- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

The 2004 Audi A8 is a slimmed-down luxury heavyweight. Even though it weighs 4,400 pounds, the big luxury sedan is 41 percent lighter than a comparable steel-bodied car. That’s because Audi engineers, who were the first to produce an aluminum car, have taken lightweight auto construction to a new level of brilliance.

The new A8 needs to have engineering and design brilliance because it’s positioned to compete with the flagship models of its tough German competitors, the BMW 7 Series and the Mercedes S-Class. These cars represent all that state-of-the-art automotive engineering can produce.

The 2004 A8 contains much of the same kind of leading-edge technology and is a worthy competitor in this segment.

Performance from a 330-horsepower V-8 engine, ride comfort with an innovative air suspension, electronic systems that provide everything from navigation to concert-hall quality entertainment and materials that provide a feeling of luxury and comfort in the interior all combine to give the A8 credibility as a flagship luxury vehicle. What’s more, the car is a breakthrough in using materials that sharply reduce vehicle weight.

With their second-generation aluminum car, Audi engineers defy the accepted principal that vehicle strength depends on weight.

Despite its aluminum body and space frame, the A8’s solid construction makes it ride like a bigger, heavier vehicle. In addition, Audi says the 2004 model has 60 percent more torsional rigidity than its predecessor.

The new A8 is built with 17 percent fewer parts. This results in far less complexity in assembling the car and at the same time strengthens the vehicle.

For instance, the forward space frame structure previously was an eight-part assembly. Now it is a single casting that even eliminates a few support components. The single casting also supports the air-conditioning system, pedal mount and windshield cross member that connects the left- and right-side A-pillars.

Connecting the A pillars results in less body twisting and flexing. The A pillars are two large castings that are fastened at the bottom through a sill and at the top by a continuous roof frame.

The rear of the space frame is made up of two big castings that attach the side sills and the C- and D-pillars to a longitudinal member.

One of these castings also protects the fuel tank in rear collisions. The other casting, in addition to connecting the middle and rear pillars, connects to the top end of the suspension and forms the outside edge of the roof frame.

Using fewer parts allows Audi to use 80 percent automation in the assembly process. The earlier model was built with a process that was only 20 percent automated.

To improve on the previous generation space frame, Audi engineers used multifunctional large castings with long continuous profiles. They also designed straight extruded sections that strengthen and simplify the space frame.

The result is a significant reduction in the number of space frame parts — from 334 to 267 — and about a 10 percent weight saving. Fewer parts also speed production and help body rigidity. This also stiffens the body and improves the crash-worthiness of the vehicle. It translates into a more pleasing ride with low interior noise. Even on rough roads, the A8 is virtually vibration-free.

There’s no sacrifice in safety by using so much aluminum in the vehicle.

The B-pillars are a good example. They are composed of a single casting compared to the parts that were used in the previous model. Audi engineers designed these castings to provide greater strength in side collisions. The B-pillars also double as a hinge mount for the rear door and a striker mount for the front door.

Audi claims that there has been little downside to using aluminum. It was feared that conventional body shops would not be able to repair aluminum bodies and frames. But Audi says that most damage to the bodies of the first-generation A8 have been handled at dealerships. For vehicles that are more seriously damaged, Audi has established special repair facilities around the country.

There are now 37 service centers throughout the country for coping with serious repair jobs.

The A8 has an MSRP of $68,500. Len Hunt, who heads Audi of America, says the company expects to sell 5,000 in its first full year on the market.

The previous generation A8 has been selling at a rate of about 2,000 units per year, but Mr. Hunt is confident that the new model will help Audi more than double that number. It just might do that, because the A8 is unique in many ways.

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