“Audi is on a mission,” declares Len Hunt, the man running U.S. operations for Audi. At the moment, though, he’s sitting on the patio of the Maritime Hotel in Barcelona, Spain, the place the automaker has chosen as backdrop for the introduction of its new A8 sedan.
It’s an appropriate setting, though in ways the automaker might not have intended. This is, after all, the land of the legendary Don Quixote, the mythical, mad conquistador who embarks on a series of impossible quests. Some might suggest that Audi itself is seeking the impossible dream. It’s betting this third-generation, lightweight aluminum sedan can take on the heavyweights of the “high-luxury” market, including the S-Class from Mercedes-Benz, and BMW’s 7-Series.
TheCarConnection was offered a chance to take the new A8 on a drive through the Catalonian countryside. It was a relatively brief ride as far as road tests are typically concerned, and the vehicles we had at our disposal were short-wheelbase models, not the longer A8s due for export to the U.S. Nonetheless, the experience provided a good first look at the new Audi flagship, a vehicle that aims to win buyers over with a mix of styling, performance and technological innovation.
2004 Audi A8
2004 Audi A8
For the technically-minded, the real beauty here begins beneath the skin. Like the previous model, known internally as the D2, the latest A8 is all-aluminum. But Audi has significantly improved the design and made significant gains on the manufacturing side, as well. Careful engineering has cut the chassis and body parts count by about 25 percent — there is now one cast piece for each B-pillar, for example, where eight were needed before. And what was previously a tricky assembly process largely done by hand is now nearly 85 percent automated.
This is more than technical esoterica. Torsional rigidity has increased by 60 percent while, we are told, crash performance is significantly improved. At 4026 pounds for the standard wheelbase, the new A8 is a wee bit heavier than the car it replaces, but it’s still more than 400 pounds lighter than a comparable BMW 7-Series. Audi has also shaved a lot of cost out of the basic vehicle, much of that found money being reinvested in new features that customers will appreciate.
2004 Audi A8
If this brings to mind the BMW iDrive, you’re right. Both have the same basic goals. But where the Bavarian automaker thought it could do everything with one basic control knob, Audi’s MMI is actually a cluster of buttons surrounding a primary control knob.
There’s also a seven-inch, pop-up CRT that, with the touch of a button, tucks itself away behind a wood panel on the dashboard. Significantly, many major functions can be achieved without the video display.
Like the iDrive, there’s a definite learning period needed to get the hang of things, but Audi’s system is far more accessible, especially to those who aren’t familiar with advanced computer programming. Indeed, the system will actually guide the user through the necessary choices. And there are alternate, more conventional controls for many key functions, such as heating and cooling. Consumers are all but certain to prefer MMI over iDrive, but whether they’ll accept it against regular buttons, dials and knobs remains to be seen.
2004 Audi A8
MMI is only one of the reasons why Audi is billing the new A8 as its technological showcase.
One benefit of using aluminum is that it gives the A8 the overall mass of a much smaller car. And Audi aimed to enhance that feeling of nimbleness by turning to a new air suspension system. With its lightning-fast, 800-megahertz processor, the system is extremely responsive to changing road and driving conditions. It can be run in three separate modes, or degrees of firmness, or left to determine the best setting automatically.
2004 Audi A8
During a roughly 100-mile run through the Spanish countryside, we found the new A8 quick, responsive and a joy to drive. It really did feel significantly smaller than its dimensions would suggest.
The car’s brake-by-wire system operated flawlessly, bringing the A8 to a rapid stop even at 130 mph.
The air suspension system lived up to its billing. In the automatic mode, it smoothed out the bumps in the rough Catalonian pavement, but tightened up fast when we pulled onto an uninterrupted stretch of freeway.
2004 Audi A8
If we had one complaint, it was with the steering, which offered a bit too much boost. It’s both speed and steering-angle-sensitive, but even at medium speeds—roughly equal to what would be legal in the States, the boost reduced road feel and made it easy to over-correct.
Reserved for later
We’ll reserve final judgment, of course, until we have the opportunity to drive the long-wheelbase version, which is stretched about 130 millimeters. At least initially, says U.S. product development chief Marc Trahan, only the long wheelbase model will be brought over to America. But about 24 months from the A8’s launch next spring, Audi will introduce the high-performance S8. It will be based off the short chassis. (And a standard, “short” version may also arrive around then.)
Audi is putting heavy emphasis on the “S” line these days, sound logic considering Mercedes’ increased line-up of AMG vehicles and the popularity of BMW’s M3 and M5 models. Hunt won’t say much about the S8, except to suggest it will yield some “surprises.” Audi insiders suggest it’s likely to boast at least as much power as the new RS6, something on the order of 480 to 500 horsepower.
Performance and high technology will certainly win Audi some new customers, but the automaker isn’t ignoring another one of its assets. Over the years, Audi has developed a reputation for building some of the most attractive interiors in the industry. The new car continues that tradition. The ’04 A8 will be offered with a choice of four different wood trims, including a new, light birch. And there’ll be a variety of designer packages, as well.
In the end, Don Quixote’s quest didn’t amount to much. Will Audi’s do any better? A big question is how potential buyers will react to the MMI system. But beyond that, the new A8 is a significant improvement over the car it replaces. As Hunt is quick to acknowledge, it is going up against a lot of “worthy competitors,” including a Mercedes-Benz S-Class also (though less significantly) updated in the coming months. Still, it’s quite likely there’ll be enough buyers looking to break away from the big names of the high-luxury segment to meet Audi’s modest definition of sales success when the new A8 finally comes to market.