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First drive: Audi ups the ante with all-new A8 limo

Eight of the best: Fourth-generation A8 guns directly at Germany's finest limousines - the Benz S-class and BMW 7 Series.

Audi is determined its all-new MkIV A8 limousine will break through in Oz

12 Feb 2010


AUDI says the next Audi A8 must sway more buyers away from the Mercedes-Benz S-class and BMW 7 Series if it is to succeed in Australia.

Speaking at the launch of the all-new D4-series limousine in Spain this month, Audi spokesperson Anna Burgdorf revealed that Audi AG in Germany now expects the A8 to start making the same sort of inroads in its Upper Large segment as the A3, A4, A5 and TT have in their respective classes over the last few years.

All helped Audi to a record more than 60 consecutive months of sales growth in Australia, resulting in more than 11,300 sales for the first time in 2009. Upwards of 12,000 units are forecast for 2010.

Yet the company struggled to shift 50 examples of its flagship A8 sedan last year.

While a completely redesigned and re-engineered F01-generation 7 Series and facelifted W221 S-class certainly did not help Audi’s plight, the outgoing model never achieved the sales success expected from it, particularly considering the generally positive reviews the D3-series garnered.

Now Audi is quietly hoping for at least 100 buyers every year in Australia, and significantly more when extra variants come on stream from the end of the year.

In contrast, the old car averaged just under 80 vehicles per year in its seven-year lifetime, compared to the BMW’s 270 and the Mercedes’ 345 average over the same period respectively.

Audi won’t reveal D4-series A8 prices until closer to its mid-year launch date, but a company spokesperson assured us that a “compelling value story” will be a leading driver of increased sales.

But don’t expect cheaper prices, since more standard features, in a car that is improved in every area, means the existing A8 4.2 TDI quattro’s $211,400 ask will probably be eclipsed when the D4 arrives.

At launch there will be just two well-specified A8 4.2-litre V8 models – the TDI (diesel) and the FSI (petrol).

The former – powered by an evolution of the existing 4134cc common-rail direct-injection turbocharged engine – delivers 258kW of power at 4000rpm and no less than 800Nm of torque from between 1750 and 2750rpm.

It uses just 7.6 litres per 100km on the Australian combined average cycle, hits 100km/h from standstill in 5.5 seconds, and emits 199 grams per kilometre of carbon dioxide emissions.

A 19 per cent fuel consumption drop has been achieved in the new diesel by Audi’s engineers – partly due to a new eight-speed automatic gearbox.

The petrol unit, in contrast, is 4163cc in size, develops 273kW at 6800rpm, 445Nm at 3500rpm, drinks premium unleaded petrol at a rate of 9.5L/100km, is 0.2 seconds slower to 100km/h and pumps out 219g/km of CO2. Audi says the new petrol V8 model consumes 13 per cent less fuel than its predecessor.

An A8 3.0 TDI quattro is due by the end of 2010, powered by a 2967cc common-rail V6 turbo-diesel that produces 184kW and 550Nm, returns 6.6L/100km, does the 0-100km/h dash in 6.6 seconds and releases 174g/km of CO2.

More engines are on their way – including V6 petrol of around 3.2 litres in size – but the 3.0 TDI quattro will be the entry-level new-generation A8 for the foreseeable future.

A long-wheelbase version will be unveiled at the Beijing motor show in China soon, and this is expected to arrive in 2011. Whether it will be available in all models is undecided, but the 3.0 TDI quattro version is likely to come here since the combination of extra rear space and a lower entry price makes the stretched A8 version relatively popular with some limousine companies.

However, given Audi Australia’s quattro all-wheel-drive-only policy, the special eco-friendly 3.0 TDI version with 150kW and a segment-busting 6.0L/100km and 159g/km will most likely not make it to Australia, as this model will be front-drive-only in order to keep weight down.

The A8 Hybrid, to be released later this year, will be aimed predominantly at the US market and so is also unlikely for Australian consumption.

Besides quattro, all Australian-bound A8 models will include a new ZF eight-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission and air suspension.

The latter has been described by one Audi engineer as being “cherry picked” from various specialists to achieve the Ingolstadt firm’s goal of class-best ride while maintaining the current A8’s “top level” dynamic capabilities.

“Improving ride comfort was the top priority of the new A8 program,” said Audi chief engineer Michael Dick.

Meanwhile, the 4.2 TDI quattro and 4.2 FSI quattro models will include LED driving lights, 22-way adjustable front seats with a massage function, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, a ‘sport’ differential (that varies the amount of torque allocated between the rear wheels), an interior ambient lighting package and MMI Navigation Plus satellite-navigation.

The latter contains route-reading abilities that ‘prepare’ many of the advanced driver-assist systems, such as radar cruise control and automatic headlights.

Also standard will be what is perhaps the new A8’s most impressive showroom crowd-puller, the MMI Touch hand-writing recognition system for the sat-nav and phone applications.

The objective here is to help the driver keep his/her eyes and attention span on the road rather than down in the console area.

7 center imageAudi has also side-stepped the need for items such as a head-up instrumentation display with its new instrument binnacle screen, which introduces a variety of fresh approaches to the way a number of operations are displayed. This is also standard on the A8.

To recap, the A8 has been completely redesigned and extensively re-engineered in its new D4 guise, gaining around 49mm in the wheelbase, 75mm in length, 16mm in height and 55mm in width.

The silhouette boasts a more coupe-like profile, a visibly lower bonnet and boot line, and a more road-hugging stance. It also aids aerodynamics, with the A8 boasting a class-leading 0.26Cd drag co-efficient (down from 0.31Cd in the D3), leading Audi to claim the newcomer is the quietest in its class, with no wind noise evident at 120km/h.

Under the all-aluminium skin – again leveraging the advanced ASF aluminium space frame technology that Audi has employed in this class since the D2 A8 was released in 1994 – the D4 has adopted the existing B8 A4/A5 range’s five-link front suspension system instead of the old model’s MacPherson strut arrangement.

Revisions can also be found in the multi-link rear suspension set-up, which also brings extensive weight reductions thanks in part to the fact all wheel control arms are now made of aluminium.

The A8’s under-structure is Audi’s MLB (Modulare Längsbaukasten) modular platform, which sees the major drivetrain components moved rearwards from over the front axle for improved dynamic capabilities.

To aid driving feel and control, the front wheels receive 40 per cent of the torque split while the rear wheels remain in charge with 60 per cent.

The new A8’s Drive Select function varies the damping, throttle and steering rates, while the optional Dynamic Steering system alters the hydraulic system’s turning ratio according to speed of the car.

Other advances to be made available to Australian A8 buyers include radar-controlled automatic cruise control (which can bring the car to a full stop and then accelerate forward again within four seconds unless the driver intervenes or 15 seconds elapses), cameras for reverse, side and traffic vision, and lane departure and blind-spot warning devices.

Audi Australia says it is working hard to make the A8’s three-dimensional satellite images from Google Earth available to local buyers. It displays them in a bird’s eye view on the larger centre console monitor, while a full connection to the internet essentially turns the A8 into a WLAN hotspot.

And it doesn’t end there. Audi’s ‘Pre Sense Safety’ technology prepares the vehicle’s various safety systems for either improved accident avoidance or impact mitigation.

There’s also latest-generation night-vision technology that can detect and single out pedestrians at up to 300 metres away, while sensors that can read and display speed limit signs are also available.

Four-zone climate-control, twin 10.2-inch rear-seat entertainment screens, electric blinds and a 1400-Watt 19-speaker Bang and Olufsen sound system can also be ordered on the Audi flagship.

Finally, the boot is rated at 510 litres, can accommodate four golf bags, offers side compartments for smaller objects, and can be had with a load-through ski-bag.

Audi Australia is also thought to be developing a new A8 customer care program to differentiate the ownership experience from that of its more proletarian models.

“The A8 is strategically important not just for sales growth but for brand prestige,” Ms Burgdorf said.

“It’s the area we would like to improve in most. The current A8 is a great car but it has always been outsold by the competition.”

Drive impressions:

LIKE the quartet of rings found on the front of every one of its offerings, Audi’s flagship A8 represents four very distinct cycles of evolution that has only now resulted in a luxury car that can be considered complete.

The first was all about the establishment of a Mercedes S-class and BMW 7 Series rival, laying down the template for a powerful grand touring sedan with all-wheel drive. With styling as imaginative as its name, the D1-series V8 was not good enough to even bring into Australia, barring an import or two.

Its replacement, however, was a stunning synthesis of classic styling and cutting edge technology, and heralded Audi’s brave new world of aluminium construction as well as its alphanumerical nomenclature. A brilliant second attempt, but the MkII A8 was too far ahead of the brand’s image.

Audi’s third try – the outgoing D3-series A8 – was an avowed engineer’s car but it suffered from the company’s worrying disregard of ride comfort, and also lacked the showroom pizzazz of a newly emboldened Bangle-era BMW, or the blue-chip status of the S-class, at a time when showy style triumphed. Compared to these, the sober Audi seemed too serious and staid. It did deserve far better, however.

And now we have the D4-series A8 – still a powerful all-wheel drive luxury sedan, still more advanced than pretty much anything on the road, still as steely in determination as an aluminium car can get.

But this time Audi has sexed up the styling and softened down the suspension, while stuffing the sumptuous insides and underneath with sexy and stunning technological interfaces that – in automotive terms – have the same dazzling allure of an iPhone.

Or, in other words, the A8 has finally gotten down with the people.

Take the beauty of the design – no longer is it cool or hard in a superior way. Instead, the face is welcoming and warm, looking as familiar as an A4 but also fresh and premium.

Motoring journalists and rival car-makers may moan that the tail-lights in particular make the A8 look like an A4 photocopy enlarged to 133 per cent, but in the metal the clean surfacing, perfect proportions and depth of detailing are just superb.

Stare at the door cut-lines, recessed bonnet and rear panel joins, and see if the smaller Audi doesn’t look like the plainer sister of a movie star by comparison.

There’s no way anybody will mistake the interior as belonging to any other car out there, though.

The fascia is a masterpiece of design of functionality – a feast of details swathed in exquisite materials and sensuous to the touch and smell.

Audi’s engineers created a significantly lower bonnet line, necessitating a more flowing coupe shape that spills into the cabin. The dash is a cascade of horizontal layers finished in wood, leather and metal inlays and inserts, punctuated by symmetry and order. Shock! Germany shows Italy and Scandinavia a thing or two about interiors! Okay, enough flowery imagery. Let’s just say that the navigation and phone function featuring the handwriting interface is worthy of a Nobel Prize for coolness and the ‘yacht’ T-bar gear lever actually feels like a Starship throttle to use.

The instrumentation is a vast display of 3D clarity, exquisite fonts and fresh information presentation. And the completely reimagined MMI car-control interface that ties all of the above together feels organic and intuitive.

The basics are rock-solid – legible round instruments, ample ventilation, fabulous seats, a perfect driving position, a feeling of spaciousness, bank vault-like build quality, the vacuum silence from road and wind noise – they’re all there too, in typical Audi attention to detail.

We need to spend a lot more time inside because the faults that will inevitably exist are simply not apparent in just a single day’s drive and ride program.

All three global launch engine offerings were sampled, and all feel at the very least perfectly adequate for the job, with only varying degrees of differences.

That’s because the standard all-new eight-speed Tiptronic automatic is almost supernaturally gifted in its ability to meter out the torque both with unobtrusive and devastating proficiency. Shifts are executed with sabre-sharp speed.

On the awesome southernmost Spanish scenic roads, the 273kW/445Nm 4.2 V8 FSI quattro petrol powerplant is almost peerless in its refinement and performance. An identical car to ours ahead soared to 240km/h in just a matter of seconds after cruising alongside us at 120km/h, and in the rain without an iota of bother. Wonderful! In contrast, the 258kW 4.2L V8 TDI quattro diesel donk isn’t so ready to sing its way up to rev-limit Valhalla, with a bit of a persistent grumble that – to be fair to Audi – we only noticed because everything else around us was so muted. It was like a ‘frizz’ emanating from the footwell area. Still, fast off the mark, its mid-range acceleration is ferocious. There’s 800Nm of twist action being dished out to all four corners, but the car tracked utterly true.

And the 184kW/550Nm 3.0 V6 TDI quattro – surely this pales by comparison? Of course it does, so don’t bother driving the others if the entry-level engine is the only one you can afford. In fact, it’s a smooth and gutsy unit, with only a minor bit of vibration evident while accelerating through a certain point in the rev range.

Regardless of what engine is ahead of you, the biggest Audi sedan ever is a seriously capable driver’s car, sticking to the road and carving through corners like a much smaller and lighter machine.

We drove an outgoing D3 A8 4.2 V8 TDI quattro a few days earlier and against its successor the old car felt a little leaden and inert.

The air suspension offers four settings – Comfort, Auto, Dynamic and Individual. The latter is sort of like a pick-and-mix of whatever chassis tune you want, while the first three could as easily be renamed Soft, Brilliant Combo of Both According To Circumstances, and Sport.

We can’t say we love the steering’s slightly detached feel, but it does weigh up nicely when you want it to and gives the driver a welcome sense of always being in control of an agile car.

The V8 petrol felt the most athletic through the winding mountainous roads, especially in Dynamic mode – although the suspension did harden to the point where we heard as well as felt every bump quite easily.

But you know what? We’ve left the latest A8’s best bit to last. Finally, whether in Comfort or Auto, it rides with a suppleness people should expect from a luxury brand. A quiet, plush ride… hallelujah! Late last year, before we were allowed to drive the D4-series Audi limousine, we asked its engineering boss – Michael Dick – what was the biggest change over the old car. Without hesitation he said: ride comfort.

Now the time of reckoning is here.

The latest A8 is a formidable machine and a towering achievement in a number of ways. It feels like a culmination of a quarter of a century’s hard toil by an organisation that had too often been stung by criticism and humiliation – often at the hands of beaming and/or merciless foes – to the point where now it has come back simply fixing for a fight. We wouldn’t bet against the reinvigorated Ingolstadter either.

For the fourth-generation Audi flagship, everything has all come together at last.

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