- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

Despite what would appear to be some obvious advantages, Audi’s A8 ultraluxury sedan has not fared well against its closest competitors — the BMW 7-Series and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

In 2002, Audi dealers sold just 1,515 copies of the A8, compared to 22,006 for the BMW 7-Series and 21,118 for the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Even Jaguar surpassed Audi with sales of 8,286 of its XJ sedans.

Though the goal is still modest, Audi intends to narrow the gap with its 2004 Audi A8 L, an all-new rendering of its flagship model. The target is 5,000 a year, which would be a substantial increase but still leave it far behind the leaders.

Nevertheless, the new A8 L is Audi’s best effort yet to carve out a respectable chunk of a market in which people spend $70,000 and more on their cars.

There’s no tolerance for shortcomings in automobiles in this price class. They all must have quality materials, good performance, above-average craftsmanship and enough luxury accouterments to keep their well-heeled owners happy.

The new A8 L has all that. But it also boasts three big inducements that should make it more competitive against the BMW and Mercedes-Benz offerings: A lower price, standard all-wheel drive, and aluminum components, including the body, frame, engine and suspension parts.

The A8 L starts at $69,240 and, with a few options, comes to $74,340. In contrast, the BMW 745Li starts at $73,195 and the Mercedes-Benz S430 has a suggested list price of $73,320. The S500, which has a more powerful V-8 engine — but still not as powerful as the A8 L’s — is far more expensive at $81,720. Both the Mercedes and BMW have long options lists that can boost the prices even higher.

Audi has been a pioneer in automotive aluminum technology, and it puts virtually everything it knows into the A8 L. The result is a car that is tight and rigid, and lighter in weight than competing steel-bodied cars.

Moreover, for those who live in harsh winter climates, there is the comfort of knowing that the A8 should be rust-free decades from now.

The downside is that there are only a few body shops in the country that can repair damaged aluminum. But Audi has made provisions to coddle owners in such occurrences.

All-wheel drive, which Audi calls quattro, is moving rapidly into all classes of cars. Some in the industry predict that in a few years all luxury cars will be so equipped, and others believe that all-wheel drive will become common on everything from subcompacts to big SUVs.

In that arena, Audi clearly has an advantage. Unlike BMW and Mercedes-Benz, which have stuck to rear-wheel drive throughout their modern histories, with occasional all-wheel-drive models, Audi has refined front-wheel drive and, a few years ago, made all-wheel drive available on every model.

On the A8 L, it is part of the standard equipment. But all-wheel drive is not available on the BMW 745Li and it is a $2,900 option on the Mercedes-Benz S500.

In the end, however, none of this may make a difference to big-bucks buyers who are interested more in cachet than common sense. For some, the simple notion of driving a big BMW or Mercedes-Benz means more than the features or the thousands of dollars they might save with the Audi.

Still, given due consideration, the A8 L is plainly a classy car. It comes with a choice of different-colored and textured interiors, with soft leather upholstery and polished wood accents. The back seat offers limousinelike accommodations, with stretch-out room even for gangly professional basketball players.

The instruments and controls — in fact, the entire dash layout — display Audi’s penchant for simple and elegant design, along with simplicity of operation. For example, anyone who has ever tried to dope out the complicated stereo-system controls on other luxury cars would likely dump them quickly in favor of Audi’s.

On the A8, the stereo, navigation system and suspension settings are integrated, with the displays on a screen that automatically pops out of the dash. The controls are intuitive and easy to operate, often without the need for the driver to take his eyes off the road. For example, the air suspension system can be adjusted, without looking, to four settings with a knob on the console.

At the stiffest “dynamic” setting, the A8 L feels like a smaller sports sedan as it squats down and tracks through corners. Handling is tight and controlled, aided by the all-wheel drive. For boulevard cruising, there are softer settings available.

The 4.2-liter V-8’s 330 horsepower goes through a six-speed automatic transmission with a Tiptronic manual shift mode. Shifts are smooth under most circumstances, though they sometimes happen abruptly during leisurely acceleration.

Though the factory claims a zero-to-60 mph acceleration time of just over six seconds, the A8 L doesn’t feel that quick, even when you push it. It has more of a sedate luxury-car demeanor.

Criticisms are of the minor sort. The rear headrests, which do not fold down, substantially obstruct vision to the rear, and the outside mirrors could be larger.

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