2003 Audi A8 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
The A8 is Audi's largest sedan, designed to take on the big-sedan competition from Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Like the Benz and the Bimmer, the A8 is fast, roomy, and exceptionally comfortable. It rides like a luxury car, yet handles like a sports sedan. Extremely stable, it tracks rock-steady at super-legal speeds.
The same is true, of course, for the competition. But the A8 brings a unique personality to this class. It begins with its styling: Spare, clean and aerodynamically functional, the Audi doesn't have a single line on it that it absolutely does not need. Some buyers might find the A8 plain, but we like its quiet conservatism. The analogous Mercedes and BMW look a bit forced, by comparison.
Underneath those sleek lines, the Audi offers unique lightweight aluminum construction that provides best-in-class crash protection. And of course it's the only car in this class with full-time quattro all-wheel drive. That provides a measure of security and outright grip that is only available with the four-circle badge.
Two models comprise the A8 line: A8 ($62,200) and A8 L ($67,200). Related to these is a high-performance variant called the S8 ($72,500).
A8 and A8 L are powered by a 310-horsepower 4.2-liter dohc V8, driving all four wheels through a five-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission. The A8 packs all the luxury features you'd expect for its price, and rides on a wheelbase of 113.4 inches, comparable to that of a modern, full-size U.S. sedan.
A8 L is stretched out over a limousine-like wheelbase of 118.5 inches, for more rear-seat leg and headroom. Xenon headlights, heated seats front and rear, a ski sack, rear-compartment sunshades and a heated steering wheel are standard on A8 L, and are part of a $2,550 Premium Package for the A8.
S8 is propelled by a stouter version of the same 4.2-liter V8, producing 360 horsepower. Hotter cams, a two-stage variable intake manifold and a less-restrictive exhaust perform this trick, while at the same time upping torque to 317 pound-feet at 3400 rpm (from the A8's 302 pound-feet at 3000. The S8 can flash from zero to 60 in 6.3 seconds, and dispatch a quarter-mile in 13.9.
Backstopping that added speed are huge ventilated disc brakes, 13.6 inches front and 11.0 inches rear, with four-piston aluminum Brembo front brake calipers. The S8 suspension rides nearly and inch lower in front, its springs and shocks are about 30 percent firmer, its stabilizer bars are thicker, and its five-spoke, 18-inch alloy wheels carry 245/45ZR18 performance tires. The S8 shares its 113.4-inch wheelbase with the A8.
Launched in the summer of 1994 and arriving in North America in the fall of 1996, the A8 is the oldest car in Audi's lineup. So it is not quite so adventurously styled as Audi's mid-range A6 and compact A4.
Yet the A8 remains fresh. Its clean, elegant profile emphasizes its large wheel arches and massive aluminum wheels. Audi has mastered the art of designing sedans that are striking, even imposing, without being overbearing. Available 17- and even 18-inch wheels (the latter are standard on S8) add to the big Audi's aggressive but understated appearance. The low, hunkered-down stance of the S8 gives it an aura of high-speed Autobahn capability.
Underneath the A8's aluminum body is the Audi Space Frame. Developed with Alcoa, this patented structure comprises seven different aluminum alloys. It has fewer parts (and therefore joints) than the typical steel unit-body. It's more rigid, and 40 percent lighter than a steel frame. Even with Audi's all-wheel drive system, the A8 weighs substantially less than the Mercedes-Benz S430 or even the new BMW 745i.
Furthermore, aluminum's superior energy-absorbing capabilities helped the A8 to earn the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's dual five-star safety rating. It might surprise some people to know that it was the only premium luxury sedan to protect its passengers so well.
A8 was the first automobile with dual front airbags and side-protection airbags for both front and rear passengers. The current model adds Sideguard bags that discharge from the roof lining and help cover the side window area.
At 310 horsepower, the A8's 4.2-liter V8 sandwiches between the Mercedes-Benz S430 and the more powerful BMW 745i. Yet, thanks to the engine's efficiency, and the Audi's lighter weight, the A8 escapes the indignity of a gas-guzzler tax on its window sticker.
Just about everything comes standard on the A8, from a multi-CD changer to a key fob that lets drivers choose one of four seat positions as they approach the car. Just last year, Audi added a memory function on the front passenger seat, and a multi-function steering wheel incorporating audio, telephone and Tiptronic transmission controls.
Buyers in this niche are also paying for cabin space and executive-class ambience. Again, the A8 delivers, particularly if you prefer your ambience in serious Germanic style. The A8 interior is trimmed with dark, rich walnut, and the gear selector is surrounded by brushed aluminum. Perforated leather upholstery feels thick and supple, and the elegant headliner looks like suede.
The A8's front seats are excellent, comfortable and supportive. Some cars offer a zillion adjustments, yet it's still hard to get comfortable in them. These seats are comfortable from the outset. And then you still have 14 power adjustments (including four lumbar adjustments) purely for entertainment.
A $3,000 premium leather option, available only on the A8 L, adds leather on the door panels, knee bolsters and the console; plus Alcantara suede on the headliner and package shelf.
The driver peers over a thick-rimmed steering wheel that's relatively small in diameter. Thick A-pillars create a blind spot at intersections. The gauge cluster is backlit in red and features an electronic message center. The turn signal stalk is spindly. At first glance, the center of the dash is a dazzling display of red-lighted buttons, but time spent with it builds familiarity.
His-and-hers climate controls tend to require minimal adjustment and are appropriately mounted below the audio panel. The stereo buttons could be larger, but the largest of them is the volume control, square in the center where it's easy to find. The A8 features other clever touches throughout. The latch for the glovebox is all the way left, within easy reach of the driver. Audi's overhead sunroof switch is the slickest going: Turn it a quarter turn, and the roof opens a quarter of the way. Turn it all the way, and the roof opens wide. An optional solar-panel sunroof ($850) for the A8 L powers a fan to ventilate the interior while the car is parked. Like most German cars, this one is not strong in the cupholder department: It has one and it wasn't big enough for a grande caramel frappaccino. The cupholder had a metal bottom, however, indicating it may be designed to keep drinks hot or cold, but we didn't test this feature.
The rear seat coddles with variable lumbar support and headrest positioning, but lacks the recline adjustment available in some competitors. Still, the rear cabin offers plenty of standard and optional accoutrements, including adjustable ventilation, variable seat heaters, window shades, folding coat hooks, and reading lamps.
There's plenty of room back there, too. The A8 is a bit wider than either the BMW 7 Series or Mercedes S-Class; it's about the same length as the new BMW but several inches shorter than the Benz. That seems to translate into slightly less legroom for the base A8. The more compact Audi provides 100 cubic feet of interior volume, compared with 104 for the Bimmer and 105 in the class-leading Mercedes S-Class.
Audi's solution for those who require limousine-like rear-seat space is the A8 L, with a five-inch longer wheelbase, providing three inches more legroom and a touch more headroom. Needless to say, the rear seats in the A8 L are roomy and comfortable.
Front and rear doors open extra wide. However, the outside door handles are awkward, hard to hold, and can pinch your pinkie. The trunk lid opens beyond vertical to reveal a huge luggage bay, larger than in any sedan offered by BMW, Jaguar or Mercedes-Benz.
Audi's optional navigation system ($1,350) lacks the vivid graphical maps of competing units, but presents the route instructions in between the speedometer and tachometer so the driver doesn't.
The Audi A8 is fast, reaching its 130-mph top end so easily you can quickly forget that such speed is blatantly illegal in North America. The A8 feels extremely stable at high speed, and its steering is very precise.
Steering is responsive and provides excellent communication between the tires and the driver. The A8 feels light and agile for a car of its size. The key to its excellent handling and ride quality is its rigid aluminum space frame. The frame resists flexing and lets the suspension do all the work, which is how it's supposed to be. That's why the A8 delivers a nearly perfect balance of fine handling and ride comfort. Driven to the limit in a corner, it understeers a bit, tending to push toward the outside edge of the pavement. To counter this, the driver simply lifts a little from the throttle, and the front end tracks right through the turn. It works beautifully.
The A8 leans a bit during a rapid left-right transition, but its weight shifts smoothly, never abruptly. Its ride is smooth, supple, yet without the slightest sensation of floating or wallowing. The A8 feels like it's bolted together more tightly than any car in production. It is also exceptionally quiet. The only sound that intrudes on your solitude is the occasional crack of the tires over pavement joints. You hear that more than you feel it. There's nothing remotely resembling a squeak or rattle, and there is no vibration. At idle, however, the S8 engine seemed rough and noisy for this class.
The A8's 4.2-liter V8 delivers power on demand, responding with a muted roar to every poke at the gas pedal. No matter how fast the A8 is already going, the driver can tap into a deep well acceleration-producing torque.
The A8 comes standard with a five-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission that allows sequential, clutchless manual shifting. Upshifts are silky smooth in full automatic mode, and downshifts relatively quick. For 2002, Audi has added a 'Sport' mode: Just slide the gear selector to the 'S,' and the transmission holds lower gears longer on acceleration, and downshifts more rapidly on deceleration, for a racier driving experience.
Audi's Electronic Stabilization Program, or ESP, monitors vehicle behavior against driver input, and uses the antilock brakes and traction control to correct a skid or slide. Electronic Brake Distribution re-proportions braking force from rear to front as weight inevitably shifts forward during braking. An Electronic Differential Lock (EDL) assures directional stability while accelerating. For 2002, Audi has added Hydraulic Brake Assist, to maximize braking force in emergency stops. We found the A8's brakes excellent.
We also drove the $72,500 S8, whose body is identical to the A8 save for small S8 badges. That makes it a stealth bomber. It featured the Alcantara leather seats (like suede, in gray, and a $3,500 option), plus heated rear seats with rear window sunshades ($700). Add $575 in freight and a $1700 guzzler tax for this high-performance model, and the sticker topped out at $78,975.
Audi builds the S8 for people who find that 310 horsepower is just not enough. It develops 360 horsepower, the additional power coming from modified breathing. Around town, we had to open the throttle c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y to pull smoothly away from a stop. At least the U.S.-edition S8 is geared a little shorter than its German cousin, which is even more difficult to drive in traffic. Ours is capable of accelerating from 0 to 6- mph in 6.3 seconds and finishing the standing quarter-mile in less than 14 seconds.
Still, the S8 really belongs on the Autobahn; it feels most at home at very high speeds. Accelerating onto a freeway, it's difficult to imagine a smoother car. The S8 is so fast that you're already speeding before you even merge into the slow lane. But you don't want to hold back. The growl of the V8 is sublime.
Unfortunately, we can't say the same about the manual mode of the five-speed Tiptronic transm.
Perhaps the most appealing quality of the A8 is its ability to mate seemingly opposite objectives. It's fast and relatively agile, yet roomy and comfortable. It's elegant but not arrogant, indulgent without being excessive. And it's priced a little lower than comparable sedans from BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Striking even more closely at BMW and Mercedes territory are the roomier A.8 L and super-performance S8.
A8 ($62,200); A8 L ($67,200), S8 ($72,500).
Options As Tested
Luxury Alcantara ($3,500) replaces Valcona leather upholstery; Premium Package ($700) includes heated rear seats, power rear window sunshade, manual rear side window sunshades, expandable ski/storage sack.
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