Photos by: Matt Chow, Zerin Dube and Todd Spoth
In today’s world of global partnerships and remote offices, executives find themselves needing to travel more and more in order to meet the needs of their businesses. Airlines are taking advantage of this new era by touting their “new and improved” business class seating just about everywhere you go. Each airline tries to one-up its competition, offering just a little more leg room, or a place for you to plug in your laptop or other electronic gadgets, all in an effort to try and seduce the would-be business traveler to fly their airline.
The exact same scenario holds true with the automotive industry in the full-size premium luxury segment. BMW, Mercedes, and Audi all have top-end models that are targeted at business professionals looking for executive transportation on the ground. Each offers the highest level of comfort and convenience, and each tries to out-duel the other in hopes of winning a prospective customer.
As the youngest player in the game, Audi has the most to prove to potential buyers to sway them away from the 745iLs and S500s of the world. Enter Audi’s latest offering in the premium luxury segment, the 2005 Audi A8L (The “L” denotes long wheelbase). The current generation Audi A8L was originally launched in June 2003 and has already won several industry awards, including being named one of the “Top 10 Cars for CEOs” by Chief Executive Magazine. The A8L is touted by Audi as the “World’s Most Intelligently Designed Car.” This bold statement is part of Audi’s young-upstart attitude and meshes with Audi’s “never follow” design and marketing philosophy.
With a base price of $69,900, the A8L comes equipped with a 335 horsepower version of Audi’s 4.2 liter V-8 and is mated to a six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission. Power is transmitted to the wheels by way of Audi’s quattro IV permanent all-wheel drive system. The base price also includes a whole laundry list of standard features and amenities, such as MMI, anti-lock brakes, plush full leather seating, a fully adjustable air suspension, six-disc CD changer, navigation system, and a whole compliment of other standard features. Our test car, as equipped with adaptive cruise control, convenience package, XM radio and 18” aluminum wheels, retails for $76,970, and includes the $720 destination charge.
The A8L also incorporates Audi’s Space Frame construction that consists of an all-aluminum frame with aluminum alloy body panels. This allows the A8L to weigh in at a very respectable 4400 pounds despite its rather large proportions. In comparison, the BMW 745Li weighs in at 4464 pounds, yet does not have the added weight or all-season benefits of an all-wheel drive system.
To call the Audi A8L one of the most gorgeous sedans I have ever seen would be an understatement. Most cars these days might look great from the front, or have a very nice side profile, but always seem to have a disappointing angle that leaves one wondering if the designers ran into a time crunch or simply gave up during the design process. This is not true of the A8L. The lines of the entire car seem to work with such synergy that there simply is no bad side. Every aspect of the A8L has been designed to create a very understated, yet elegant and sporty look that is very consistent with Audi tradition. This car has greater presence on the road than any of the A8L’s competition.
On The Inside
The 16-way (Yes, 16) adjustable Valcona leather seats were very comfortable, but I wish there was an added control to adjust the width of the side bolsters. I am a small-framed person, and felt that I was never fully supported laterally. Front legroom and headroom is more than adequate even for the tallest person. I also would like the armrest on the door panels to be about an inch higher. I never felt totally comfortable resting my arm there since it felt too low. The steering wheel is thick, and very comfortable to hold in all positions, which is especially important for long trips.
I hesitate to call the rear seat of the A8L a rear seat for it is more like a rear lounge. Even with the front seats in position for the average driver to be comfortable, there is enough rear seat room to install recliners. Owners of the A8L will never again have to ask, “Do you need me to move my seat up?” Rear seat occupants also get their own AC vents, lighting controls and rear sunshades for the side windows. Our A8L was equipped with the convenience package, which includes fold-down vanity mirrors for the rear seat occupants.
While the MMI system as a whole is well thought out, the radio controls within the MMI system are not. I found it extremely difficult to navigate through my radio presets due to MMI defaulting to a sort of dynamic radio list. The dynamic radio list is supposed to put stations in some strange order of most recently listened stations. I found this extremely aggravating; as I had to hunt for the stations I wanted. Another gripe concerns the Bose DSP function. You are supposed to be able to optimize sound for the driver, passenger, or rear seat occupants. All I noticed was some form of time alignment, with removal of any hint of mid-bass and mid range. All that was left was the harsh sound of screaming tweeters and some overly boomy bass. I turned DSP off for the rest of my tenure with the A8L. My other complaint is with the standard six-disc CD changer. In order to load and remove CDs, the driver must reach over to the glove box and try to push buttons to load the slow-moving CD changer. I do like the thought of not having to walk to the trunk to change CDs, but would also like a single-slot dash mounted CD player. The MMI screen retraction articulation is also somewhat rough. Instead of moving in one smooth action, it went down in 2 jerky motions. This may have been something that was isolated to our particular test car, but is something that should not exist in a $75,000 car. Despite my objections, the A8L has one of the better factory stereo systems.
The A8L’s climate controls are located dead center of the dash and low in the console. The standard dual zone climate control allows driver and passenger to set the temperature and vent configurations exactly as they please. While very easy to use, I wish that the entire climate control panel was located about 1” forward since I felt myself reaching too far to adjust temperature. I also wish there was an easier way to synchronize the driver and passenger’s cabin temperature settings rather than flipping through multiple menus in the MMI interface. A simple “SYNC” button would suffice.
Overall, the interior of the A8L alone would be enough to make me buy one over the competition. With
the rich seating surfaces, interesting color combination, and ease of use of the MMI, Audi has created an all around wonderful package that will make even the most die-hard BMW fan jealous.
On The Road
The cabin of the A8L is extremely quiet, and there is no evidence of wind noise even at high speeds. The only noise entering the cabin could be attributed to a loud set of tires, and the very muted yet soothing rumble of the engine under wide open throttle. Audi engineers helped accomplish this by triple sealing doors, and even felt lining the wheel wells, all in an effort to make the cabin as acoustically isolated as possible.
This car is fast when called to be, and that is even before trying out the transmission’s Sport mode. When in Sport mode, the A8L locks out sixth gear and switches to a much more aggressive shifting pattern. The transmission keeps the RPMs about 600 – 700rpm higher in Sport mode than in standard mode. Mash the throttle in sport mode and you will wrap the tachometer out all the way to the 6500 RPM redline before shifting. I really had to pay attention to the speedometer while driving since the rate at which this car gathers speed is so smooth, it can be deceiving. Audi claims a quarter mile time in the neighborhood of 15.1 seconds, which is faster than many cars weighing 1000 pounds less. I observed about 19 miles per gallon in mixed city and highway driving, which is very respectable for a car with a V8 engine.
While I love the way this engine performs, I am less impressed with the transmission. The 6-speed Automatic is VERY clunky in normal drive mode. Upshifts are a little slow, but downshifts are extremely abrupt and can be felt by all occupants. When rolling out from a dead stop, I felt there was entirely too much delay in the time between stepping into the throttle and when the transmission actually engages. This results in a very sudden launch from a standstill. This is not only annoying; it can be very dangerous if unexpected. I suspect these issues could be fixed with a software revision that changes the way the transmission handles shifting in D mode. In Tiptronic or Sport mode, the transmission did not exhibit any of these traits.
Handling wise, the Servotronic speed sensitive power steering does an excellent job of boosting steering assistance during low speed maneuvers, while quickly firming up for normal highway driving. This really made parking lot maneuvering very easy, which is welcomed on a car of this size. At highway speeds, there is never too much resistance or play in the steering wheel.
The adjustable air suspension also does a great job of helping the A8L respond to ever changing road conditions. With the suspension set to dynamic, the suspension adjusts strut dampening instantly, and always just the right amount to keep the car taut but still very smooth over bumps. The car never made me feel like I was in anything less than a world-class luxury car. The A8L soaked up the bumps with ease, but never once gave me the floaty feeling that one might expect from a luxury car.
Cornering is solid in the A8L thanks to the Quattro permanent all-wheel drive system, and the ability of the pneumatic suspension to adapt immediately to different conditions. Even when I felt like I had the car at its limits, the suspension worked harmoniously with the Quattro system to hold the line. As one would expect of a car this size though, the A8L displays quite a bit of body roll during hard cornering maneuvers.
Pulling a 4400lb car down to a stop is a tall order, but the A8L’s brakes were up to the task and did not display any real signs of brake fade under panic stop situations. The car tends to nosedive under hard braking, and the pedal feel was a bit soft. Still, the A8L’s braking characteristics are excellent and never once made me lose confidence.
Some buyers shopping the A8L might feel that the suspension is too taut for their tastes. If that is the case, I would like to point them in the direction of their nearest Buick dealer. Most of the people who drive the A8L will come away having one of the most invigorating yet comfortable driving experiences they will find in this segment. The car is pure luxury and comfort when it needs to be, and sporty when asked.