Stretching the limits of automotive luxury.
by Marc K. Stengel
It is the rare car that defines itself by the standards of its backseat.
From this agreeable perch, nevertheless, I am most content to issue my opinions about Audi's flagship, in almost papal splendor. This special A8's "L" designation refers to the five extra inches of chassis length assigned principally to rear passengers. Lazing recumbent in this leather-swathed romper room, with the black mesh sunshades raised over the side windows, and another automatically elevated across the rear glass, I have found the epitome of "stretch" in all its mental, moral, and physical meanings.
Regardless of where I'm going or who is taking me there, I am the precious cargo that this car was built to serve. Indeed, word of an "Office Package" dealer option with electronically folding desk and minibar-type cooler for the rear gives me even less incentive to leave the shadowy folds of this sumptuous womb with a view.
The plain facts from the statistics sheet barely do justice to the A8 L's special character: Front leg room is 41.3 inches, rear is 41.1 inches. How can those two numbers, rare as they are in their excruciating proximity, possibly convey the profound significance of this huge, roomy, imposing sedan, whose silky power nevertheless exults in 6.8-second rips from zero to 60? There are 310 horses chomping at their bits under that sheening expanse of aluminum hood. There are four overhead camshafts strumming 40 valves in their V-8 ranks. The music can only be measured as 302 lb-ft of pulling power distributed through all four wheels, thanks to Audi's sophisticated, fourth-generation quattro all-wheel-drive system. Computerized stability control, combined with quattro's unique driving feel, transforms this giant automotive trireme into as nimble a sport-touring performance sedan as ever plied the asphalt seas.
Legs, and a sense of direction
This is more than two tons of luxury car, but she's got legs. Smarts too. The steering wheel now includes controls for the 200-watt, six-CD sound system; hands-free telephone; and Tiptronic shifter, which manipulates the five-speed automatic transmission. Both front seats are adjustable 14 different ways. Rear seats are heated just like those up front. And SIDEGUARD head airbags along the full length of the interior now join the quartet of side bags for each outboard occupant, front and rear, and the full-size dual bags up front. It's enough, presumably, to blow you away - to safety, of course - should the unthinkable ever occur and all eight airbags deploy at once.
Dual-zone heating and cooling give both driver and front passenger respective control over their individual microclimates. Sunlight sensors further refine the accuracy of the personal cooling systems, while a charcoal-filtered smog sensor is capable of sealing off the stale exhalations of the greater, less fortunate world-at-large. On especially cold days, moreover, the A8's microclimate system even recirculates the sedan's residual heat while it is parked.
Standard satellite navigation for an open-road wunderkar like this goes without saying, and I found Audi's system to be as intuitive, accurate, and distraction-free as the best of its rivals. Distraction abatement is also the inspiration, it seems, for the optional Parktronic warning system, which employs radar-like acoustic transponders in the bumpers to avert those dings that an aluminum-bodied car can render so exorbitantly expensive. This sensitivity to the difficulty and expense of ironing out aluminum wrinkles has also prompted Audi to tout its network of dedicated repair facilities nationwide.
Less easy to fathom is Audi's decision to extend its basic warranty for 2001 to four years and 50,000 miles from three years/50,000 miles previously. Random anecdotal accounts tell of the difficulties that Audi's sumptuous A8 faces in preserving its resale value even after a few years. Might that extra 33 percent of warranty coverage be intended to support the cars' residual values after the conclusion of a typical three-year lease?
Legs, smarts - what else is there? For all the A8 L's functional charms, she's less assertive, perhaps, in flaunting them to their most dazzling visual effect. Sleek, uncomplicated, Bauhaus - these are the associations that most naturally come to mind when trying to avoid characterizing a nearly $73,000 car as merely plain. There's no suggestion of the shark-like, predatory aggression that distinguishes BMW's 7-Series sedans from the common crowd; neither is there the vampy, flirty self-confidence of Mercedes-Benz's sinuously redesigned S-Class. The Audi A8 feels like a booster rocket to drive, like a stateroom to be driven around in. But to look upon it is to see Audi emulating the wan styling of a Lexus sedan, even as Japanese designers at Lexus consistently fail time and again to capture the sparkling essence of European flair.
Such is the curious paradox of Audi's largest, most luxurious sedan that her reticent demeanor veils her genuinely bravado accomplishments. She is more performer than looker, more indulging in her comforts than fetching in her appearance. Her sumptuous appointments and her engineering brilliance are beyond dispute, however; and with regard to ferrying about town and country in a flagship of style, passengers in Audi's A8 L - particularly those in the rear - take a backseat to no one.
2001 Audi A8 L 4.2 Quattro
Base price base: $67,900; as tested, $72,550
Engine: 4.2-liter V-8, 310 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic with Tiptronic control, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 203.3 in x 79 in x 56.6 in
Wheelbase: 118.5 in
Curb weight: 4156 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 17/24 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual-stage front SRS airbags, front & rear side airbags, SIDEGUARD head airbags, ABS, electronic stability control
Major standard equipment: Aluminum-alloy space frame, dual-zone HVAC w/ sun sensors, GPS, 14-way adjusting front seats, leather & wood upholstery, electronic differential lockup (front and rear), Tiptronic/radio/telephone controls on steering wheel
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles
© 2000 The Car Connection