Get out of my way.
Base Price (MSRP) $62,200
As Tested (MSRP) $64,600
Audi's A8 is big, fast and exceptionally comfortable. It rides like a luxury car, yet handles like a sports sedan. It's a rock at high speeds, extremely stable.
Those things can be said for most, if not all, cars in the $60,000-plus price range. Buyers in this class expect the best of everything, and they should. The A8, however, differs from its competitors in two key ways. All-aluminum construction yields lighter weight and increased crash protection; and quattro all-wheel drive provides a measure of security and outright grip that is only available with that four-circle badge.
Two models comprise the A8 model line, A8 ($62,200) and A8 L ($67,900). Related to these is a high-performance variant called the S8 ($72,500).
A8 4.2 comes with a 310-horsepower 4.2-liter V8, 5-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission, and quattro all-wheel drive. (The smaller 3.7-liter V8 option has been dropped for 2001.)
A8 L is a longer-wheelbase version with greater rear-seat leg and head room.
S8 is propelled by a stouter version of the 4.2-liter powerplant that produces 360 horsepower. It comes with a sports suspension and big brakes.
Launched in the summer of 1994 and arriving in North America in the fall of 1996, the A8 is the oldest car in Audi's lineup, so it lacks the current styling of Audi's A6 and upcoming A4. It's been around long enough that it doesn't attract much attention; it simply looks like der big Audi.
Yet the A8 remains fresh. Its clean, elegant profile emphasizes the large wheel arches and massive aluminum wheels. Audi has mastered the art of producing sedans that are striking -- imposing, even - without being overbearing. Optional 17-inch wheels add to its aggressive but understated appearance.
Underneath the A8's aluminum body is the Audi Space Frame. Developed with Alcoa, the patented space frame is manufactured with seven different aluminum alloys. It has fewer parts (and joints) than the typical steel unibody, it's more rigid, and it's 40-percent lighter than a steel frame. Furthermore, aluminum's increased energy-absorbing capabilities helped the A8 become the only member of the premium luxury class to earn the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's dual five-star safety rating.
A8 was the first automobile with dual front airbags and side-protection airbags for both front and rear passengers. The current system also includes Sideguard airbags that discharge from the roof lining and help cover side window area in an impact.
At 310 horsepower, the A8's 4.2-liter V8 has a slight edge over the BMW 740i and Mercedes-Benz S430. Yet, thanks to the engine's efficiency and the Audi's lighter weight, the A8 has no gas-guzzler tax on its window sticker.
Just about everything comes standard on the A8, from a multi-CD changer to a key fob that lets a driver choose one of four seat positions as he or she approaches the car. New toys for 2001 include a memory function on the front passenger seat, and a multi-function steering wheel incorporating audio, telephone and Tiptronic transmission controls.
Buyers in this class also are paying for cabin space and executive-class ambience. Again, the A8 delivers, particularly if they prefer their ambience in German hues. The cabin is trimmed with dark, rich walnut, and the gear selector is surrounded by brushed aluminum. Perforated leather upholstery feels thick and supple, and the elegant headliner looks like suede.
The A8's front seats are excellent, comfortable and supportive. Some cars offer a zillion adjustments, yet it's still hard to get comfortable in them. This car is comfortable from the outset.
A $3,500 premium leather option available only on the A8 L model adds leather on door panels, knee bolsters and the console.
The driver peers over a thick-rimmed steering wheel that's relatively small in diameter. The gauge cluster is back-lit in red and features an electronic message center. The turn signal stalk is spindly. At first glance, the center of the dash is a dazzling display of red-lighted buttons at night, but time spent with it builds familiarity.
His and hers climate controls tend to require minimal adjustment and are appropriately mounted below the stereo panel. The stereo buttons could be larger, but the largest of them is the volume control, square in the center where it's easy to find. The A8 has clever touches throughout. The latch for the glovebox is all the way left, within easy reach of the driver. Audi's overhead sunroof switch is the slickest going: Turn it a quarter, and the roof opens a quarter of the way. Turn it all the way, and the roof opens wide. An optional solar-panel sunroof ($850) available for the A8 L powers a fan to ventilate the A8 when it is parked.
The rear seats have variable lumbar support and headrest positioning, but lack the recline adjustment available in some competitors. Still, the rear cabin offers plenty of accoutrements, including adjustable ventilation, variable seat heaters, window shades, folding coat hooks and reading lamps.
There's plenty of room back there, too. The A8 is a bit wider than either the BMW 7 Series or Mercedes S-Class, but several inches shorter than either, which translates into slightly less legroom for the base A8. The slightly more compact Audi provides 100 cubic feet of interior volume compared with 105 in the class-leading Mercedes S-Class.
The solution for those who require limousine-like back-seat space is the A8 L model, with a five-inch longer wheelbase, producing three inches more legroom and a touch more headroom. The rear seats in the A8 L are roomy and comfortable.
The chime on the optional Acoustic Parking System ($700) warning of objects near the car when backing up can be annoying and hard to understand.
Front and rear doors open extra wide. The trunk lid opens beyond vertical to reveal a big trunk; the A8 has a larger trunk than any sedan offered by BMW, Jaguar or Mercedes-Benz.
Audi's optional navigation system doesn't offer the vivid graphical maps of other systems, but instead places the route instructions in between the speedometer and tachometer so the driver doesn't have to glance to the center of the dash. It also doesn't seem to give as many erroneous instructions as some of the other systems we've seen. The navigation system comes bundled with the acoustic parking system in the Guidance Package ($1980), and standard with the A8 L.
Audi's A8 is fast, achieving its 135-mph top speed so easily you can quickly forget it's blatantly illegal in North America. This car feels extremely stable at high speeds and the steering is very precise.
The key to its excellent handling and ride quality is the rigid aluminum space frame that provides maximum body rigidity with a substantial weight savings over competitors. Even with Audi's all-wheel drive system, the A8 weighs substantially less than the BMW 740iL and the new Mercedes S430. And the A8 feels like it's bolted together more tightly than any car in production.
This Audi A8 is exceptionally quiet. The only intrusion is the crack of tires over pavement joints, and you hear it more than you feel it. There's nothing remotely resembling a squeak or rattle and there is no vibration.
Audi's space frame also improves ride and handling by letting the suspension absorb nearly all the energy transferred from the road surface through the wheels. The A8 delivers a nearly perfect balance of fine handling and ride comfort. Steering is responsive and provides excellent communication between the tires and the driver. The A8 feels light and agile for a car of its size. Driven to the limit of the tires in a corner, it understeers a bit--tending to push toward the edge of the pavement. To counter this, the driver simply lifts a little from the throttle and the front end tracks through the turn. It works beautifully.
The A8 leans a bit from side to side during rapid cornering maneuvers, but its weight shifts smoothly, never abruptly. The ride is smooth, supple, yet without the slightest sensation of floating or wallowing. All the while, the 4.2-liter V8 delivers power on demand, responding with a muted roar to every jab at the gas pedal. No matter the A8's speed, there's a deep well of acceleration producing torque to further increase velocity.
The A8 comes standard with a five-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission that allows sequential, clutchless manual shifting on demand. Upshifts are silky smooth in full automatic mode, and downshifts relatively quick, but the electronic control program can be a bit indecisive in its gear selection. This can be solved by using the Tiptronic transmission's manual mode, which allows the driver to choose gears.
Drivers who feel 310 horsepower isn't enough may opt for the S8 performance model. Engine modifications such as revised camshafts and a two-stage variable intake manifold bump horsepower to 360 at 7000 rpm, with a torque increase (from 302) to 317 lbs.-ft. at just 3400 rpm. Coping with the increased velocity are four-piston aluminum Brembo brake calipers on vented discs, a stiffer and lowered suspension, and 18-inch alloy wheels on meaty 245/45 ZR performance tires.
No matter the model, the A8's mechanical systems are first rate. This car is quick, quiet and comfortable, making every drive a pleasant experience or an invigorating one, depending on your disposition.
A key safety improvement for 2001 is Audi's Electronic Stabilization Program, or ESP. Now common in luxury cars, ESP monitors vehicle behavior and driver inputs and uses the antilock brakes and traction control to intervene if the driver begins to lose control, such as the tail end stepping out in a sudden avoidance maneuver. The brakes are excellent.
Perhaps the most appealing quality of the A8 is its ability to mate seemingly opposite objectives. It's fast and relatively agile, yet roomy and comfortable. It's elegant but not arrogant, indulgent without being excessive. And all this comes with a slight price edge over comparably equipped big sedans from BMW and Mercedes. Striking even more closely at BMW and Mercedes are the A.8L and S8 models.