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Second-Hand: Audi A8

It's funny that in a segment where $100,000 luxury sedans command attention by the notoriety of their sticker prices alone, the Audi A8 is a relative unknown.

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It’s funny that in a segment where $100,000 luxury sedans command attention by the notoriety of their sticker prices alone, the Audi A8 is a relative unknown.

It’s a little ironic, given the fact it was on the A8 that Audi had bet the farm, marshalling its shrinking resources in the early 1990s to regain its reputation as an automotive leader.

The plan? Audi was bent on forging a car out of aluminum.

It was not an easy goal. Weaker than steel of the same thickness, aluminum is prone to tearing when stamped in dies made for steel. Spot welding is tricky, too. So a whole new way of constructing the car’s unit body had to be devised.

The Audi Space Frame consisted of a combination of cast aluminum pieces, hydroformed aluminum beams and stamped aluminum sheets. The skeleton was overlaid with aluminum body panels that fit together with great precision.

By building the world’s first mass-produced aluminum sedan, Audi had tapped into its pioneering spirit once more – just what you would expect from the company that developed the Wankel rotary engine.

CONFIGURATION

The only clue as to the car’s composition was found under the hood in the lavish welds around the front strut towers. That, or hold a magnet to the fender.

The resultant weight savings – more than 100 kilos lighter than a comparable car in steel – allowed for improved acceleration, better driving dynamics and enhanced fuel efficiency.

It promised class with less mass.

The A8 arrived in North America in 1997 in two versions: the entry-level model used a 230-hp, 3.7 L aluminum DOHC V8 powering the front wheels only. A 300 hp, 4.2 L V8 went into the A8 4.2, along with Audi’s permanently engaged quattro all-wheel-drive system.

Both were wrapped in handsome but largely non-descript coachwork shaped into a large, four-door sedan.

The dashboard was competently laid out, but the centre console was dotted with what seemed like 100 buttons – Audi’s MMI controller had yet to be invented. Seating for five adults was commodious front and back.

A five-speed automatic transmission was the sole gearbox available. The ‘box was swapped in 1998 for a Porsche designed Tiptronic unit with a manu-matic feature.

The mildly restyled A8 moved marginally upmarket in 2000 by dropping its front-drive 3.7 model. The standard 4.2 L V8 gained 10 more horses. A stretched-body A8L joined the lineup in 2001.

Audi redesigned its luxury flagship sedan for 2004, giving it a more artful body, additional power and an adjustable suspension. Exterior dimensions were virtually unaltered, but weight increased by 110 kg due to its reinforced structure.

Inside, occupants had 4 cm less front headroom, but gained almost 3 cm in rear leg space. The furnishings were upgraded and the high-style cabin featured the MMI interface with entertainment, navigation and other info accessible via the mouse-like controller.

The LCD screen quietly retracted into the dash on command – a respite for computer-weary eyes.

The A8’s engine was upgraded to 330 hp working through a six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift gate. Audi’s excellent quattro all-wheel drive remained standard.

Replacing conventional steel springs was an air suspension with four driver-selectable settings: Comfort, Automatic, sporty Dynamic and Lift for deep snow or lumpy cottage roads.

All 2004 A8s were long-wheelbase models; a lower priced short-wheelbase version arrived for 2005. A rare W12 version was also offered that year, with a humongous 450 hp 12-cylinder engine at the driver’s beck and call.

The A8 received the new, enlarged grille for 2006. A newly available Sport package for the A8 and A8L included a sport-tuned adaptive air suspension, steering-wheel gearshift paddles and 19-inch tires.

ON THE ROAD

“Drive an inline-4 after driving this car and it feels like a Briggs and Stratton lawn mower engine,” remarked an A8 owner on the Web.

True enough. The V8’s smooth refinement, coupled with the well-sorted autobox and railway-trestle platform, made for a sumptuous experience that was difficult to fault.

The first-generation car could climb to highway velocity (96 km/h) in 7.1 seconds, while the heavier second-gen sedan could do it in 6.4 – both numbers decent, but not quite the rival of the heavy hitters from BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

The 2004 and newer A8 was better in every aspect: it required less asphalt to stop, generated considerably more grip on a skidpad (0.84 g) and even got better gas mileage.

Still, in a major magazine comparison test of six hyper-luxury cruisers, the A8 ranked fourth (the Lexus LS 430 won). Editors cited the car’s unsettling ride – more sport than luxury – and the niggling squeaks were off-putting.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED

Despite its German pedigree – or perhaps because of it – the big Audi is sometimes plagued by electrical demons. The navigation system may become inoperable, the servomotor that closes the trunk may quit, and the MMI system occasionally locks up, owners reported.

A common gripe concerns the bevy of electronics on board that can suck the life out of the battery if it is parked too long.

Beyond the electrics, the car’s automatic transmission has been fingered for jerky shifts and the occasional failure, but in very small numbers. On the other hand, the 4.2 L V8 has been praised for its flawless performance.

Owners also noted that the massive rear head restraints obscured the view out the back.

All in all, the A8 is a competent – and rare – Teutonic luxury sedan. And it suffers from steep depreciation – which should warm the heart of any second-hand shopper.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with these models: Honda Element and Dodge Viper. Email: toljagic@ca.inter.net.

 

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