October 21, 2002

Road Test: 2003 A8
Article by: Gavin Conway, UK Correspondent

With its sensational new A8, Audi is convinced that it has a world-beater. In fact, the company is so confident that it reckons to double the number of A8's it builds to more than 30,000 per year.

And Audi is equally committed to the A8's spaceframe aluminum construction. That's an especially important point in the light of Jaguar's recent launch of its own flagship XJ sedan, a car built around a monocoque aluminum shell. Jaguar says that building a spaceframe structure robs interior space - Audi responds that without the spaceframe, you don't get the necessary rigidity.

My first walk-around of the new A8 as it sat under a flawless Spanish sky provokes a rush of contradictory impressions. I love the stance and proportion of the car - there is not one single line or curve on this body that is not geometrically perfect. It has presence, but is a much more subtle proposition than the BMW 7-Series or Mercedes S-Class. This is a car for the owner with nothing to prove, no statement that needs making.

It is, though, a less distinguished A8 than the car it replaces. And it is also following a trend started by BMW and picked up by Mercedes, that of homogenizing styling cues so that the littlest car in the range looks more like the largest. There were lots of new A8's wandering around Barcelona at the launch, and after a while my colleagues and I found ourselves confusing the new car with the A6, especially in profile. For many, that won't be a problem, but I have to say, I preferred the more powerful presence of the previous A8.

Having said that, it is a technically stunning body with a Cd of just 0.27 (a full 8% better than its predecessor and, says Audi, an outright record in the large luxury sedan market).

There are no such mixed feelings about the new A8's interior - there is just no question that the big Audi has the best cabin compared with any competitor you care to name, new Jaguar included. The version we drove was finished in rich Birch wood cappings and premium-grade leather. With large, supportive seats and generous space in every direction the effect is of sensual luxury, but because the center console is so high and the controls so driver-oriented, the cabin atmosphere feels much more like a sports sedan. That sporting sense is heightened when you spot the shift paddles behind the steering wheel for the tiptronic gearbox.

Another brilliant touch is the MMI, or Multi Media Interface. This manages the Audi's entertainment, navigation, communications and vehicle control functions. The heart of it is a central control knob that can be turned and pressed - in conjunction with four simple control keys - to bring up the desired function. And this is the critical point - I'm not a technophile and I was driving the A8 alone and had no time to be taught the system. And yet, MMI is so naturally intuitive that I figured out how to use the navigation and ventilation control functions as I drove. I promise you, if I had been in a 7-Series I'd still be sitting in a parking lot at Barcelona International trying to figure out how to start the damn thing.

The other real innovation with the MMI system is the screen. At the press of a button, it emerges gracefully from behind a wooden fillet that blends seamlessly with the dash when the screen is stowed. And unlike other permanently mounted dash screens - Mercedes and Lexus LS430 come to mind - when the A8 screen is deployed, it sits high up and much more in line with your natural sightline.

We drove a European-spec A8 4.2-litre V8 quattro at launch - the fluid, superbly punchy and refined powerplant develops 335 bhp at 6500 rpm and a very useful 317 lb. ft. of torque at 3500 rpm. One of Audi's stated aims with the new A8 was to create the most dynamically rewarding large luxury sedans on the market, territory traditionally held by BMW. To that end, the A8 gains a six-speed tiptronic gearbox with Dynamic Shift and Sport programs. The combination of the two makes the best of the engine's power, with Dynamic Shift sensing when the driver is pushing hard and preventing upshifts when the accelerator is suddenly released. That means if you have a 'confidence lift' in a fast corner, the 'box won't grab a higher gear which could further destabilize your cornering attitude. And the Sport program delivers more immediate downshifts, as well as holding onto the gears longer.

Used in conjunction with the paddle shifts behind the steering wheel, tiptronic and that sensational V8 combine to give the A8 a much more sporting feel than you'd credit in such a big luxury sedan. The 40-valve V8 is happy to rev long and hard, doing so to the accompaniment of a deep, slightly menacing growl. Audi engineers, keen that everybody on board an A8 gets the sporting message, deliberately designed that exhaust note into the dual-branch exhaust system.

And the performance is all there, too. Audi claims that the 4.2 will sprint to 62 mph in just 6.3 sec, a claim that feels more than justifiable from behind the wheel. Top speed is, of course, limited to 155mph. Without the limiter - and given car's superior aerodynamics - it's a safe bet that the A8 would do 180 mph. Not so long ago those types of speeds were the exclusive preserve of the most exotic supercars.

We also drove the 3.7-litre 280 bhp V8 quattro A8 - it obviously felt slower than the 4.2 but by no means did I feel that it was an underpowered car. The claimed performance backs that impression up, with 0-62 mph coming up in a very swift 7.3 sec and top speed governed to 155 mph, just like the 4.2.

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