Audi has usually done things its own way, a strategy that's been intermittently successful. For 2003, Audi will continue with that line of thought, although in the case of the new A8, its focus will include the phrase "lead, never follow." One look at its new flagship and it becomes apparent Audi is hell-bent on pushing BMW and Mercedes aside and leading the pack in the luxury sedan market. In terms of its exterior design, the new A8 is far more aggressive than its predecessor. The flat front end has a strikingly short overhang, the tail is high and imposing and an overall pronounced wedge shape gives it a sporty stance. From a distance the new car looks surprisingly compact; however, at 199 in. long and nearly 79 in. wide, it is one magnificent beast. Compared to the previous generation A8, the number of body components has been significantly reduced by using larger castings and extruded sections that surround the fully enclosed aluminum space frame. The new A8 is some 60% stronger than before, a none too easy accomplishment given the material. Despite its musculature, the A8 punches a very small hole in the air, a mere 0.27 Cd. A fully aerodynamic underbody and flush window seals help the car stay slippery. The term "bullet train" comes to mind.
Viewed from the front, the A8 shows an entirely new face, framed with sizable intakes and clear glass on the flat, broad headlamps. The lights (xenon Plus) also feature a unique, cornering light arrangement (Adaptive light) which casts a focused beam when the turn signals are activated, effectively illuminating dark corners. The rear lights are comprised of LED diodes, which offer superior response time, longevity and intensity.
In North America, the A8 will be powered by a 335-bhp 4.2-liter V8, which can propel the Audi to 60 mph in a scant 6.1 sec. The engine, featuring variable camshaft adjustment and a variable intake manifold, is matched to a new six-speed Tiptronic transmission with Dynamic Shift Program and an additional sport program. The car can be left in drive and shifted through the gear selector or via paddles on either side of the three-spoke sport steering wheel. Of course, Audi's vaunted quattro four-wheel-drive system is standard. It normally delivers engine torque with a 50/50 front/rear split, but in extreme cases 75% can be transferred to either axle, wherever it's needed most.
As before, the new A8 relies on a four-link front suspension and trapezoidal-link rear geometry; however, the front axle has been pushed forward by 2.5 in., which improves load distribution and handling. The suspension is a newly developed adaptive air system which entirely replaces the previous A8's conventional setup. All four corners include air bellows arranged concentrically around continuously variable twin-tube shock absorbers. The air suspension bellows consist of a special, multi-layered elastomer material with polyamide cord inserts to increase strength. The struts are pressurized by a sizable reservoir housing in the rear of the car. Sensors on each corner help determine the struts' adaption to external influences--hard cornering, broken pavement, towing stresses, whatever. At medium speeds, the car has about 5 in. of ground clearance, but if the car travels at 65 mph or higher for at least 30 sec., the body lowers itself almost an inch. The program then reverses itself if the speed is reduced. The suspension also corrects itself according to interior load--no matter what the A8 carries, it will always ride at the selected height. It's the smartest adaptive suspension I've ever driven.
The suspension also includes several modes: Dynamic, Comfort and Automatic. Choosing one changes the suspension parameters accordingly. The A8 will also feature an optional Sport Suspension which will be noticeably firmer than the standard Dynamic Mode and includes a 0.8-in. lower ride height. Running gear measures from 17- to 19-in. diameters and is shod with high-performance rubber.
After some 5 years of development, the new A8 will feature MMI, Audi's Multi Media Interface. Though I had less than a few minutes to familiarize myself with its copious functions, it was a hugely intuitive system with layers of idiot-proof, redundant functions.
The MMI is situated just beneath the shifter and features a center wheel surrounded by four main function keys and a return pad below--a dash screen serves the information. The outer perimeter is flanked by more specific keys, including radio, CD/TV, Net, telephone, navigation system, info, car and setup. Choose the function and the animation gives a series of options--you initiate operation via the four main pads or the wheel, and, if you make a mistake, simply hit return to start over. The steering wheel also features scrolling wheels on either side--you can do everything there as well.
Despite its huge array of options, MMI is easier to operate than a toaster. The animations and synaptic feedback are the best I've ever used. Its designers wanted it to be as intuitive as buttons and knobs. I think it's even better. The new A8 is a stunning piece--powerful, comfortable and hugely handsome. BMW and Mercedes should fear Audi's latest flagship.