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Wheels: Audi Brings Its A-Game

Paul Dean

Audi won this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans after a mid-June day and night of pounding, flat-out racing—the kind where vision blurs at 220 mph, g forces multiply a driver’s body weight by a factor of five, and engines operate on the verge of meltdown.

Despite such punishment, Audi’s R15 diesel prototypes finished the French endurance classic more than 200 miles ahead of the pack, allowing the three-car Audi team to lope home in tandem, finishing first, second, and third. It was the company’s ninth Le Mans victory in the last 12 years and its fourth trifecta since 2000. One barren year was 2003, when Audi chose not to enter a works team. First and second places went to Bentley Speed 8s, both of which were powered by Audi engines.

"So racing certainly gives us credibility," said Scott Keogh, chief marketing officer for Audi of America, a few hours after Le Mans. Keogh was in the lobby of a Paris hotel, checking congratulatory e-mails on his laptop. He could not have been more pleased with the race results. After all, his job of selling Audis to Americans seemed to have just become a little easier. For in would-be buyers’ eyes, if there is reliability, durability, and efficiency in the systems of Audi’s 590 hp racecars, then the technology in those machines will seep down to production motorcars. Or so goes the theory that compels Audi and other automotive companies to fund racing teams.

That theory might hold true, but if nothing else, success on the racetrack builds prestige for a brand—just as victories on a gridiron can elevate a city or a university and presumably justify the investments in the stadium, football team, or both. And gaining prestige is essential for Audi as it plans to become the world’s number one luxury-car brand within the next five years. Now, however, it is trailing a pack that includes a couple of fellow German marques: Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

Among the cars that Audi is counting on to close the gap is the R8 two-seater, which is equipped with a V-10 engine and soon will arrive in spyder form. Another is the all-new 2011 Audi A8. It may not have inherited the launch controls and adjustable aerodynamics of the racecars, but the A8 is a sophisticated and elegant flagship sedan that should enable Audi to continue enhancing its image as a builder of elite automobiles.

The A8—lighter, longer, taller, and more powerful than the previous model—was Audi’s choice for shuttling members of its management and the media at the 2010 Le Mans event. Before the spectacle, journalists had the chance to drive the sedan from Paris to the racing circuit and then spend a day circling the vineyards and medieval, mossy chateaux of the Loire Valley.

Southwest of Paris, on the A10 autoroute, the A8 earned Audi nearly as much admiration from the journalists as would the Le Mans performance. There, near the town of Orléans, we collided with a storm as ferocious as a Southeast Asian monsoon. While other cars and trucks fumbled for the safety of hard shoulders, the A8, protected by its autonomous braking and blessed by all-wheel drive, soldiered on. It became apparent during this drive that the A8—because of the entire package it offers, not any particular incidentals—should present a significant threat to the luxury-market shares of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, which have dominated the segment for decades.

Last year, Mercedes-Benz sold about 200,000 cars in the United States, and BMW sold just over 270,000. Audi sales failed to top six figures, which is far too low for a nine-vehicle lineup of undisputed quality and value. But this year Audi’s business is up by more than 20 percent, with sales for 2010 projected to be a record 90,000 vehicles. And the smaller A6 recently became the world’s best-selling luxury sedan, which was a huge slap in the grille to the midrange four-doors of BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

In addition to the quality of the A8 and other cars in the Audi lineup, several other factors are working in the company’s favor as it tries to establish equal footing with its German competitors. In the late 1980s Audi shared retail space with Volkswagen, its parent company. Now there are some 270 Audi-only showrooms in the United States. Luxury-vehicle divisions from Japan—Lexus, Infiniti, and Acura—that once undersold Audis by as much as $20,000 have raised their prices over the years to Audi’s level. And Keogh said these days cars from Audi—not Mercedes-Benz or BMW—are what the cool guys are driving. "Let me put it this way," he said. "Bernie Madoff drove an S-Class. Steve Jobs drives an Audi S5."

When you compare the performance numbers, though, the new A8 does not fare especially well against its direct competition, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the BMW 7 Series. The A8’s 4.2-liter V-8 develops an adequate 372 hp, but the BMW 750’s V-8 produces a more impressive 400 horses. The Mercedes-Benz S550’s acceleration comes from 391 ft lbs of torque, while the A8 generates only 328 ft lbs—though it does reach 62 mph from rest in a respectable 5.7 seconds.

Most of the A8’s other equipment and amenities present no measurable edge because just about any luxury car worth its weight in euros has obstacle-seeking cruise control, parking assist, adjustable massage seats in the rear, lane-change alerts, and road-reading suspension systems. They also have 21-inch or larger wheels, premium leathers, and dashboard woods from Ecuador’s primordial forests.

At the end of the driving day, however, what really matters is how well the car complements the human senses. And this is where the A8 excels, particularly when your senses are being assaulted by a raging rainstorm while you are en route to Le Mans.

Everything about the performance and handling of this fourth-generation A8 is absolutely correct. The transmission of power into pace via a long-legged, 8-speed (yes, 8-speed) automatic gearbox is instantaneous and seamless. Regardless of the driver’s demands, the transmission finds the appropriate gear and delivers the anticipated response. The speed-sensitive steering is never too heavy or too light, and it always reacts exactly according to your input. Braking, even when you go into slam-on mode, produces safe, dead stops that are less fussy and far shorter than expected.

Equally pleasing is the exterior design of the new A8, though it is not significantly different from that of its predecessor. It has the same broad and deep grille and the same saucy and high rear end. It also has wonderfully jeweled LED running lights (and optional LED headlights) that are similar to those of last year’s model. Yet the 2011 A8 is wider, and it appears lower (though it is actually taller). All of this gives the vehicle a far more luxurious look than the last model—a look that is consistent with the car’s price tag, which Audi had not yet released at press time but is expected to be about $90,000.

The interior—the tour de force of every Audi—confirms the A8’s standing as a premier luxury sedan. The car’s pristine hides and exotic woods produce a mood-enhancing environment. Adding to your comfort level is the lighting of the instruments, some trim, and a rim around the overhead controls. The lights can be set to ivory, polar, or ruby, the latter of which might sound tacky but is actually quite tranquil.

The A8 also features a console-mounted gear shifter that is shaped like the head of an experimental golf putter, and Audi’s Multi Media Interface, which controls the audio (an optional $6,000 Bang & Olufsen system is available), interior climate, and other basic functions in much the same way the systems from Mercedes-Benz and BMW do.

The standard-wheelbase and long-wheelbase versions of the A8 are arriving now at U.S. showrooms. Next spring, Audi will introduce a long-wheelbase A8 equipped with a W-12 engine. There is speculation that after that will come a mightily powered—maybe a 580 hp biturbo V-10—Audi S8.

It appears that Audi is indeed planning to finish first again, this time ahead of Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

 

Audi, www.audiusa.com

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