1997 Audi A8

HEILBRONN, Germany — Vorsprung durch Technik. No, it's not "strength through joy" that was something else altogether.

"Vorsprung durch Technik" means "advantage through technology", and it has been Audi's watchword over the past couple of decades.

Taking four-wheel drive from the farm yard into the sports sedan market (and the race track) was part of it; that pathway culminated in the brilliant A4 compact sedan, introduced a few months ago, which is returning Audi sales to levels not seen since the aerodynamic 5000 of the mid-1980s.

Now, Audi is bringing equally fresh thinking to the luxury car market with the equally brilliant A8.

If you'd like some English three-word phrases that describe the A8, try these: excellence without excess; elegance without arrogance; class without mass.

We wrote about the A8's aluminum body structure a few weeks ago. We didn't show you pictures then, but the car's no secret, having been on the European market for about two years. The styling has presence, elegance, Audi brand identity, and near-universal appeal, the only qualms I've heard expressed regard the slightly pudgy look to the car's front third.

Audi claims aluminum reduces body weight by around 140 kg, versus a similarly sized steel car. Specifically, the A8 enters the ring at 1770 kg, 175 kg less than a long-wheelbase BMW 7-series, against which Audi is trying to position its car.

For the record, the Audi is smaller; its wheelbase of 2882 mm actually falls between BMW's 5series (2830 mm) and the short-wheelbase 7 (2930 mm), while its overall length (5034 mm) splits the short (4984 mm) and long-wheelbase (5124 mm) 7s.

However, Audi maintains that overall interior space surpasses the short-wheelbase BMW 7, with rear seat legroom being one dimension where the A8 doesn't match the longer 7. Certainly, the A8 has all sorts of room up front, and few adults will complain about riding in the back seat. I didn't, on a sprint from Frankfurt to Heilbronn, a distance of about 140 km, at speeds up to 200 km/h.

The interior, typical of recent Audis, is beautifully crafted, with exquisite materials and lovely details, such as a delightful polished aluminum shift quadrant, which recalls the

body material.

Too bad the air conditioning control panel uses hard-to-read and hard-to-fathom digital electronic readouts and pushbuttons, similar to the A4. The difference is the A8 has dual

temperature and fan settings, one for each side. We're going to have to wait for another revolution in interior design before we get back to logical dials and slide levers.

The A8 really ups the ante for passive occupant protection, with no fewer than six air bags as standard equipment; frontal bags for both front seat occupants, and seatmounted side air bags for each front and rear outboard rider.

The bags are intelligent, deploying only if the seat is occupied. If that seatbelt is not fastened, the bag deploys at a different rate, giving the occupant altogether more protection than he deserves.

All outboard belts have pyrotechnic tensioners that snug the belts up during a crash, prior to air bag deployment. To provide correct belt fit regardless of occupant size, the front shoulder anchors are electrically height adjustable and the buckles are seat-mounted, while the outboard rear belt outlets are also power-adjustable.

The only blot on the A8's safety copybook is the omission of a three-point belt for the middle-rear rider. Perhaps the provision for Audi's famous ski sack, which pokes through the centre armrest, gets in the way.

Just about every modern convenience is standard on the A8: 14way (?!) power heated front seats, with four-position memory for the driver; power tilt and telescope wheel; power windows with one-touch up and down for the fronts; retained accessory

power so you can roll those windows up after shutting off the engine; remote central locking; cruise; trip computer, tilt-and-slide power sunroof; a 200watt Bose sound system with speed-sensitive volume compensation; and wiring for a cellular phone and trunk-mounted six-disc CD changer.

Only in the last item does Audi fall behind state-of-the-art: a couple of carmakers have already followed Lexus' lead, putting the CD changer inside the cabin for easier access. And Homelink, a system pioneered by Nissan and Infiniti, which lets you operate integrated garage door openers and home security devices from your car, will be added next year.

Among the few options are a cold weather package with ski sack, heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel (don't laugh — it's wonderful), and a warm weather package that includes a solar-panel sunroof, which generates its own electricity when the car is parked to operate interior ventilation fans. Summer in Phoenix — think about it.

In Europe, the A8 is available with several engines, and either front or four-wheel drive. In Canada, we will only get the most highly specified combination: 4.2 litre, four-cam,

32valve V8 engine and quattro four-wheel drive, with a Torsen (torque-sensing) centre differential, and electronically lockable diffs on both front and rear axles. If you get stuck in an A8, you need more help than the CAA can provide.

(The Americans, by the way, also get a front-drive 3.7 litre V8 version.)

The 4.2 cranks out 300 horsepower, yielding a power-to-weight ratio of 5.9 kg per horsepower, compared to 7.7, 7.5 and 6.6 for the Mercedes-Benz S420, Jaguar XJ6 and BMW 740iL respectively. (As in golf, lower is better.)

This Audi V8 should dispel its former reputation for poor bottom-end response. A spiral-shaped variable-length intake manifold helps boost peak torque to 295 pound-feet at 3300 r.p.m. A factory-claimed 0to100 km/h time around seven seconds is more than competitive.

The transmission is a new five-speed electronic automatic, with no fewer than 200 stored shift programs that the tranny can choose from, depending on ambient conditions and driver behavior (are there really that many different possibilities?). The five ratios allow inclusion of a low-enough first for decent off-the-line grunt, correcting a longstanding Audi failing.

In Europe, the A8 was launched with the Porsche-developed four-speed Tiptronic, which lets the driver slide the lever to the right from drive, then tip it forward for manual up-shifts, backwards for downshifts.

Audi's American product planners decided that shift quality wasn't smooth enough for their customers, and so opted for the conventional five-speed instead. Tiptronic will likely be available with the five-speed auto-box within a year or two.

As you might expect, aluminum is widely used in the suspension. The front setup is a four-link design, similar to what we first saw in the A4, but which really debuted on the A8.

The geometry puts the theoretical steering axis near the centre point of the tire, thereby reducing torque-steer tendencies to near-zero.

The rear suspension is a complex multilink design, with an upper wishbone, a trapezoidal lower member, and a longitudinal track rod. Everything is mounted through large rubber bushings, which have passive self-steering characteristics, and which also

help isolate the cabin from road noise and vibration.

Steering is ZF's Servotronic road speed-sensitive variable assist rack and pinion. Bosch's latest fifth-generation ABS controls the four-wheel disc brakes, and electronically adapts

rear brake pressure to varying dynamic conditions, including braking while cornering.

A couple of days booting around Germany's Black Forest and the autobahns, with incursions into France and Belgium, may not provide typically Canadian conditions under which to evaluate the A8. But it sure beats the 401 at rush hour.

If "substantial" and "solid" are words you associate with luxury cars, the A8 proves these can be achieved without "road-hugging weight". Road and engine noise are dramatically low, to the point where I noticed a little bit of wind noise on one test car that would probably go un-remarked in another car.

Ride quality is very good; only on large-amplitude bumps at high speeds is there even a hint of upset, and part of that must be the added weight of the four-wheel drive mechanism bouncing up and down under the car.

Acceleration is stout at any speed, the transmission reacting well to throttle-induced demands for more urge. There was the very occasional rough shift that we couldn't replicate reliably our group of North American journalist-testers was the last of several national groups, and while I don't wish to cast aspersions on my international colleagues, these cars had been well and truly flogged by the time we got to them.

Previous hard (mis?) use may also have been responsible for the smoking brakes we encountered after a particularly hard run down a Schwarzwald mountain pass. The pedal began to drop, fade began to set in the brakes continued to haul the car down, but

weren't au point. A few minutes' rest, and they recovered nicely.

Handling with four-wheel drive always tends to be serene if not always communicative. There's so much grip that the nibbling at the edges of adhesion that tells a sensitive driver where she is on the traction spectrum occurs at such high cornering limits that no one had better explore them on public roads.

The rubber suspension mountings and Servotronic steering, never the crispest unit in the world, contribute to this feeling of isolation. That said, steering effort is about right, and the car is exceptionally nimble.

The A8 may not be as entertaining a drive as, say, an old BMW 5series. But then, neither is the new 5-series. The trend, presumably driven by the North American market and the success of the Lexus LS400, is toward comfort and luxury, and away from keen-edged driving enjoyment.

On that count, the A8 scores highly, and has the undeniable security advantage of fourwheel drive, a particular plus in Canada.

It's no small task to take on Mercedes-Benz and BMW, Lexus and Infiniti, Cadillac and Lincoln.

The A8 has the style, technology, comfort, performance, features and value to play in this arena.

The question: will the public buy a ticket?

If the market indeed sees the A8 as a competitor for the BMW 7-series or Mercedes-Benz S-class, the $89,840 price, roughly equivalent to its Teutonic brethren, looks very attractive. The four-wheel drive and aluminum body also make a case for the added 10 grand over a Lexus LS400, although that car's legendary reliability and resale value, never Audi strengths, work in favor of the Japanese benchmark.

If, however, the market perceives the A8 as closer to the BMW 540i or Mercedes-Benz E420, it'll have a harder time. VWAudi Canada is only bringing in a handful of cars initially, and should have no trouble moving them to the more venturesome

luxury car buyer.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto writers invited to a test site, prepared this report based on sessions arranged and paid for by the automaker.

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