Daniel Pund, Senior Editor
We remember with reasonable clarity sitting in a lodge in upstate New York some 10 years ago while the then-head of Audi in America plotted out how the brand would be charging upmarket in the coming years.
His pseudo-scientific illustration was a chart that plotted Audi's potential competitors. We don't remember what the X axis was supposed to represent or, for that matter, what exactly the Y axis measured. But we remember Audi was smack in the middle of the screen, with Volvo and Saab holding down the prestige-car ghetto to the left and Mercedes-Benz and BMW in luxury-car Valhalla to the right. Care to guess which way the company was intending to go? Here's a clue: Which car companies do Audi's advertising still obsess about? Right.
A decade later, as we sit in a $100,000 black 2011 Audi A8 from the former maker of the Fox and 4000 and review its performance numbers and play with its heady mess o' electronic doodads, we must admit that Audi might finally have pulled it off.
Big Bones/Light Weight
Let's have a look at the numbers, shall we?
This Audi is the third generation of the so-called Audi Space Frame, the company's all-aluminum structure that has been the model's calling card for more than a decade. As is now customary, this version has grown larger. Larger not just than the A8 it replaces but also larger by a couple inches in length and width than the BMW 750i and 3 inches wider than a Mercedes S-Class. And the aluminum construction really pays off for Audi this time because, despite its considerable size, the A8, at 4,336 pounds, is lighter than the other Germans by a factor of one morbidly obese man.
This is fortuitous, since the A8 heads into 2011 with an updated version of the company's very familiar normally aspirated 4.2-liter V8 which, even with a power bump to 372 horsepower, lags the turbocharged and/or larger-displacement V8s of its main competitors. The A8's power-to-weight ratio is smack in between that of the short-wheelbase BMW 750i and the Mercedes-Benz S550 (sold only in long-wheelbase form in the U.S.). Predictably then, the A8's acceleration is on par with its main competitors including the 750i, S550 and Jaguar XJ.
Shhh...the A8 Is Accelerating
The A8 accumulates speed as serenely as it does quickly and it is, according to our track tester, "freakishly quiet and distant." The new model A8 brings an eight-speed ZF transmission that certainly deserves a goodly chunk of the credit for the powertrain's sprightliness and its smoothness. Shifts are as if from a dream...a good dream.
That's in the default setting, though. Dial up Sport/Dynamic modes, brake-torque the thing and this elegant luxury sedan will leap off the line and bang aggressively through the gears on its way to a 5.2-second 0-60 run (5.0 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip). In doing so it drops a full second from a 0-60-mph run done in the default mode. The quarter-mile is gone in 13.8 seconds at 102.1 mph. Had you told us that a mildly upgraded 4.2-liter V8 was going to cut it against the new crop of motors in competitive cars, we would not have believed you. We stand corrected.
As a pleasant side benefit, keeping the weight in check and maintaining a relatively small displacement results in EPA fuel economy figures of 17 city and 27 highway. Audi proudly boasts that that's better combined fuel economy than the six-cylinder BMW 740i and equal to the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid.
Audi is presenting the A8, as it has before, as the D-segment entry with the sportiest demeanor. And that is true to an extent. A couple of caveats: 1) The only car we could get our hands on was a short-wheelbase model. This is fine, except that it's the long-wheelbase model that accounts for 90 percent of A8 sales. Both go on sale in November. 2) Our test car wore optional 20-inch wheels with summer performance tires, compared to the all-season rubber our most recent 750i tester utilized. There's nothing underhanded here. Audi is simply putting its best handling foot forward. Just so you know...
Those tires surely helped the A8 eclipse our test 750i's skid pad performance (0.87g vs. 0.84g). They also helped return a 60-0 braking distance of a remarkable 106 feet (to the BMW's 112 feet). Surely, those fat (265/40R20, front and rear) Goodyear Eagle F1 asymmetrical tires are to credit in part for the car's crisp turn-in and overall grip. But there's more to it than rubber.
Take the braking system, which marries a moderately firm pedal action (ideal for us in this class of car) to such capable binders and such a mindful suspension system that even after six full-blast stops the A8's brakes kept returning shorter and shorter stops. It is wholly confidence-inspiring.
The Good Nanny
This is a car with exceptionally well-tuned traction and stability control systems. There is no getting around the A8's nose heaviness — it carries just over 56 percent of its weight on its front tires. And even with a rear-biased all-wheel-drive system, the front tires take a heap of abuse on the skid pad and through the slalom if you turn off the electronic nannies.
To gauge the effectiveness of these systems, we test with them both on and off. The A8 is quicker by almost a full mile-per-hour through the slalom cones with the systems left on (66.3 mph vs. 65.5 mph), which is the way we anticipate every owner would drive the car pretty much all of the time anyway.
Were it not for the new Jaguar XJ, which has mounted something of a rear-guard attack on the segment, the Audi would rightly be the most dynamic of the big boats.
But let's face it; electronics in the service of better handling is probably of lesser importance to most buyers in this class than electronics used to dazzle the driver and passengers.
And in this arena — one that hasn't always been the company's strong suit — the A8 scores well. Audi brings a full load of driver-assist electronics to its flagship. Thankfully, most of it is optional. You want an infrared night-vision camera to display an eerie image between the main gauges? It is now available, just as it is on the A8's competitors. Electronic lane assist and adaptive cruise control — already available on the 2010 model — are joined in 2011 by a pre-sense system that prepares the passengers and cabin for an impact when it's unavoidable.
None of these systems represent exclusive technology for Audi, but their availability is the price of entry to the highest level of luxury-cardom in the modern era. And they represent another step on the path to fully automated driving. But that is a discussion for another time.
Our in-house electronics maven, Doug Newcomb, has already crawled around the A8's interior and delved into the model's third-generation MMI interface along with its optional flashy, tweeter-rising, 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system. We won't recount it all here. We will say that the new touchpad that allows you to trace letters with your finger to set navigation destinations or search for phone contacts works well. It might not necessarily work any better than simply rotating a knob to select letters, but it sure impresses the hell out of passengers and that is important. The system, which recognizes Chinese characters, simplifies use for customers in that hugely important market.
All of these doodads are set into an interior as well-crafted, elegantly designed and stylishly finished as we've come to expect of Audi. The only sour note in the interior is a console-mounted shifter that looks enticingly like a yacht throttle but is very difficult to operate with any consistency. Our only remaining niggle is with the 20-inch wheel/tire package, which adds a note of impact harshness to an otherwise exemplary air-suspended ride.
All of this costs money, a lot of money. Our test car rang the register at $89,625. Gulp. And keep in mind that this is the short-wheelbase model. The more popular long-wheelbase version will be more expensive, as will the version powered by the 500-hp W12 engine due next year.
Starting at $78,925 (with destination charge), our tester had a goodly number of options. The 20-inch wheels and summer tires added $1,200. The adaptive cruise control and lane assist are part of the Drive Assistance package, which costs $3,000. The Convenience package with keyless entry, power trunk opener and rearview camera adds $2,350. Ventilated, massaging seats run $2,000. The full-LED headlamps (consisting of 76 individual LEDs!) are $1,400. And so on and on and on...
Add in the B&O stereo, which runs $6,300 and the $2,300 night vision system and a fully equipped A8 will easily top $100K.
It's not as if Audi hasn't produced cars costing $100K before, and we don't just mean the R8 sports car. The previous-generation A8, in fact, offered two $100,000-plus versions, the W12 and the V10-powered S8. The W12 version — hell, the entire A8 line — sold about as well in the U.S. as month-old tuna fish sandwiches. Meanwhile, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and, increasingly, the BMW 7 Series remain the popular kids in the class. Each has about 30 percent of the market. Last year, Audi had less than 2 percent. So slim is its slice of this lucrative business that Audi crows about having had around 6 percent market share in the recent past.
And that gets at the crux of the matter. Audi has fielded fine competitors in the past and never cracked the market. Part of this is a lag between perception and reality. In objective terms, the Audi A8 is fully competitive with the vaunted Germans, but there are still only a few folks who, with a $100,000 bill in their pocket, decide to stop in the Audi store.
We think producing an A8 with rear-end styling indistinguishable from the company's entry-level sedan, the A4, is not particularly helpful to Audi's cause. Otherwise, the car is there.
But that upmarket charge the company is counting on? That needs to play out for a little while longer.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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