A Dark Horse Kicks Up its Heels
Audi's press introduction of its redesigned flagship, the A8 L, took place in Louisville, Kentucky, on the same weekend as that state's famous horse race. This was no mere coincidence; Audi brass stated that the reason for this time and place was intentional. It claimed that its new A8 L and the Kentucky Derby have a few things in common, namely sophistication, performance and style. I also thought the venue was appropriate given that Audi has always been a dark horse in the German luxury sedan sales race, never quite having the prestige of its more ballyhooed competitors you know who we're talking about.
At first glance, the new A8 L doesn't look much different than the outgoing model. The same crisp, uncluttered lines are there, but the headlights and roofline are more aggressively swept back. Knowing that today's car enthusiasts are into big wheels, Audi offers three designs and sizes. Standard are seven-spoke 17s wearing 235/55s and optional are five-spoke 18s shod with 255/45s and wheel-well-filling 12-spoke 19s wrapped with 255/40 performance rubber. All in all, this is an understated, handsome sedan that doesn't shout "I've got money" yet still exudes class.
Under the A8 L's aluminum skin, Audi employs a revised version of its aluminum (or "alu-min-i-um," as the company's British rep says) alloy space frame which is stronger and lighter than a comparable steel structure. The second generation of this architecture has 20 percent fewer parts than before yet boasts considerably greater (60 percent) torsional rigidity. But when one looks at the A8 L's specs, they may wonder why, with this "lightweight" design, the A8 L weighs as much as, if not more than, its competition. Engineers explained that producing a lighter car would have come at the expense of loading the A8 L with a wealth of standard features, such as Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system and sonar parking assist for both front and rear.
Audi has a strong reputation for having what many of us auto scribes consider to be the best cabins in the business be they entry-level or ultralevel luxury cars and the A8 L maintains that lofty standard. Whether you sit in the pilot's seat or stretch out (and with 42 inches of rear legroom, we mean stretch out) in the back, everything you see and touch in the A8 L bespeaks the highest quality even the power seat controls are accented in aluminum.
The question with this car isn't what's standard, it's what isn't. Most anyone with a big thirst for luxury and convenience features should be well sated by the A8 L. A DVD-based navigation system and bi-xenon headlights are on the long standard features roster, as is a 12-speaker Bose audio system with CD changer (located in the glovebox) that was designed exclusively for the A8 L. Other coddling features include a pair of vanity mirrors for the rear-seat passengers, heated seats (front and rear) and steering wheel, power lumbar support for all four outboard seats and window shades for the rear side and back windows. Peace-of-mind features include stability control, 10 airbags (including four side, front knee and curtain) and a first aid kit in the rear center armrest.
With 16-way power adjustment (including upper seat back angle for the shoulders) and a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, finding a comfortable driving position was easy for both this 5-foot-5 editor and his 6-foot co-driver. The seats' ideal combination of firmness and contouring, along with the A8 L's very low wind and road noise levels, made the miles pass by quickly. Well, OK, so did the potent V8.
Audi's new Multi-Media Interface (MMI) handles the nav and audio systems as well as the air suspension's driver-selectable adjustments. MMI features a seven-inch monitor that automatically glides (and hides) into the dash ("the name is Bond
") when not in use. Mounted in the console and operated via a simple twist-and-press knob and four large buttons that surround the knob, Audi's MMI may draw comparisons to BMW's iDrive system. But unlike iDrive, MMI is simple and intuitive this writer can vouch for that, as it was a breeze to operate. Audi engineers purposely left out the climate control functions from the MMI because they were adamant about having the system being easy to use.
Those hungry for power should be satisfied with the A8 L's newly fortified 4.2-liter, 40-valve V8 that makes a scintillating 330 horsepower and 317 pound-feet of torque. This is 20 hp and 15 more lb-ft than last year's A8/A8 L. A new six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission (which actually weighs less than last year's five-speeder) sends the power to all four wheels through Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system.
Audi claims that the A8 L can sprint to 60 mph in just 6.3 seconds and run down the quarter-mile in 14.2 ticks, putting it about equal in acceleration to its executive express rivals, Mercedes-Benz's S500 and BMW's 745Li. Response is gratifying, to say the least. Whether we were taking off from a stoplight or jetting up to cruising speed on the freeway, a solid rush of power was always on tap. And the six-shooter gearbox might as well have been a CVT, so seamless were its gear changes. True to its autobahn-bred heritage, the A8 L is utterly relaxed at felonious velocities, so a watchful eye on the speedo is well-advised. Powerfully reassuring brakes that are easily modulated had no problem reigning in the A8 L during one particularly energetic romp in horse country.
Audi's engineers are especially proud of the A8 L's all-new air suspension, claiming it provides the handling of a sports car with the ride of a luxury sedan. The adaptive air suspension adjusts itself to road and driving conditions, automatically firming up when the car is pressed through the curves and softening when cruising down the interstate. The driver can select one of four settings for the adaptive system: dynamic (lowest ride height and firm damping), automatic, comfort and lift (raises the car up for travel on rough roads). Left in automatic, the system works just fine providing a soft but not mushy ride and solid composure through the twisty bits. But being performance buffs, we had to try the dynamic setting, which kept body lean to an absolute minimum, making the A8 L feel more like Audi's relatively agile TT than the company's long-wheelbase luxury sedan. Typical of Audi is the linear and well-weighted steering whose road feel falls in between the more communicative BMW and the more isolated Benz setups.
Like those many fine, unheralded equines of yesterday and yesteryear, Audi is a name that is deserving of recognition. And at a price tag some $10,000 to $12,000 less than its chief rivals, we suggest visiting the stable of the four rings before putting down your big money.