DRIVE Audi A8 L: Low-key high tech
By Ann M. Job
For The Associated Press
There's great news for technology-challenged luxury car buyers: It's called the 2004 Audi A8 L.
This new-generation flagship five-passenger Audi sedan is packed with technology -- everything from 10 airbags and unique aluminum space frame construction to a crisp, color 7-inch control screen that appears from behind a wood door on the dashboard.
But despite the advancements, the A8 L doesn't scream technology, doesn't make a big to-do about it.
Rather, the technology here doesn't overwhelm. It merely works with sophistication to manage the car's air suspension, for example, and to monitor the interior noise levels in order to automatically adjust audio quality -- not just volume.
In fact, drivers don't even have to scan the large display screen in the center of the dashboard to operate Audi's new multimedia interface, or MMI. A redundant, simplified display in the instrument cluster and steering wheel control are available, too.
Some technology buffs may prefer the BMW 7-Series, which forces drivers to learn new ways to start their car, shift into gear and manage navigation and other systems through BMW's i-Drive system.
But consumers who dislike having driving habit changes forced down their throats are likely to appreciate Audi's more thoughtful approach.
I noticed that no matter what area of Audi's MMI I entered -- entertainment, information, vehicle or communication -- there were no more than four menus for me to drill down into, so I never got lost in the system. This is not true of the complex i-Drive from BMW.
In showrooms this summer as an early 2004 model, the new A8 is a sole long-wheelbase model, thus the L designation. Riders in the back seat will find more legroom there than in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
Audi's previous short-wheelbase A8 model is gone. But the quattro permanent all-wheel-drive system remains and is standard on the new A8 L.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $69,190.
This is up from $67,860 for a 2003 A8 L quattro and compares with $73,320 for a rear-drive 2003 Mercedes-Benz S430 and $73,195 for a rear-drive 2003 BMW 745Li.
At 204 inches from end to end, the A8 L is longer, overall, than a Cadillac Escalade full-size sport utility vehicle.
But I didn't realize it while taking the A8 L out on some twisty roads. It handles like a smaller car and has the great road manners expected in a German-bred luxury car.
The aluminum space frame, whose development dates back to 1984, is in its third generation now. So rigidity is improved 60 percent with the new space frame vs. the original, and Audi saves 300 pounds in car weight by using aluminum vs. a traditional steel frame.
Yet the A8 L, which weighs more than 4,300 pounds, feels solid and secure.
The new air suspension includes settings a driver can select from for a ride tailored for anywhere from comfort to sportiness. But even in the sporty mode, I didn't feel road bumps harshly or feel perturbed by vibrations.
It just felt as if I were in a substantial, well-mannered car.
The test car wore optional 19-inch wheels and tires with good grip. Young folks even commented about the fancy, 12-spoke, polished alloy wheels and how well they dressed up this formal-looking, large sedan.
Those Audi wheels aren't cheap, though; at $1,900, they were the most expensive option on the test car.
There are 10 airbags in this new A8.
Along with the usual frontal airbags for driver and front passenger and side airbags for front and rear seats, the new A8 L has knee airbags for driver and front-seat passenger as well as curtain airbags that extend along both front and rear seats.
Other standard safety features on the A8 L include antilock brakes, stability control and OnStar emergency notification system.
The engine remains a 4.2-liter, double-overhead-cam V-8 with five valves per cylinder.
Horsepower is boosted by 20, to 330 horses now, and torque is up 15 foot-pounds, from 302 to 317 at 3,500 rpm, resulting in an estimated 0-to-60-mph time of 6.3 seconds.
The new transmission is a six-speed automatic with shift-it-yourself Tiptronic.
Outside, the A8 L looks similar to its predecessor -- but sleeker and with a rear end that's quite pretty.
The interior is well-appointed. Navigation system, leather upholstery, power sunroof, wood inlays, dual-zone, automatic climate control and a Bose Surround Sound system with 12 speakers are standard.
But the look inside is formal and mature. There's nothing trendy or splashy here.
It's also quite quiet inside. I didn't find even a hint of wind noise in the test car, and lulled by such a quiet and unfettered ride, I found myself beginning to doze off in the front passenger seat.
Now, that's what I call understated!