious cabin is comfortable and luxurious, giving front and rear seat passengers ample room to stretch out. Our only gripe is one that we have about most German cars; the climate and stereo controls are difficult to operate intuitively and lack the necessary visual contrast to make them easy to see without taking one's eyes off the road. One of our favorite features on the A8 was the warm weather package. Consisting of solar collectors mounted in the sunroof that power a venting unit, it recirculates the air in the Audi even when it is parked in direct sunlight. When the temperatures in Denver approached triple digits this summer, it was a feature we were quite happy with. The Audi's interior was bearable even after an afternoon in the blazing sun. The warm weather package also features a power rear sunshade, perfect for keeping the sun off the backs of rear seat passengers. It also effectively blocks out annoying tailgaters. We have never encountered an automotive apparatus that more succinctly and eloquently blocks someone flipping you the bird. Press the button, the shade goes up, and it's the automotive equivalent of "Talk to the hand."
There was no agreement from our staff members about the A8's exterior styling. Comments ran the gamut from exciting to dirt dull. Production manager John Davis' girlfriend, an art history student at the University of Colorado, asked how much the car cost when first casting her eyes over the A8's aluminum flanks. When told that the tariff was over $71,000, she rolled her eyes and said, "It doesn't look like it should cost that much."
Davis' girlfriend hit a point that is shared by many of Edmund's editors. The A8 simply should not cost as much as it does. We realize that the A8 is a technological wonder; the all-aluminum construction, Quattro all-wheel drive system, rear passenger side-impact airbags, and interior cooling system are features that are impressive in almost any package. The problem is that the whole appears to be less than the sum of its parts. The car doesn't handle as well as its competitors, despite the wunderkind science that went into its development, it does not coddle in luxury, despite its high level of standard equipment, and it doesn't stand out in a crowd; an important feature for those plunking down twice the nation's median family income on a car.
This week we have been testing an Audi A4 against some stiff competition from Japan and the United States. At this writing, the votes indicate that the A4 will emerge as the victor. That car has luxury, style and performance dripping from every corner. When we get in the A8, we want to feel those same qualities times two. Maybe Audi shouldn't have made such a great entry-level car. They might have taught us to expect too much.