2004 Audi A8 L Road Test

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2004 Audi A8 Sedan

(4.2L V8 AWD 6-speed Automatic)

An Alternative Turned Tempting

Although previous versions of the A8 earned sufficient praise for their technological sophistication and smart interior designs, Audi's flagship sedan has often been saddled with the less-than-flattering "alternative" label — as in "it's a nice alternative, if you don't like the more athletic BMW or roomier Mercedes."

Such back-handed compliments weren't taken lightly by the brass in Ingolstadt, and the introduction of this year's fully revamped A8 represents their most earnest attempt yet to wipe away the notion of the A8 as a second-class citizen in the ultraluxury sedan class.

Like its predecessor, the '04 A8 has an underlying structure of lightweight aluminum, but support now consists of a sophisticated air suspension while propulsion is provided by an even more powerful V8 engine. And just to make sure that it doesn't fall short when it comes to passenger space, only the long-wheelbase A8 L model will be sold in the U.S.

Combine those elements with a dazzling interior and a shape that turns heads, and you begin to see why the A8 has a good chance of finally throwing off its third-choice status. Put simply; the A8 no longer "needs a little something more" to push it over the edge of desirability. Whether you crave performance, the latest features or just an easy-to-live-with combination of both, the A8 now delivers on all counts.

Slip behind the wheel and there's no fumbling around to get comfortable. The layout is straightforward and logical while the 16-way adjustable seats are practically limitless in their ability to wrap themselves around you. Recessed gauges stare out from behind a small but feature-laden steering wheel, while the gearshift sits atop a raised center console that houses Audi's new MMI control interface — more on that later.

Audi has built a reputation for sleek interior designs that walk the fine line between functionality and fashion, and the A8 is undoubtedly its best effort yet. Gorgeous wood inlays and soft suede trim highlight the doors and dashboard, while more subtle metallic accents add just enough contrast to keep things from looking too British. Audi materials quality never ceases to impress, as we found no obvious instances of cost cutting.

There's no needlessly complicated keyless ignition system, you just stick the key in and turn it to bring the car to life. You would think something so simple would be obvious, but as luxury cars have developed into rolling studios of technological gadgetry, even something as simple as starting the engine has become fodder for overzealous engineers intent on finding a "better" way.

Once awake, there are few hints that the big V8 is purring away down below, as the cabin remains whisper quiet. Our first indication that we were even moving was the audible chimes from our test car's optional front and rear parking sensors. These electronic crutches are often more annoying than helpful, but between the A8's considerable length and the poor rearward visibility caused by the steeply raked window and small side mirrors, this option seems almost indispensable.

Once clear of all bumper-disfiguring obstacles, the A8 starts to feel quite a bit smaller thanks to variable rate steering and the newfound power of its 4.2-liter V8. Although no bigger in displacement than last year's engine, it's now rated at 330 horsepower, an additional 20 horses over the previous version. A new six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission channels the power to all four wheels via the standard quattro all-wheel-drive system.

Audi claims performance numbers on par with the Mercedes S500 and BMW 745i and we have no reason to doubt the specs. The A8 is quick to the punch from a stop and deceptively fast at speed. If there is any reason to question Audi's claims, it would have more to do with the apparent ease with which the car gets up to speed than any actual lack of grunt.

As with the A8's peers, there's little drama involved during full-force acceleration as the V8 emits nothing more than the soothing sound of perfectly timed mechanical movements, regardless of engine speed. A run through the canyons while holding third gear had us bouncing the tachometer back and forth between midrange and redline for the better part of an hour, and not once did the engine hesitate, hiccup or fail to deliver a perfectly smooth stream of forceful acceleration.

Shifts from the six-speed transmission are barely perceptible under part throttle, but flat-footed gear swaps generated momentary hesitations in the power delivery of our preproduction test car. We also noted an apparent laziness under half throttle that was only slightly cured by selecting the "Sport" shift mode. Whether these kinks have been worked out on production units we can't say, but the transmission's overall performance is well above average so even these minor deficiencies are apt to go unnoticed by most drivers.

Less likely to go unnoticed are the A8's nearly unflappable road manners courtesy of its sophisticated new air suspension and stiff aluminum body structure. By replacing its traditional steel springs and shocks with air-filled struts, the A8 enjoys a nearly infinite level of adjustability. Four settings are selectable via the dashboard interface — comfort, dynamic, lift and automatic. The first three have obvious specialties while the automatic mode selects the most appropriate blend of all three.

Although riding on a pillow of air might seem like a recipe for vague handling and a detached road feel, the A8 displays no such qualities. Even when set in comfort mode there's never any of the float you might expect, just a well-damped and tightly controlled ride quality that smothers potholes while isolating passengers. Dialing up the dynamic mode does bring about a noticeably firmer ride, but it never crosses over to the point of harshness.

With an overall length of 17 feet and curb weight of 4,400 pounds (600 pounds more than Jaguar's XJ), we didn't expect the A8 to be much fun as a sport sedan, but our backcountry blasts proved it to be surprisingly agile and supremely confident in the corners. The variable rate steering adds enough assist to keep efforts low while still providing the kind of precise control required for high-speed corrections. Despite the sedan's substantial weight, the brakes never failed to deliver quick stops with no noticeable fading after repeated hard use.

To get a better idea of just how well the A8 compares to its peers, we took it along on back-to-back test-drives with our long-term BMW 745iL. The BMW felt bigger behind the wheel initially, but it proved equally agile at speed. Steering feel still goes to the BMW, but the Audi trumped the big 7 Series when it came to overall ride quality. The A8 was equally athletic in the turns while maintaining a more forgiving feel on rough surfaces, a trait that should factor prominently in its ability to convince buyers that it deserves serious consideration.

If there was any one aspect of the A8 that stuck out above all else when comparing the two cars, it was surely the Audi's simplified interior controls. Much has been made about BMW's complex iDrive computer that attempts to consolidate all the vehicle's electronic control systems into one intuitive interface. The idea was ingenious, the execution was not.

Audi has adopted the idea but with much better results. The A8's Multi Media Interface, or MMI, system has all the functionality of iDrive while providing a much more user-friendly setup. A single dial sits atop the center console surrounded by four buttons that correspond to the four corners of the display screen that unfolds from the dashboard. A separate return button allows you to take a step back whenever you need to, while additional device-specific (radio, navigation, car setup) buttons allow you to choose the right area with just one click.

It still may sound a little complicated, but in practice the MMI is quite simple to use. The menus are clear and easy to read, the knob itself moves with reassuring clicks and returning to your original screen can be done quickly. Adjusting your fan speed with the manual dials automatically calls up the appropriate screen to show your current settings, while two quick clicks are all that's necessary to pull up the colorful and detailed maps available from the navigation menu. It's not perfect, as it still takes too much effort to accomplish simple tasks like tuning the radio, but on the whole the MMI is far less frustrating than BMW's trying setup.

When it comes to interior comfort, the A8's stretched wheelbase allows for over 42 inches of legroom in the rear seats — slightly less than the BMW, but still more than enough room to stretch out. Some editors found the backseats a little on the short side given the expansive legroom provided, but most passengers will find the rear quarters quite accommodating.

Long stints at the helm only served to reinforce our initial impression that the A8's front buckets are some of the most comfortable we've ever experienced. With a four-way lumbar adjuster, an adjustable upper back cushion and a six-level heating system, there are few positions that they can't get into. The cabin remains silent during high-speed cruising, but a 12-speaker Bose audio system can fill it up with plenty of noise if you prefer. The fact that the system's CD changer resides in the glovebox is an unwelcome realization after you've already hit the road, but the sounds that it creates make you forget in a hurry.

With a base price of $68,500, the Audi's newfound elegance doesn't come cheap. But considering that BMW's long-wheelbase 745Li starts at $72,500 and Mercedes' standard S500 is a cool $81,000, the A8's bottom line doesn't seem all that unreasonable.

In the past, most summations of the A8 included some sort of qualification. Whether it was a cramped interior, not enough power or simply a lack of anything unique, there was always a reason to consider the old standbys first and the Audi second.

This latest version tosses those notions aside and instead serves up a package with few faults. The cabin is impeccable in both design and function, the performance equivalent to any of its rivals and its handsome style certainly won't be holding it back. It's not perfection by any means, but it's no longer the "alternative," either. Consider the German fight for luxury sedan supremacy an official three-horse race.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 9.0

Components: The stereo and instrumentation in this Audi A8 remind us a lot of the iDrive setup in the new BMW 7 Series. Virtually all the functions for the stereo are routed through a dash-mounted LCD screen that Audi calls Multi Media Interface (MMI). This is complemented by a bevy of controls at the fingertips of the driver, located just in front of the center armrest. It's a strange setup at first glance, but after just a few minutes of working with it we found it both logical and convenient, with the exception that the driver must take his eyes off the roadway to work the controls. The safety aspect of this arrangement still concerns us, but we believe familiarity with the controls, at least those controls related to the stereo, would provide for seamless operation.

In addition to all the standard stereo features, this Bose system includes a six-disc CD changer in the glovebox, and a "surround sound" offering of speakers that truly envelopes the listener in a cocoon of sound. Speaker placements include a 10-inch subwoofer along the back deck, 6.5-inch speakers in all four doors, tweeters in the rear doors and a surround sound centerfill speaker mounted on the dash. The system also includes a readout between the speedometer and tach that gives a visual of what function is operating. All in all, we found this system interesting although a tad confusing in the beginning, but we reiterate that familiarity would no doubt make it easier to use.

Performance: Any objections to the design of this system immediately melt away when the system is turned on. This is among the best-sounding systems we've listened to in the last year, with a rich, pure sound that truly "surrounds" the listener with audio. The centerfill speaker produces an outstanding soundstage, with excellent stereo imaging and presence. Bass response was superb — deep, rich and thick, with just enough snap to respond to kick drum and other percussion. Highs and mids filled the cabin with detail and intricacy, and the overall balance of this system impressed us. All the instruments we tested in our analysis responded with a natural sound that suggested minimum coloration of the audio signal. Female vocals were superb, horns were brassy without being harsh and the whole audio spectrum pleased this listener immensely.

Best Feature: True "surround sound" capability.

Worst Feature: Ergonomics take some getting used to.

Conclusion: This one gets a 10 for sound, but a 9 for design. We certainly liked it overall, but took off a point for the control layout, which could prove confusing and distracting to first-time users. — Scott Memmer

Second Opinions

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
The new Audi A8 L probably doesn't have the "passionate driving" pedigree of the 7 Series or the "engineering excellence" reputation of the S-Class. But, it also doesn't have the "interesting" design elements of the latest 7 nor the "budget-busting" price of the S. As the perennial upstart to those iconic pillars of German luxury, Audi has always tried to offer more for less. In the case of the new A8 L, the "more" includes standard all-wheel drive (optional on the Mercedes, not available on the Bimmer), an all-aluminum body and space frame (similar to the new Jaguar XJ) and high-end features that are usually on the options list, even at this price point. Items like a DVD navigation system, heated seats and steering wheel and power lumbar adjustments for rear-seat passengers certainly suggest value in a segment not often associated with that word.

I found the car capable in terms of performance and luxury but a couple items, like wind noise coming off the top of the driver door and a CD changer that sits in the glovebox, kept me from being completely bowled over by this highly engaging sedan. In fact, it seemed every time I found something to rave about ("The driver seat has a separate upper back adjustment for angle!"), I also found something to deride ("The short rear-seat bottom offers no more support than an A4's."). Audi's version of iDrive, dubbed MMI, works as well or better than BMW's, and I liked the clean, high-tech look of the interface. But when it was time to manually tune the radio, it took me several seconds to begin the process, even after I knew exactly what to do. I did like the steering wheel-mounted dials, which I believe are an industry first, and the rear-seat area is absolutely cavernous. Would I buy it over a BMW or Mercedes (or Jaguar)? I can't say for sure, but it would definitely be on my short list. And that's not a bad place for an upstart to land.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
I think the A8 L may be my new favorite super-luxury sedan. Despite the annoyances associated with all the technology loaded into the 7 Series, I've been inclined to stick by it because I didn't think anything else could match its excellent road manners, top-grade interior materials and spacious cabin. But the A8 seems to do this. And it manages to integrate all of the requisite technology into an interface that is easy to understand and use from the moment you settle into the driver seat. What's not to like?

The driving experience was particularly enjoyable. Despite its large size, the A8 doesn't feel that way, and I found its handling characteristics remarkably similar to the compact A4's. It feels light yet firmly planted around turns, and there isn't much body roll. Not only does the big Audi inspire confidence when driven briskly, it also shows you a really good time. It came as almost a surprise then that after my drive, I was able to get into the backseat and almost fully extend my legs (which are pretty long) without kicking the front seat back. The materials used in the cabin set the standard for luxury sedans — with the possible exception of the faux aluminum on the dash and door panels, every surface looks and feels as wonderful as it should at this price.

What few complaints I have about the A8 are minor — the side mirrors should be larger and I don't think the front seats are quite as comfortable as those of the BMW. With those out of the way, I'd definitely recommend that anyone shopping for the ultimate sedan (in terms of size and prestige) stop at the Audi dealer.

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