Within the luxury car segment, you have your Tier 1 players (Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, BMW and Lexus) and you have your Tier 2s (Saab, Volvo and Acura). For many years Audi was also relegated to the second level, but the times they are a changin' and so is Audi. Within the D-segment where, according to Audi VP Len Hunt, "the big boys play," Audi has become a true Tier 1 competitor with the introduction of the 2004 Audi A8 L 4.2 quattro. Move over S-Class and 7 Series; there's a new premium player at the boards.
The all-new A8 L is fully prepped to handle the upper-end's game-playing intensity. The long-wheelbased sedan's 330-bhp 4.2-liter V8 outputs 317 lb-ft of torque through a new six-speed Tiptronic automatic gearbox to the all-wheel-drive quattro system. The result is a full-sized sedan that goes from 0 to 60 mph in 6.3 sec. and has an electronically limited top speed of 130 mph. The aluminum suspension, with four-link front axle and controlled toe-angle trapezoidal-link rear axle, features Audi's new adaptive air damping system. The setup, which replaces the conventional steel suspension of the previous generation, has continuously variable damper settings and four pre-defined settings, from very sport to extreme comfort. The adaptive air system also allows the suspension to be raised or lowered to better match road and driving conditions. The adjustments are made by the driver through the A8 L's MMI (Multi Media Interface, details below) terminal. There are four basic damping traits and ride heights, and two situation-specific modes: Automatic, with an initial 4.7-in. ground clearance (lowers to 3.9 in. at maintained speeds above 75 mph); Dynamic, with a 3.9-in. ground clearance (lowers to 3.7 in. at maintained speeds above 75 mph); Comfort, with a constant 4.7-in. ground clearance; Lift, with a 5.7-in. ground clearance at speeds below 50 mph; and trailer towing and jack modes. A Sport program, which features four modes with firmer damper and suspension characteristics, will be offered as a late introduction to the model. Speed-sensitive Servotronic, with new steering-angle sensing, transmits the steering wheel's excellent feel to the wheels.
Seven-spoke 17-in. alloy wheels wrapped in 235/55R17 all-season tires are standard. Optional 18-in. five-spoke wheels are also shod with all-seasons; the optional 19-in. 12-spoke wheels get super-grippy high-performance shoes (my preferred choice). Peeking out from the front wheels are massive 14.2-in. front ventilated discs; at the rear are 12.2-in. ventilated discs. ABS, front and rear EDL (Electronic Differential Locks), Electronic rear Brake-force Distribution and ESP (Electronic Stability Program) are standard.
In 1984, Audi was the first carmaker to mass produce an aluminum-bodied car. The Audi Space Frame (ASF) concept has become even more defined in the new A8 L. When compared to the old A8, it's 60% more torsionally rigid with 17% fewer parts for a weight savings of approximately 10%. That weight savings is important since the new A8 L weighs 243 lb more than the previous version (4,399 vs. 4,156 lb). However, taking into account all the new technological features, the increase seems surprisingly small.
Dimensionally, the A8 L has gotten a wee bit longer (204 in., up from 203.3), much narrower (74.6 in,. down from 79) and slightly taller (57.3 in. vs.56.6). The increased 121-in. wheelbase, up by 5 in., gives the sedan even better-looking proportions with a very short front overhang and a high, dynamic rear end. The wedge-shaped body's crouched stance is not only visually appealing, it allows the A8 L to boast a Cd of 0.27.
Audi is renowned for its well-appointed interiors, and the A8 L furthers that reputation. High-quality wood with aluminum trim and accents are key to the sedan's luxurious ambience. The 16-way Valcona leather front seats are incredibly comfortable and supportive and offer wonderful tactile sensations, as do the leather-wrapped four-spoke multi-function steering wheel and shift knob. There are front and rear reading lights located in the headliner, and soft, ambient lighting emanates from the front and wheel footwells at night. The sound system is a premium Bose(R) Surround-sound stereo/CD changer with 12 speakers and four-way antenna diversity; it's operated through the MMI controls.
What is MMI? Audi's Multi Media Interface is Ingolstadt's answer to iDrive and COMAND. MMI is very intuitive and easy to operate; even the most technophobic can master the system quickly. The control's layout is simple, and the menu structure is quite logical, with the most-used functions at the front of the menu hierarchy and the least used ones within submenus. There are four "hard keys" which access the radio/CD, telematics/hands-free phone, navigation/information and the ride-drive dynamics/vehicle setup. Once you select a hard-key subject, four "soft keys" present the first submenus; turning the central control knob and depressing accesses the desired selection. If you end up somewhere unexpected, simply hit the "return" key--it's one of MMI's best features; no backtracking required. The main display for the menus and navigation maps is a 7-in. flat-screen monitor located in the center of the dash. It instantaneously adjusts to changing lighting conditions, e.g., driving through a series of tunnels on the way to the Mont Blanc tunnel from northern Italy. A second 3-in. monitor is positioned within the instrument cluster, providing relevant data within the driver's line of sight.
I spent several days in the Audi A8 L, traversing the roads of southern France and then by a drive north to Geneva by way of northern Italy and the Mont Blanc tunnel. I sampled the sedan's suspension dynamics on the twisty byways of Provence, its high-speed cruising ability on the autoroutes and autostrade, its pulling power climbing up the Maritimes and its road-holding characteristics on snowy lanes leading up into the Italian Alps. It passed all the tests with flying colors. Even after a total of more than 14 hours of driving/co-driving time, I was reluctant to give the car up. I did get to partake of its spacious and comfortable back seats as I was ferried to and from the Geneva show, and if I ever again have to ride in the back of a car, the A8 L would be one of my first choices of conveyance.
As of this writing the U.S. pricing for the A8 L hadn't been set, but Audi of America executives expect the sedan to cost approximately $70,000 when it arrives on our shores early this summer. From a pricing standpoint alone, when compared to the 2003 M-B S430 4Matic at $76,220 and the 2003 BMW 745Li at $73,195, the new Audi A8 L more than holds its own. Throw in all that the new sedan has to offer, and it's more than ready to play with the big boys; it's set to dominate the entire game.