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Feature: Audacious

Paul Dean

As exemplars of high-quality German mechanicals, Audis born of the legendary Auto Union have always been at eye level in terms of precision and personality with anything built by Leica, Blaupunkt, or Willi Messerschmitt. That, at least, is the actuality. Perversely, America’s perception of Audis has been of overweight, underpowered, overpriced, underdog cars that were poorly serviced by disinterested dealers.

Then came the unintended acceleration flap of the 1980s, when hundreds of Audis accidentally rocketed backward out of garages and parking slots, straight onto 60 Minutes. As a result, Audi sales in the United States had plummeted by 1993 from 70,000 cars a year to barely 10,000. It was as though someone had dropped a grand piano on the company’s sales figures, says Len Hunt, the bluff and affable Lancastrian who now heads Audi of America.

However, in 1995, Audi introduced the A4, and the comeback began. “That got us into the lifeboat and took us to shore,” says Hunt. Audi also persevered by continuing to build cars with its signature all-wheel-drive Quattro system and strong, light aluminum space frames. To further assure its survival in the U.S. market, Audi expanded its lineup to include coupes and cabriolets, luxury models, cars both tame and turbocharged, the pert Audi TT, and, lastly, the almighty RS 6 sedan with bi-turbo teeth and a 450-hp snarl. It also helped Audi’s new heritage (and world sales) when its R8 race cars scored three straight victories (2000, 2001, and 2002) at Le Mans. “We’ve come out of our cupboard, as it were, and are moving into tier 1 to take our place alongside and no longer behind BMW and Mercedes, Jaguar and Lexus,” says Hunt, continuing to sprinkle his analysis with a generous supply of metaphors. “I believe we are being given the building blocks to build the pedestal for Audi.”

He also believes that the new, ruggedly refined, hugely handsome Audi A8 is critical to the company’s full recovery and its projected U.S. sales record of 90,000 cars in 2003. Earlier this fall, Hunt, his Detroit team, and their Ingolstadt counterparts escorted the new cars to Barcelona, where the global media could have their way with them in the hills of Catalan. Deliveries to the United States will begin early next year. The 2004 A8 will be built with two different engines and two wheelbases, and the U.S. market, Audi’s largest potential customer base, will receive the jewel in the crown: the longer-wheelbase version with the more powerful 4.2-liter V-8.

Obviously, the car has been given a fresh look, a daring arching shape that departs drastically from the old Audi and moves closer to recent redesigns of its declared rivals, BMW’s 7 Series and the Mercedes S-Class. Front and rear overhangs have been shrunk, leaving deep pockets whose dimensions are best appreciated when the car is shod with optional 19-inch, 12-spoke artillery wheels.

The back end is bobbed and angular, and the light clusters mounted high in the corners only emphasize its abruptness. The flanks are upright to broaden the shoulders (and to create more interior shoulder room); the front has more edges than arcs; and the roofline is a low but perfect dome. Overall, the A8’s silhouette is a purposefully plump wedge that suggests the car is hunching forward, implying pace, push, and impatience. It is also a shape completely detached from those of the clunky A8s of the past, and one that is common to the smaller A6 and the smallest A4. That now aligns Audi’s primary products—again, as with BMW and Mercedes—into a papa, mamma, and baby bear family with respect to size and status, performance and price. (Those prices have yet to be set, although Hunt promises that they will be within “the same index as BMW.”)

Clearly, the A8’s mechanicals have been enhanced to attain par with its field. Power is up to 335 hp, a 9 percent boost over the old model and superior to the 7 Series or S-Class. Acceleration has trimmed the zero-to-60-mph time to a blink over six seconds, and top speed is 155 mph, which is every luxury car owner’s lot since manufacturers developed chips to curb our enthusiasm—and their liability.

Yet the challenge for Audi is to achieve what it calls vorsprung durch technik: advancement through technology. Mercedes, for example, crams its flagships with all of the technology that is proven, requested, trustworthy, and evolutionary to the marque. BMW, on the other hand, tends to equip its higher-end cars with gizmos and innovations for the sake of gizmos and innovations, until even 30-year veteran parking valets can experience difficulty starting them. Audi has wisely chosen to emulate Mercedes by fulfilling our reasonable requests for electronic conveniences without subjecting us to the whims of an overindulged engineer.

The A8’s transmission is now a long-legged 6-speed with automatic and sequential manual modes, and paddle shifting as an option. There is an adaptive cruise control—actually a collision avoidance system with forward-looking radar that protects you from collision with large objects that lie ahead. Standard equipment on the A8 includes an adaptive air suspension with continuously variable damping that juggles four ride heights to adjust the car’s center of gravity as its speed increases, for flatter handling and improved directional stability.

Even if the car’s tire-pressure monitoring system goes haywire, the A8 still offers the belt-and-suspenders security of run-flat tires. Mate all of this with the bulletproof magic of all-wheel-drive Quattro, torque sensing, ABS, traction controls, automatic brake force distribution, and hydraulic brake assist, and you eliminate just about any excuse for bringing your car home with a crunched front end or scratches on its roof.

There is also the necessary ingredient of just about any luxury car these days: Multi Media Interface (MMI), which involves a 7-inch, dash-mounted monitor that delivers all of the information a driver will ever need concerning the car’s entertainment package, its heating and cooling systems, navigation and roadside assistance, and systems control. The MMI is designed to maximize convenience while minimizing complexity. It features just four control keys grouped around one control button on the center console. The position of each key relates directly to the screen position of its corresponding function; touch the top left control key, for example, to select the function displayed in the top left-hand corner of the screen. Simple. And you can tap and doodle without raising an elbow from the center armrest.

Deft touches abound in the A8. Cornering lights brighten patches of darkness on the road, while auxiliary headlights with additional reflectors respond to high-speed moments of deep and sudden gloom. A memory system recognizes fingerprints on the starter button and returns the seat position, the mirrors, the steering column, the cabin temperature, the radio station, and even the volume to an individual’s preferred settings.

On winding and mountain roads, this  big car handles small. Steering is precise and reluctant to wander. It shows its weight at just the right moment of passage, when lightness becomes a handling liability, and it features simply the best rack-and-pinion setup that Audi has ever produced. Throttle response is instantaneous, blessedly so when there is only a small gap between you and the vehicle ahead, and you have just enough time to slap the Tiptronic hard left to a lower gear—or two.

To describe the leather and wood interiors of any luxury car seems almost superfluous, because these days they are all superb, all comfortable, and all create an ambience. But Audi does offer two grades of leather and four different woods, including birch. You can also choose between two leather-covered steering wheels: a three-spoke for sportier motorists or a four-spoke for those in less of a hurry. Both are equipped with touch keys and menu rollers for initiating a dialogue with the communication systems.

With such a car, Audi has a definite shot at capturing buyer affections typically reserved for BMW and Mercedes. Hunt, of course, has no difficulty turning an appropriate phrase for the occasion. The new A8, he says, can punch its weight.

Audi, www.audiusa.com

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