Saturday, September 6, 2003

Audi A8L big, not boisterous

Sign of success for those who don't shout

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Audi A8L

The $70,000 Audi A8L packs 330 horsepower and is 5 inches longer than a Cadillac Escalade SUV.
Wheels rating: (out of 5)
5 wheels
Stealthy luxury sedan with the heart of a sports car

Vital statistics

What I drove: 2004 Audi A8L quattro, four-door sedan

Base price: $68,500

Price as tested: $75,040 (with options and destination)

Options on test vehicle: Electric rear and manual side sunshades, rear vanity mirrors, power trunk open/close, tire-pressure monitoring system, heated seats, heated steering wheel, ski sack, 19-inch performance tires

Drivetrain layout: Front engine, all-wheel drive

Engine: 4.2-liter 40-valve alloy V8 producing 330 horsepower and 317 lb-ft of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic w/ Tiptronic shifter

Wheelbase: 121 inches

Length: 204 inches

Width: 74.5 inches

Height: 57.3 inches

Weight: 4,399 pounds

EPA mpg, city/hwy: 17/24

Warranty: Basic: 4 years/ 50,000 miles; no-charge scheduled maintenance: 4 years/ 50,000 miles; roadside assist: 4 years

Safety: Dual front airbags; knee airbags for driver and front passenger; side airbags and curtain airbags front and rear; seat belt pretensioners and head restraints for all seats; LATCH child seat system; anti-lock brakes with electronic brake assist

Cool: Impeccable interior, expansive rear seat, all-wheel drive, huge trunk, rear-seat vanity mirrors and window shades, massaging seats, OnStar telematics

Uncool: Too-small side-view mirrors, shallow cup holders

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Car Talk
Apparently I'm watching too many Sopranos reruns. My first thought when I opened the trunk of the A8L was, "Wow! You could fit 10 bodies in here!"

When I stepped on the gas and got pushed back in my seat, I mused, "This would make a great getaway car."

And when I sat in the expansive rear seat, I thought, "You could transport some pretty big goombahs back here."

But it wasn't until I appraised the A8L's spare and understated exterior that I was convinced: Audi's all-new $70,000 flagship is a stealth luxury sedan - perfect for people who've arrived, but don't need to shout it to the world. The A8L shyly whispers, "ka-ching, ka-ching," so devoid is it of flash and bling-bling.

But don't be fooled by the staid exterior. This third-generation Audi A8L is loaded with luxury - massaging front seats, anyone? - and awesome technology. And it's very big.

Introduced in June, the long-wheelbase 2004 A8L replaces the short-wheelbase A8, which will no longer be sold in the United States. At 17 feet, the new A8L is 5 inches longer than a Cadillac Escalade SUV. Its wheelbase has been stretched 2.5 inches over the former "stretched" L version, giving rear-seat passengers a whopping 42.3 inches of legroom - more legroom than an Escalade or a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Seated in back, my 4-foot-6-inch daughter could stretch her legs straight out in front of her without touching the back of the front seat.

Audi has a reputation for building the best cabins in the business, and the luxurious A8L lives up to that high standard. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more impeccably crafted interior in any other car, regardless of price. Handsome wood grain, supple leather, suede trim and aluminum accents combine to create a warm, upscale, inviting interior - much like you'd find in a corporate jet.

My 8-year-old daughter felt like the Queen of Sheba when she rode in back, checking her imaginary makeup in the vanity mirrors and shielding herself from the sun with the manual side and electric rear window shades. So limo-like is the backseat, all it's missing are a Jacuzzi and champagne-filled ice bucket.

Up front, the A8L has a Multi-Media Interface (MMI) on-board computer for controlling the navigation, radio and climate systems. Drivers who don't want to use the MMI's large center-dash monitor can press a button to slide the screen behind the dash panel, and use a simplified redundant display in the instrument cluster. The dash also has redundant controls for adjusting the climate-control system in the traditional way. Being an old-fashioned girl myself, I like this approach. I resent having to bury myself in an owner's manual to accomplish something as simple as adjusting the temperature.

While I found the MMI distracting at first, after a couple days, it became second nature. I never got lost in the system the way I did with BMW's infuriatingly complex i-Drive system.

The A8L's list of standard features is so long it would be easier to enumerate what it doesn't include. But here's a sampling of what it does: 16-way power adjustable driver and passenger seats, DVD-based navigation system, 12-speaker Bose sound system with surround-sound and noise-cancellation technology, OnStar telematics and power sunroof. Our tester didn't come with the optional massaging front seat (bummer!), but it did have the Cold Weather Package, which includes heated front seats, a heated steering wheel and a ski sack that extends from the trunk into the rear seat.

Safety-wise, the A8L is as good as it gets, coming standard with 10 airbags (including front knee and full-length head curtain airbags), anti-lock brakes, stability control, electronic brake-force distribution and Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system for enhanced traction in wet weather.

The A8L is as long as a limo, but it drives like a much smaller car. To imbue this luxury sedan with sports car-like handling, Audi gave the A8L an all-new air suspension. This system allows the driver to select one of four settings: "dynamic" lowers the car for firmer damping and better control, "comfort" provides a softer ride, "lift" raises the car up for travel on rough roads, and "automatic" enables the car to adjust itself as road and driving conditions change.

Beneath the all-aluminum skin is a new aluminum-alloy space frame, which is stronger and 300 pounds lighter than the previous frame. The revised space frame has 20 percent fewer parts than the earlier model, but provides 60 percent more torsion rigidity. When driving, this translates into a solid, controlled feel during aggressive maneuvers.

A new 4.2-liter, 40-valve V8 generates 330 horsepower and 317 pound-feet of torque.

A new six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission sends the power to all four wheels through the quattro all-wheel-drive system.

Throttle response was rewarding, providing a surge of power whether I was taking off from a standstill or gunning up to 70 mph on the freeway. Gear shifts felt seamless (like a continuous variable transmission) in both automatic and Tiptronic (manual shift) modes.

Audi claims the A8L can zip from zero to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds, which puts it right up there with its large luxury rivals - the BMW 745Li and Mercedes-Benz S500.

Any one of these luxury sedans would be worthy of TV mob boss Tony Soprano's consideration. Remember when Tony traded in his Chevy Suburban for a Lexus LS430? Well, after he takes over the New York operation, he'll be ready to trade up from his Lexus. And when he does, I suggest he "pay a visit" to a dealership of the four interlocking rings.

After all, his wife already owns a Mercedes-Benz, and BMW's i-Drive would drive him nuts.

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