I suppose if I wrote for Road & Track, say, or Auto Week, or some other hardcore gearhead magazine, I'd have a whole road-test team at my disposal. There'd be skid pads and slalom courses and dynos and folks in white lab coats with stopwatches, and we could measure every aspect of a car's performance down to the milimeter and the milisecond. But, hey, I'm a little bit more seat-of-the-pants when it comes to getting a feel for a new automobile.
And I don't mind telling you that on a recent Saturday morning I was behind the wheel of a brand-new 2006 Audi A8 and the seat of my pants was getting, well, toasty a little too toasty, as a matter of fact. A quick scan of the Audi's Multi Media Interface (MMI) Driver Information Display on the seven-inch retractable back-lit color screen set in the dash revealed that I had inadvertantly cranked the electronically-heated driver's seat up to level 6 (suitable, I feel confident in saying, for browning chicken). I spun the centrally-located MMI controller back down to 0 and things rapidly cooled off. At least in the driver's seat, if you know what I mean.
Outside of that near melt-down, the test drive of Audi's new flagship model was going very well. Brand specialist John Nelson of Princeton Audi was riding in the passenger seat (I didn't check his warmer level; I figured he'd let me know if he was done) and talking me through the features of the car. My 15-year-old daughter, Valentina, was lounging in the back seat, no doubt daydreaming about her father plunking down the $68,000-plus for an A8 for her when she gets her permit this spring. (Right.) John, an 11-year veteran of Audi, clearly knew his stuff. He'd been to the factory in Germany and he told us about seeing the cars assembled by workers in surgically sterile suits. He was enthusiastic about the company and about the A8. And, as we turned off of crowded Route 518 and started climbing on narrow twisting roads into the Sourland Mountains, I began to share his enthusiasm.
There was a time when I used to think of Audi as a sort of glorified version of Volkswagen: a well-engineered, attractive, high-quality vehicle, but not in the same class as Mercedes and BMW. Those days are long gone. For one thing, just on the high-profile performance front, consider that Audi has won four of the past five 24 Hours of Le Mans races. That sort of competitive success is bound to carry over to the road. Consider also that Auto Week (presumably with the benefit of a whole team of testers) recently named the A8 its Luxury Car of the Year, and you begin to understand that this company is more than capable of playing with the big boys.
The A8, in fact, matches up directly in the market place with the Mercedes S Class and the BMW 750 as a high-performance luxury sedan. Of course, BMW, for one, sells some 750,000 cars (all models) each year in the U.S., while Audi, all told, sells about a third as many in this country. But, according to John, the problem for dealers is getting cars, not selling them, particularly A8s. "I can sell every car I can get my hands on," he says, pointing out that just this month he reached out to a dealer in New Hampshire and to another in North Carolina to secure new A8s. "I told the buyer, 'The car will have an extra 350 miles on it,'" says John. "He said, 'Just get the car.'"
A worthy sentiment. Traversing the Sourlands at a, shall we say, peppy pace, the A8 comes into its own. The model we are in is an Arctic white short wheelbase version. The A8L, long wheelbase model (121 inches, compared to the 115.9 of the short wheelbase, affording a bit more rear leg room and a slightly more commodious feel all around) actually accounts for 80 percent of the A8s sold in the U.S., the exact opposite of Europe, where 80 percent of buyers opt for the short wheelbase. Outside of the length and an additional 111 pounds curb weight for the L, the two models are essentially identical. Both are powered by a 4.2-litre double overhead cam all-aluminum V8 that develops 335 horsepower at 6,500 rpm. The six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission delivers torque throughout the power curve, making acceleration (0-60 in a reported 6.3 seconds) smooth and consistent.
What sets Audi apart, of course and what is making the A8 such a blast to power around these curves in the hills above Hopewell is the quattro all-wheel drive system. While plenty of other makes (including BMW and Mercedes) are introducing four-wheel-drive systems of various sorts in their luxury sport models, Audi began building cars with all-wheel drive in 1980. In the quarter century since they have refined the technology to an impressive and exhilarating degree. Not merely a foul-weather aid, quattro is an integral part of what makes the A8 so surprisingly stable and responsive for such a luxurious car. The short wheelbase version is particularly well-balanced front to rear, keeping the car neutral through even quite aggressive cornering. (A Sport Package, with an even more highly tuned suspension, as well as 19-inch cast alloy wheels, is available.) For most of the test drive I keep the transmission in the automatic mode, which is very finely calibrated, but I do try a few miles using the clutchless Tiptronic shifter, which allows the driver to control upshifts and downshifts, and I get a sense that, with a little more practice, I could get even more howdy out of this Audi.
Too soon, however, as always happens on these test drives unless you're part of one of those high-tech teams that get to play with, er, study the car for days it's time to head back to the dealer. On the way back, settling into the flow of normal vehicles along 206, I reflect on the fact that Audi also makes an A8 L W12 which, with a 6.0-litre W12, boasts 450 horsepower and does 0-60 in 5.0. Perhaps I could arrange for another test. Say, is that seat warmer on again?
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