2004 Audi A8L
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Review and photos by Russell Purcell

Precision on Wheels


When Audi first launched the A8 in early 1997 they were entering an arena that had long been dominated by the likes of Mercedes-Benz and BMW who’s big S-Class and 7-Series sedans had both established loyal followings and high praise. What did Audi’s big sedan bring to the table that the others did not? In a word: Quattro – Audi’s bullet-proof all-wheel-drive system.

Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to attract huge crowds of enthusiastic buyers to the showroom, as the combination of relatively bland styling and less opulent creature comforts conspired against the car.

2004 Audi A8 40-valve V8
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Well for 2004, Audi has introduced a totally revamped A8, one that enters the market with a much better chance at striking a positive note with consumers. Why is this so you ask? Well, main rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz are currently taking some major body blows. BMW’s new 7-Series debuted last year, and while the car is a technological showcase, its iDrive interface was too complicated and the overall styling was far too removed from the previous iterations of the car to solidify interest. Mercedes, while faithful to previous models of the famed S-Class in most categories, had cut back on some of its equipment in an effort to offer the model at more competitive price points, and a few small quality control issues in lesser models had surfaced to take some fight out of the marques. As a result, Audi’s new car is in a position to establish a stronger footing in this elite class, and its new found luster should shine brightly over its less expensive stable-mates as well, putting the company in a definite win-win situation.


Super-Size

2004 Audi A8L
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While Audi will offer a standard wheelbase A8 model in other markets, the company has chosen to bring only the long-wheelbase model, the A8L, to Canada for the time being. The A8L’s wheelbase is 130 mm longer than the standard car, and the majority of this extra length is found in the rear passenger compartment. Once I slid my big size 13 feet into the rear foot well I realized just how much room this car offers. I imagined myself sitting comfortably wearing a pair of swim-fins and still having plenty of room.

From the side the A8L looks like a limousine, as the extra length of the car is immediately evident by the length of the rear side windows. Long doors with a low step-in height add to this illusion, but after spending some time in the rear I must admit, it might be a nice change to be chauffeured around once in a while.


Innovative Construction

Audi engineers chose to construct the body of the A8 entirely of aluminum, a material the company has embraced and used readily on their models for over a decade. A combination of Laser-MIG hybrid welding and advanced joining techniques (using space-age adhesives and robots) has given Audi the ability to produce car bodies that are so ultra-precise, that tolerance is a mere 0.5-millimetre per 16-feet of length. Audi’s third generation aluminum space frame (Audi Space Frame -ASF) is lighter, stronger and safer than before, not to mention constructed of fewer parts. The new hybrid welding also results in higher quality seams than previously seen on aluminum bodied vehicles.

This heavy reliance on lightweight aluminum alloy produces a much lighter car than its dimensions would dictate in a steel structure. This gives the car a sportier feel as well as accommodates the extra mass brought on board by the quattro all-wheel-drive system.

The biggest benefit of this new construction has to be the 60% improvement in torsional rigidity (over the previous model), giving the A8L much better road feel and handling prowess.


Exterior Styling

2004 Audi A8L
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Audis have long been some of the most aerodynamic automobiles on the road, and with the A8L, the company seems to be adding a little more flare. The all aluminum body of the A8L features a high waistline with wrap-around corners and a gradually sloping roofline. The long passenger compartment is bordered by a raked windshield at the front and thick, tapered pillars at the rear.

New taillights and multi-lens bi-xenon headlamps set the car apart from previous A8 models, while an enlarged, but narrow, grille and bumper-mounted driving lamps freshen the car’s visage. A healthy dose of chrome trim surrounds the windows all around, and also highlights the bumper and exhaust tips. A shark-like dorsal fin sits at the rear of the roof panel and houses the GPS and cellular equipment required for the car’s stellar navigation system and On Star, the latter a new offering on select 2004 Audi models.


Tech Simple

There is no escaping that we live in a high-tech world, and over the last decade, the level of technological gadgetry finding its way into our cars would make NASA proud. While the rise of this technology came as the result of each manufacturer trying to outdo each other, the MMI (Multi-Media Interface) system found in the A8L is a pleasant surprise.

2004 Audi A8L
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The centre console-mounted MMI system features a large round ‘jog’ dial surrounded by a set of 8 function buttons, as well as backwards, forwards and enter/return features. The dial acts like a computer mouse and allows the user to select appropriate settings or to initiate commands via a large, centrally-mounted screen that automatically emerges from the dash at the touch of a button. The screen relays info about all the car’s features including stereo and HVAC data, tire pressures (if option ordered), battery fitness, navigation, air suspension and convenience features. Most items are accessible by secondary controls such as onboard steering wheel buttons or dash switches, so even if the screen was to fail for some reason, you should be able to find a way to operate most equipment functions until a repair could be completed.

At first glance the MMI looks similar to BMW’s iDrive set-up, but as a user, I found the Audi system far easier to navigate, and quickly learned its capabilities with little reference to the manual. MMI is in my opinion, superior to iDrive due to the inherent shortcuts the Audi system allows with the menu buttons that surround the jog dial, as they allow users to bypass several layers of on-screen menus.


Unmatched Luxury


2004 Audi A8L
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I have criticized some of Audi’s past models for pretending to be luxury automobiles. What I meant was that the company’s luxury offerings usually featured dark wood trim and muted interior colours that together, gave the cars a cold feel. Add to this very firm leather seats and the term ‘cozy’ must be pulled from the list of appropriate adjectives.

Well the interior of my A8L test vehicle put any concerns I had quickly to rest. Sumptuous beige leather, thick wool carpeting, light coloured rich wood trim (burled walnut, sycamore or birch) and large, soft-touch controls abound.

2004 Audi A8 40-valve V8

2004 Audi A8 40-valve V8
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All five seating positions are spacious, and heated seats and well-placed vents guarantee everyone will remain comfortable.

Audiophiles will applaud the choice of a Bose engineered 12-speaker sound system with surround sound, subwoofer and centre fill speaker and innovative Audio Pilot noise compensation feature. A 6-disc CD changer ensures hours of listening enjoyment.

As day turns to night, the cockpit comes alive with lights. All the switchgear and buttons illuminate to make them handy to locate, while subtle theatre lighting can be customized via the MMI to illuminate the handy door bins, foot wells and console.

The option list is short, but includes a convenience package with front seat ventilation, an electric rear sunshade, tire pressure monitors, rear vanity mirrors and a power-operated trunk. Individual selections include a power lumbar for rear seating positions, rear seat heaters, a heated steering wheel, front seat massage, a solar-panel sunroof, Parktronic guidance, dual-pane window glass, adaptive cruise control and a selection of wheel and tire packages up to 19- inches.


At the Wheel

2004 Audi A8 40-valve V8
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The A8L is such a nimble car at speed that you soon forget that it weighs 1,995 kilograms and stretches 5.18 metres. Audi’s engineering team pulled out all the stops for the new car, so it is no surprise that the aluminum alloy, 40-valve V8 would also benefit from some tweaks. The engine has grown to 4.2 litres and generates a healthy 330 horsepower at 6,500 rpm, a solid 20-horsepower increase over last year’s motor, while torque is up 15-lb.-ft. to 317 at a mere 3,500 rpm. This new muscle allows the A8L to catapult from 0-100 km/h in a tick over six seconds (6.3), which is very exclusive territory.

The ZF 6-speed automatic gearbox shifts smoothly whether left on its own or when shifted manually using the Tiptronic gate. Slip the gear lever into the ‘Sport’ mode and the car takes on a menacing demeanor, as the car reconfigures the shift points and fuel delivery system to make best use of the engine’s ample power. I was surprised that there were no fingertip controls for the Tiptronic system on the steering wheel, but I guess the secondary controls for the audio system already have that space reserved.

2004 Audi A8 40-valve V8
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A very trick air suspension similar to that found in the Allroad allows the driver to raise the car up to accommodate irregular road surfaces or a layer of snow, or to drop the car down to improve road holding at high speed. This class exclusive system monitors driving conditions and automatically selects an appropriate suspension set-up and height based on road conditions and speed. The ground clearance of the car can range from a low of 97.5 mm to a high of 142.5 mm, with 117.5 mm being the standard operation level. The driver can select from specific set-ups or choose to leave it on its own accord, whereas the system will set clearance, spring and damping settings best suited for the car’s particular operation.

The proven quattro all-wheel-drive system is partnered with ESP (Electronic Stability Program). My test period coincided with a severe winter storm that blanketed Vancouver and environs with several inches of snow, followed by gale force winds and freezing rain. While most Vancouverites stayed off the roads, I took this rare (for Vancouver) opportunity to play in the snow, in an effort to see what the A8 could really do.

I momentarily switched off the ESP system and the car stayed in control, although my confidence level dropped, when a hint of tail-wagging was noticed during one cornering maneuver. My test car had 18-inch high-performance all-season tires, not dedicated snows, but Audi’s quattro system made up for some of their shortcomings on the slippery surface. I imagine a full-snow fitment would allow the A8L to plough right through all but the deepest snow cover.

Quattro employs a torsion-sensing centre differential that acts to direct up to two-thirds of the car’s power to whichever axle it determines has better road grip, but it can also manipulate the differentials to redistribute torque from one side of the axle to the other in the event of wheel slippage. Neat.


Safety

Safety has always been a priority with Audi, and the A8L is very well equipped to protect its occupants. Next generation airbags deploy from the steering wheel and passenger-side dashboard, and side airbags units are mounted at all four outboard seating positions.

2004 Audi A8L
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Taking it one step further the A8L is equipped with “Sideguard” curtain airbags that deploy from the headliner and pillars ensuring that occupants are protected from a side impact, as well as glass and flying debris.

A central locking system coupled with a remote anti-theft vehicle system (which also controls the interior lights) should keep the car safe on the rare occasions that you are not situated behind the wheel.

Surprisingly, for such a feature-laden car I have but one complaint, that being with regards to rear visibility. Tall rear headrests block a large portion of the rear window, and for some reason, Audi chose not to equip them with an auto retract or flip-down mechanism. Many cars costing half as much as this luxury ship offer this feature as standard equipment, such as the Volvo S60 and even Volkswagen’s Passat. Wide rear buttresses also make performing shoulder checks a challenge, but available integrated front and rear parking sensors and large side mirrors aid in parking and should keep you from scuffing the wheels or bumpers.


Storage

Audi engineers created a plethora of storage options for the A8L, as they obviously realize that clutter is a comfort killer. All four doors feature swing-out storage bins that retract flush into the door panels at the lightest touch. An extra large glove box was required to house the 6-disc CD changer as the MMI screen resides in the space usually reserved for such equipment, but the remaining space is sufficient for items like CDs, gloves, maps and ice scrapers.

The front seats are separated by a sleek console that features twin armrests, both concealing small storage recesses under their leather skin, a shallow tray with connections for the available cell-phone kit is accessed by lifting the armrests, and offers space for items like wallets or cell-phones. There are also map pockets on the backs of both front seats.

A huge 500-litre trunk complete with a cargo net and available ski sack is easily accessed by the low sill height and in the case of my test vehicle, a power-operated open and close feature.


Conclusions

2004 Audi A8 40-valve V8
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Who should look at Audi’s new flagship? Anyone in the market for an ultra-luxurious, all-weather, performance sedan that boasts impeccable road manners and build quality, and all at a competitive price. This car is such a standout that it may single-handedly introduce the company to the elite consumer, as this car deserves to be playing on the Varsity squad rather than the JV team it has been relegated to in the past.

Automotive flagships usually stand as examples of a company’s technological know-how and innovation and the A8L is no exception. With Audi’s most advanced quattro all-wheel-drive system, a first-in-class pneumatic suspension and the all-encompassing MMI set-up, Audi’s firing a warning salvo across the bows of its more well-known competitors. Audi is ready to play with the big boys, and if this car is an example of things to come, the competition better be on their toes or Audi dealers will help themselves to a larger piece of the sales pie.


Technical Data: 2004 Audi A8L

Base price $97,750
Options $10,075 (Cold Weather package $1,400 (heated front and rear seats, heated steering wheel, ski sack); Convenience package $3,950 (front seat ventilation, rear seat vanity mirrors, tire pressure monitoring system, power trunk and electric rear sun shade); 18″ 5-spoke cast alloy wheels with 255/45 R18 all-season tires $1,700; Parktronic assist $1,000; Leather door/armrest and center console with premium stitching $1,125; Dual-pane security glass $900)
Destination charge $600
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $108,525
Type 4-Door, 5-passenger full-size luxury sedan
Layout longitudinal front engine/AWD quattro
Engine 4.2-litre V8, DOHC, 5 valves per cylinder
Horsepower 330 @ 5,200 rpm
Torque 317 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm
Transmission ZF 6-Speed Automatic with Tiptronic and ‘Sport’ mode
Curb weight 1995 kg. (4399 lb.)
Wheelbase 3075 mm (121.1 in)
Length 5181 mm (204.0 in)
Width 1894 mm (74.6 in)
Height 1455 mm (57.3 in)
Passenger volume 3024 L (106.8 cu.-ft.)
Trunk/cargo capacity 500 L (17.7 cu.-ft.)
Fuel Premium unleaded
Fuel consumption City: 13.5 L/100km (21 mpg)
  Hwy: 8.9 L/100km (31.7 mpg)
Warranty 4 years or 80,000 kilometres plus 12-year limited warranty against corrosion perforation. Also includes Audi Advantage, which is no-charge scheduled maintenance for the same four years or 80,000 kilometres and Audi 24-hour Roadside Assistance.

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