by Tony Whitney
Barcelona, Spain – The import luxury sedan market is very hot right now, with established contenders about to be joined by a pretender or two to one of the most lucrative “thrones” in the auto business. These opulent sedans are expensive and automakers just love to move high-ticket products. You have to sell an awful lot of economy hatchbacks to make the same margin you will on a Mercedes S-Class. Right now, the market segment includes the recently updated Mercedes-Benz S-Class (covered elsewhere in this website) and the new BMW 7-Series, but rival manufacturers have been busy for the 2003 model year, because we’ll soon see a new Jaguar XJ8, an entry from VW with its upcoming Phaeton, and the fully-revised 2004 Audi A8, the subject of this road test. Audi chose the architectually significant Spanish city of Barcelona for the world launch of its flagship.
I’ve always considered the A8 to be very much underrated by the market it serves. The Big Mercedes and BMW sedans get lots of attention, but the outstanding A8 is often overlooked. In fact, it offers technological features to rival or better anything on the market and I’ve always found it more than a match for its classy rivals.
For starters, the A8 is built almost entirely of aluminum. The entire bodyshell, for example, is constructed from this material and, following common practice these days, the engine and transmission castings are light alloy too.
Audi calls its body technology “Audi Space Frame” or ASF. The A8 is not built like any rival aluminum car, but takes a different path. Other aluminum automobiles – the Acura NSX, for example – use the same construction techniques as steel cars. With the A8, the body is made up of a series of complex aluminum stampings, extrusions and diecastings – all welded together into a rigid, durable bodyshell. It’s a challenging process and there’s quite a lot of hand finishing involved, but Audi claims the resulting lightweight body is stronger than steel and cheaper to repair.
The 2004 A8 has revised bodywork and it’s a lot more stylish and modernistic than that of its predecessor. The roofline is very “coupe-like” and nose and rear deck treatment is tidy and contemporary. The overall look gives the impression that the car is more compact that it actually is, which is often he aim of designers of large sedans. Audi says its new flagship “redefines the notion of sports appeal in the luxury segment” and this aim has certainly been achieved, because the car handles like something much smaller. On the road, the new Audi feels more like a mid-range A6 than a big A8.
North America will get one engine – a silky smooth and very powerful 4.2-litre V8 which develops 335 horsepower. In Europe, there’s a smaller 3.7-litre V8, but Audi figured, probably with some justification, that most buyers on this side of the pond would prefer the bigger powerplant. The engine is matched to a fascinating 6-speed automatic with Tiptronic (semi-manual) function. Audi gives the zero to 100 km/h time for this car as 6.3-seconds, which is truly sports car territory. Europeans will get a W-12 engine for the A8 eventually, but I’m told there’s no chance of it appearing here.
Driving on fast freeways in Spain, I found that the big Audi would easily run up to 220 km/h or so. At such speeds, it felt amazingly safe and stable. When slower traffic prompted the need to scrub off some speed, the big all-round discs got the job done with calm efficiency. The A8 comes with Audi’s well-tried Quattro permanent four-wheel drive system, so even in bad weather, this car could be driven very quickly with no safety sacrifices. It’s interesting that the new S-Class Mercedes-Benz can be ordered with the company’s 4MATIC AWD system for 2003 – a move that may have been prompted by the success of the A8.
Obviously, comfort is of prime importance in a luxury automobile and the new A8 certainly delivers in that department. Helping here is a new air suspension system. With its continuously variable damper settings, the adaptive air suspension reduces body roll and other movements, while optimizing roadholding and ride comfort.
The cabin of the A8 is just about as good as they get, with an abundance of real wood veneers and fine leather. Audi does an exceptional job of instrument and control layout with all its models and the A8 is simply the best its designers and engineers can offer. The navigation system is intuitive and lacks the complexity of come of its rivals in this class such as the BMW 7-Series. I particularly liked the aluminum trim components dotted here and there around the cabin to cleverly emphasize this car’s unique construction technology.
On the “passive” safety front, there are air bags everywhere. In addition to the usual two up front (which are two-stage), there are standard head-level bags as well as active head restraints – valuable assets when it comes to whiplash prevention.
This is a very fine automobile, there’s no doubt about that, and in its new ‘sporty’ guise, it might attract more than a few buyers who thought the old model was a tad too conservative. It remains a restrained styling effort, but buyers in this class prefer that to “in your face” brashness. No price has been announced for the new Audi flagship, which will appear during the next month or two.