““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
There's almost room for a game of tennis doubles in the back of the new A8L, but since this is an Audi with Quattro all-wheel drive and a V8 in the nose, it's more sports limo than prom parade float.
The A8L is not alone in blending this somewhat unlikely combination of disparate attributes to produce a car that appeals to both the helmsman and the people cruising in serene comfort in the aft lounge deck. We won't count the Lexus LS460L, which aims above all for round-edged comfort, and the one-length-fits-all Mercedes S550; but there are also stretched versions of both the BMW 750i and the Jaguar XJ (see BJT's June/July 2009 and December 2010/January 2011 issues for reviews of both cars in their standard length).
Compared with these two notably good interpretations of the stretched car as spacious, spirited roadliner, the Audi offers the best value at $88,375. That was the sticker price of the car we tested (lower than the tags for both the 750Li and XJL), and it was not far above the A8L's $84,875 base price.
Press-fleet cars tend to be decked out like the model home in a new development for maximum gadgetry and salability, but this particular A8L was surprisingly stripped, its list of absent options far outnumbering those installed. The test car had the $2,300 "drive select plus package" (sports rear differential and dynamic steering) and $1,200 20-inch wheels shod with 265/40R20 Dunlop SP Winter Sports tires. However, "stripped" is a relative term when a car comes with as much standard equipment as this one does: adaptive air suspension, electronic stabilization, navigation system with multimedia touch control and retractable screen, Bose HD radio with SiriusXM, iPod integration, 18-way power heated front seats, glove-compartment cooling, glass sunroof, power sunshades in all rear windows, power trunk operation and power soft-close doors.
Among the missing options (none of which I yearned for from the driver's seat) were a cooler in the rear center seatback, cabin-air ionizer, lane assist, side assist, night vision, fog lamps in the front, advanced parking system and reclining rear seats with massage. Adaptive cruise control was about the only absentee I would have appreciated.
Producing 372 hp at 6800 rpm and 328 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm, the Audi's Hungarian-made V8 has the least poke of the aforementioned stretched sporting contenders but it is more than adequate to motivate this 4,350-pound middleweight. (The Jag is the lightest, most powerful and quickest from zero to 60, the BMW the heaviest, "torquiest" and slowest to 60.) It does so through an impressively capable ZF eight-speed Tiptronic transmission (two more gears than the other cars).
This eight-speed box contributes both to the impression of power with a demanding right foot and to the remarkable mileage that can be achieved with a disciplined right foot. On my 63-miles-each-way daily commute, the A8L returned 31 mpg on a light-traffic run conducted mostly at 60 mph under the miserly supervision of cruise control. By way of comparison, my daughter's small but well engineered U.S./Japanese economy car–relatively speaking, a soapbox with a go-kart engine–got only eight mpg more on the same run.
However, enjoy the power at the beck and call of your right foot, and the Audi's mpg drops commensurately, to EPA ratings of 17 city/27highway/21 combined. Our test average for the A8L was 18.6 mpg. If the V8 strikes you as short on grunt, consider the A8L with 500-hp/460 lb-ft W12 (price yet to be announced as BJT went to press).
Other than the steering, I had no complaints about the car's handling. Overall, the A8L moves with a sprightliness that belies its bulk. Only a glance over the shoulder will tell you how much car is along for the ride downwind of the bridge. The A8L is 5.2 inches longer than the standard A8, and the rear-seat passengers' legs are the beneficiaries of all of it.
The steering, though, was twitchy to the point of mild concern for the first few miles I drove the car while I adjusted to its feel. Switching to a sportier driving mode in the Audi's menu of handling options seemed to help, but perhaps this switch coincided with my getting used to the flightiness of the steering. Other reviewers have said they saw no difference in the sensitivity of the steering regardless of the driving mode.
Had I strapped into the Audi after a week in my daughter's Civic, perhaps the A8L's steering would have seemed fine, but it threw my M5-attuned reactions and control inputs off balance.
In the hardware department, the A8L's body is an aluminum-alloy space frame and shell for strength and light weight, and the quality of the interior is every bit as impressive as a top-end business jet's in terms of the hides, workmanship and fit and finish. The car rides on air suspension that does a good job of catering to the disparate demands of the people occupying the bridge and the aft lounge deck. It dances well when the driver raises the tempo and it absorbs road imperfections and stabilizes the ride admirably once this roadliner settles into devouring a large helping of miles. It can raise the entire car an inch to boost ground clearance should brief excursions onto rough road be necessary, and it can lower the body 0.78 inches below normal when in dynamic mode or when traveling at highway speeds.
There's fancy software inside the solid hardware, too. Audi's MMI (multimedia interface) allows the driver to deliver commands to the nav, car and phone functions by writing with a fingertip on a small pad near the transmission shifter. Speaking of which, the shifter makes it harder for the driver to nail reverse or drive than it should be, so be sure you've developed the correct touch before attempting a three-point turn if there's an 18-wheeler on the move anywhere in the same township.
"Grace, space, pace" was Jaguar's slogan of yore, and it's fitting for this car too, but Brand MB is the one squarely in Audi's sights, with a marketing campaign that portrays the
S-class as the carriage of yesteryear for creaky old money. Each to his own. Drive them all before you choose, because they each use a different recipe to produce similar dishes.