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A car company tells you its design philosophy and capabilities by its flagship driver. Come June the Audi A8L for 2004 will speak very well indeed for Audi. This new flagship fosters the impression that Audi is a committed, thoughtful, and innovative hubbery of car people. The company continues to display with great consistency the personality stamped upon it by Ferdinand Piëch in the ‘80s.
In bringing this newest long-wheelbase A8 version to market, Audi’s stated intentions are to introduce “the most innovative flagship in the segment,” one that is distinctively sporty, but with “abundant luxury” — all under the positioning signature “never follow.” Audi’s marketing mission is to lead with the A8L to make the brand a “Tier 1” choice with Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, BMW, and Lexus, and attain higher ground than Saab, Volvo, and Acura.
To this writer’s way of thinking, however, Audi’s positioning ambition is already reached, as the third of the “German Engineering Three.” Porsche might be an exemplary specialty “shadow fourth,” a rolling engineering and materials display case, and a Lexus 430 is, identity-wise, for someone else and about something else.
The new A8L tees up brand personality and associations for the brand as a whole. In fact, it is stuffed not just with well-executed innovations and innovative features, but thoughtful ones, an Audi hallmark. Hence one’s sense that it is already third in a threesome of thoughtfully engineered but emotional German cars.
Quattro number four
This car boasts generation four of Audi’s quattro system, now in its 22nd year, a proven mechanical permanent all-wheel drive power distribution system. There’s also generation three of Audi’s aluminum space frame, co-developed with Alcoa, now in its 12th year. The newest iteration has Audi’s hydroformed extruded frame members, allowing varying cross sections, optimized to the stresses and functions at each location or point within the overall frame structure. The newest iteration is also simplified, with longer aluminum castings and 20 percent fewer parts. The aluminum structure allows great strength and rigidity, and an approximate 300-pound weight savings. (However, it’s not a good idea to bash an aluminum frame or panels, since that requires sending the car to a regional center for repairs.)
Other content Audi proudly points to includes the new ZF six-speed Tiptronic transmission, which debuted in the BMW 745i, later Jaguar, indeed a honey of a transmission. It’s smoother, stronger, smalller, lighter, simpler, than its five-speed predecessor, and a brilliant performer with no mechanical linkages. And the A8L’s adaptive air suspension (pioneered on the allroad) has airspring struts with sensors at all four corners, and a compressor, and it takes most of the compromises out of the suspension. It’s adjustable, with four settings, while chassis height lowers automatically at speed.
Inside, the MMI (mult-media interface) manages info and controls on a mid-dash screen — some info and controls also shown in the driver’s instrument cluster, with thumbwheel controls in the steering wheel. The claim is that MMI is intuitive, with screen up, selection keys down (just behind the shifter). It is closer to intuitive and rational than the Mercedes COMAND system, or the much-discussed iDrive system in BMW’s 7-Series. That said, it still isn’t touch and go. As soon as you manage control functions on screen-based selection mechanisms, that means multiple mediated steps to do simple things we previously could do in one easy stroke, unmediated. Here, for example, the radio can largely be controlled using steering wheel controls and instrument cluster display, but you have to go back to the big screen to switch from AM to FM. That kind of thing. Driving around the barn to get to the front.
Audi’s designers have done a brilliant job of keeping the dashboard clean, clear, simple, and elegant, so you only see the simplest functions and nicest materials — beautiful industrial design rules (the interior may be timeless, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need an elegant clock somewhere). The effort has gone into taking functions off the instrument panel or dashboard altogether, and stuffing them into screen-based controls. That means multiple steps for the driver, distracting ones (e.g. first choose function, then select setting). Audi has done a somewhat better job of following this faulty premise to its conclusion than BMW, say. A better execution and compromise is seen in the Porsche Cayenne, whose screen is surrounded by clean, clear, labelled buttons you push to do what you want to do, bing.
Innovation made simple
The A8L does score high on innovative content, as do its other two competitors or comparables in The Big Engineering Three. As director of judging for the Automotive News PACE Awards for innovation, I was happy to see productive use of two PACE winners, the ZF transmission and the Bosch wipers (yes, wipers, they’re brilliant), and two finalists, the TRW electronic parking brake and Bose AudioPilot® sound system, which compensates and cancels invading noises only in compromised frequencies
The interior of the A8 L is very appealing indeed, the chairs 16-way comfortable, and you could drive all day in comfort and style with this combination of design and materials. The rear seating area is enormous, and the Bose sound system a pleasure.
But most important, driving dynamics of this car are superb, leaving virtually nothing to be desired. Balance is near perfect: quattro, steering, and suspension make it a very sporty drive that inspires only confidence under any cornering challenge, the combination of 330-hp 4.2-liter V-8 and ZF six-speed gearbox, plus oodlles of torque, make it smoothly responsive in any situation, and the brakes, 360 mm at the front, are enormous, meaning do whatever you want, you can stop doing it any time without drama. The car drives much smaller than it is, and of course it is lighter than its size would suggest, owing to the use of aluminum.
Audi expects to sell around 5000 copies a year in the U.S., at a base price of $68,500 plus destination (300 in Canada). That price compares with that of the regular-length BMW 745i.
2004 Audi A8L
Base price: $68,500, plus destination
Engine: Aluminum alloy 4.2 liter V-8, 330 hp/317 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission, all-wheel drive system
Length x width x height (in.): 204.0 x 74.6 x 57.3
Wheelbase: 121.1 in
Curb weight:4399 lb
Fuel economy (EPA cty/hwy): N/A
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front airbags, driver and passenger knee airbags, front and rear side airbags, front and rear curtain airbags; dual circuit ABS brake system with diagonal split, electronic brake distribution (EBD) and electronic stabilization program (ESP), tandem brake booster; first-aid kit in rear armrest; automatic parking brake with electro-mechanical parking brake lever; front and rear acoustic parking system; OnStar Telematics hardware with 1 year service and phone prep
Major standard equipment: Electronic cruise control; dual automatic climate controls; Homelink 3 channel remote transmitter; 16-way adjustable, heated seats; heated rear seats; 4 memory positions for seats, mirrors, climate control and steering wheel settings; leather seats, steering wheel and shift knob; power windows with one-touch and pinch protection at all four windows; tilt and telescope steering wheel; heated autodimming rearview mirrors with defog; multiple-function MMI with steering wheel controls; Bose twelve-speaker am/fm/CD stereo with AudioPilot noise cancellation; alloy wheels, Conti Teves dual floating caliper brakes, ventilated discs 360 mm front, 310 mm rear; power central locking of doors, trunk, and fuel door, with selective unlocking; speed sensitive power steering; automatic self-levelling headlights
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles, includes scheduled maintenance and roadside assistance