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First Oz drive: Audi A8 raises luxo-sports bar

Sporting luxury: Audi will pitch its new A8 as the sportiest limousine available.

Why S-class and 7 Series should fear Audi’s second generation all-alloy A8

27 Aug 2003

AUSTRALIA may be one of the world’s last markets to get it, but that won’t stop Audi attempting to break the domination of the luxury segment by S-class and 7 Series with its sportier, second generation A8.

Described by Audi Australia managing director Graham Hardy as one of the best cars in the world, if not the best, the second generation A8 is now available.

"It’s time for a re-appraisal of the pecking order in the luxury market," said Mr Hardy at last week’s national A8 launch.

"The unquestioned competence and sheer appeal of this brilliant newcomer gives Audi the opportunity to stake its rightful claim as a serious challenger in the premium market in Australia".

Billed as the world’s first luxury-sports limousine, the new A8 will initially only be available in two V8 variants.

Opening the range is the 3.7-litre quattro priced at $173,900 to compete with BMW’s $174,100 735i and the $175,900 Mercedes-Benz S350, along with Jaguar’s $169,000 3.5 XJ8.

The A8 4.2 flagship, priced at a cool $206,900, will directly rival the BMW 745i ($207,200), Mercedes S430 ($204,900), Jaguar XJ8 4.2 ($189,000) and Lexus LS430, which is currently priced at $176,174 but is due to be facelifted late next month.

Audi says its new A8, which is 60 per cent stiffer than the all-alloy model it replaces and claims to have the lightest chassis in class at 1770kg, has the specification to justify its price and positioning.

Both models come highly equipped, each featuring Audi’s quattro all-wheel drive system, ZF-made six-speed Tiptronic auto and adaptive air suspension as standard.

The new A8 also features all-alloy suspension, big 360mm/ 310mm front/rear brake discs, more room up front in all directions, more rear shoulder, head and knee room, a commendable 0.27Cd drag co-efficient and what is claimed to be a quieter cabin than7 Series at 130km/h.

Both A8s comprise impressive passive safety as standard, such as Electronic Stabilisation program including Anti-Slip Regulation, Electronic Differential Lock, ABS, Brake Assist and Electronic Brake-force Distribution, plus active front head restraints, two-stage front airbags, four side airbags and full curtain airbags.

Also standard on both models are an electric steering column adjustment, electro-mechanical handbrake (like that offered by BMW and Jaguar), Servotronic road speed-sensitive power steering, Acoustic Parking System, alarm, heated/folding exterior mirrors, foglights, metallic paint and Xenon gas-discharge high and low-beams with washers and adaptive side lights (as offered by Porsche and Mercedes).

There’s also dual-zone climate control, Advanced Key auto un/locking, six-CD audio, power windows, power front seats, front lumbar adjustment, DVD-based satellite navigation with retracting seven-inch monitor, multifunction steering wheel with Tiptronic paddles, memory system, auto-dimming mirrors, driver’s armrest, hands-free telephone, woodgrain trim and full leather trim.

Both cars come with Audi’s new Multi Media Interface which operates audio, sat-nav, trip and suspension functions from a central, console-mounted rotary dial like BMW’s iDrive system, but with more simple additional mode buttons.

The entry level 3.697-litre 40-valve V8 produces 206kW at 6000rpm and 360Nm of torque at 3750rpm, sprinting to 100km/h in a claimed 7.3 seconds.

The 4.172-litre flagship makes 246kW at 6200rpm and 430Nm of torque at 3500rpm to complete the 0-100km/h dash in a claimed 6.3 seconds. Both A8s are limited to 250km/h.

In addition to the 3.7’s standard specification, A8 4.2 offers one-inch larger 19-inch alloy wheels, an electric glass sunroof, electric “comfort” front seats, twin front armrests, LED interior lighting package and a TV tuner.

As long as the standard specification list is, there remains a sizeable options list which could add up to $25,000 in total.

This includes 20-inch alloys, rear climate controls, tyre pressure monitor, adaptive cruise control, an auto-closing boot, electric/ventilated and heated seats, Bose surround sound system, skibag, rear sunblind, double-glazed windows, (20mm lower) sports suspension and One Touch Memory, which identifies up to four drivers via a start button to set a multitude of driving functions.

Mr Hardy admits Audi has only ever been a token player in the large luxury sedan segment, but says the brand "is worth 8-10 per cent of the prestige and luxury segments".

As such, it has budgeted to sell 70 A8s in 2003 and at least 100 next year – a four-fold increase on its predecessor’s average sales and split evenly between 3.7 and 4.2 – but hopes to double that in the longer term.

Available now through 13 metropolitan Audi dealers, each of which has undergone four weeks’ staff training to offer the A8’s new Telediagnosis service, A8 comes with 24-hour AudiCare roadside assistance, which for A8 owners includes a personal co-ordinator, loan vehicle and/or five days free car hire if stranded 200km from home or five-star accommodation and a free flight if stranded interstate in the event of a breakdown.

Launching A8 at Southport’s Palazzo Versace – the same place it released the "revival" A4 in June, 2001, which has since helped Audi Australia double its sales volumes – Mr Hardy said the A8 launch campaign would be the most expensive ever undertaken by the company as a "brand investment".

As good as Audi’s sporty new A8 is, it will need all the help it can get to break into a badge-oriented market that BMW and Mercedes dominate with 80 per cent between them.

A8 TONED DOWN

HEAD of A8 design Dany Garand says the original design of the MkII A8 was even wilder than the BMW 7 Series designed by Chris Bangle.

Enlisted from Honda’s European design studio at the end of A8’s five-year development cycle in 2000, Mr Garand said he went back to the drawing board with the original A8 design, which he described as "too wild, too provocative – even wilder than the 7 Series".

"I tried to identify the best things of the car and had to tone down everything to give it more market acceptance," said Mr Garand, who designed the previous Civic and Accord.

Finished the same year, Mr Garand describes the A8 as building on the strengths of the old A8 by featuring "timeless quality but with a new sportiness".

Mr Garand said A8’s combination of a very short, square front overhang with obvious links to TT, short bonnet, long glasshouse, high-mountedtail-lights and a wide, low stance that’s wider at the top than the bottom was more like what the luxury market wanted.

Asked why a conventional gearlever (not a stalk-like device as found in 7 Series) was used, Mr Garand said: “Because the A8 buyer is an automotive guy not a computer guy".

• In other Audi news, Audi Australia boss Graham Hardy indicated a new 4.0-litre turbo-diesel A8 variant that he described as “unbelievable” was more likely to be sold here than a V6 version just launched in Europe.

"In terms of smaller engines this is where we need to be – at the top end," said Mr Hardy, who added the (130mm-longer) long wheelbase A8 would not be sold in Australia.

A W12-powered A8 and the hotter S8 variant are yet to appear internationally.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

IT WOULD be a mistake to dismiss the new A8 as a subtly restyled body slung over a subtly updated chassis with revised drivetrains, different interiors and more equipment.

First, alongside the previous A8, the all-new bodyshell is sleeker, more aggressive and achieves a slippery 0.27 aerodynamic drag figure. It mightn’t be radically different, but Audi found a middle ground when it came to changing its flagship limo: more subtle than 7 Series, less similar than XJ.

Building on its extensive alloy chassis technology, under the new skin lies a new chassis that at 218kg is both lighter than before and lightest in class, 60 per cent more rigid (quite a feat considering that’s about the same improvement wrought by the new XJ over its predecessor, which was steel) and features fewer separate components.

Overall, A8 is not as light as XJ, but it does feature full-time all-wheel drive as standard and, combined with a new air suspension and all-alloy suspension components, A8 now has the hardware to mix it with the class leaders.

Then there’s the new, horizontally dominant dash that replaces the previous A8’s segmented, three-part dash and features Audi’s new MMI system that will filter through to other Audi models.

Less frustrating to use than iDrive, the central control knob simply rotates to select functions – including anything from climate and audio to sat-nav and suspension – and pushes to activate them.

The same thinking is applied to all other controls in the ergonomically laid-out dashboard and the full-colour display panel in the instrument binnacle is also user-friendly.

Interestingly, however, while the gearshift gate has been reversed for right-hand drive markets for the first time (no longer does the lever obscure the gear selection readout), the MMI volume knob has not.

While it’s true many of A8’s new features are already found in its competition, the addition of adaptive cruise control, a tyre pressure monitor and auto-closing boot as options at least put A8 on par with its peers. And when you factor in the plethora of extra kit A8 buyers get as standard over its German counterparts, the big Audi takes a bow in terms of value. For example, while it lacks 7 Series’ auto function, the electronic park brake is standard in all A8s.

It is true the A8 engines themselves are only updates of what was previously available, but the increase in power and torque for each is significant.

At 246kW, the 4.2’s output falls just 4kW short of the original S8 supercar and driveability is similarly improved. The note from the twin tail-pipes is something to behold, and both engines can actually be seen under the bonnet.

The biggest change in the powertrain department, of course, is the addition of ZF’s now commonplace six-speed Tiptronic auto. First appearing in 7 Series, then Jaguar’s S-Type, XK and XJ, the brilliant new slusher actually takes on an exclusive specification for A8, whose super-short front overhang necessitated a new housing to accommodate the A8’s all-wheel drivetrain and front suspension/axles. In a first for Audi, A8’s front diff is positioned in front of the torque converter rather than behind.

Combined with the increased performance, the new transmission delivers instant response, seamless shifts up or down and quicker and more immediate shifting.

In the new chassis, performance from both engines is ample. The 3.7 feels both strong down low and happy to rev, seeming more than adequate around town and on the open road until you drive the 4.2 and sample its extra power and torque right across the rev range.

While some who drove the new A8 in Europe reserved judgment on its taut new air suspension until they drove it on inferior home turf, the 200km launch drive over both freeways and broken surfaces proved those reservations unfounded.

Firm but never harsh, even on the 4.2’s 19-inch rims, A8’s suspension setting is undoubtedly sportier than anything in its class, yet ride quality seems to have improved, the new suspension eliminating much of the sharp, high-frequency intrusion that has long been an Audi quattro trademark.

In truth, however, it was difficult to pick the difference between the air suspension’s four ride heights, which range between 95 and 145mm of ground clearance, and no doubt the optional 20-inch wheels would not ride as well, nor would the 20mm-lower optional sports suspension.

Steering is undoubtedly one of the biggest improvements with the new A8, the new speed-sensitive steering rack responding and communicating like never before.

Steering has long been a weak link in all-wheel drive Audis, but in this regard the new A8 feels almost like a rear-driver in the way its tiller is unaffected by engine torque and in the clarity of its feedback and response.

On-centre feel is particularly improved too and, although there is some steering rack rattle at the very edge of adhesion, stability under brakes was also a standout feature – so much so that it was one of four exercises demonstrated by Audi at a closed facility during the launch.

The ability of A8’s ESP stability control to correct even the most unthinkable high-speed swerves was particularly enlightening.

A8’s quality and positioning as a top-end luxury car is evident in the unrivalled thud of its doors and the superb fit and finish of its interior components. And clever touches like twin, magnifying vanity mirrors and one-touch indicators are a welcome surprise.

The luxuriously finished woodgrain trim, suede door trims and deep-set, chrome ringed instruments are well presented and the massive 500-litre boot houses a luggage net, plenty of tie-down hooks and a full-size spare wheel.

Perhaps the only blight is a hard, narrow centre rear seat.

It takes a fine vehicle to challenge the supremacy of cars like S-class and 7 Series, but when you combine superb steering, brakes, suspension and drivetrains into an all-wheel drive chassis that weighs the same as its direct rivals, a re-evaluation of the establishment is called for.

A8 continues Audi’s penchant for producing highly ergonomic, no-fuss vehicles that ooze quality and refinement.

But the latest one goes beyond this and offers class leading dynamics and safety with a big dose of style - for the same price as its rivals. For some, all that’s missing is the badge.

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