Audi’s new 2004 A8 L is a sure cure for the blues

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Most of us get the blahs from time to time, you know, a blue day that seems filled with some kind of dread, a low-level depression with no definite origin. And that kind of melancholy can be stifling.

Those are the days when an attitude adjustment is in order, something to push away the fog. But regaining a sunny disposition can be difficult, at best.

Perhaps the solution eventually ends up being nothing more than a good night’s sleep and the fresh outlook that morning brings.

But sometimes it can be an automobile that can drag us from our doldrums to a level of elation and have us walking on air. We in the car testing business have an advantage in that regard. We drive new stuff every week. And we used that advantage the other day to dispel those gathering clouds of doom.

In this case it was the all-new and exquisitely executed Audi A8 L luxury sedan that made the difference. What a marvelous machine for mood elevation. Picture heading down the open road and seeing us go into the familiar twists and turns of our back-road playground, ensconced in luxury, with the strains of David Gray’s “Babylon” playing on Audi’s killer 12-speaker Bose Surround Sound audio system. Shear joy.

Audi’s flagship, which competes against such vaunted sedans as the Mercedes S-Class, BMW 7-Series, Jaguar XJ8 and Lexus LS430, has been  completely revamped for 2004 and holds its own against the best in the  world.

The newest rendition, which is of all-aluminum construction, is the embodiment of what a large sedan should be.

If it were only the driving experience, the A8 would get high marks. But with the A8, the driver gets more. He or she is rewarded with an interior impeccably crafted of the finest materials in autodom, assembled with the workmanship you would expect in a piece of fine furniture.

Beautiful wood inlays (walnut, vavona or birch are available) and soft suede adorn the doors and dashboard. The leather in the seats has a wonderful texture and a quality feel.

The front seats, with 16-way power adjustment, are as comfortable as any we’ve encountered. The seats are supportive, and getting the correct adjustment for a tired back is well within the realm of possibility if you work at it for just a few seconds.

The L in the A8 L designation stands for long wheelbase. It’s the only model sold in America. A shorter-wheelbase A8 is reserved for Europe. Audi made the right choice for American luxury-car buyers, most of who want the luxury of space.

The A8 L has limousine-like qualities in the rear seat. A passenger can literally stretch his legs out. How many cars, sport utilities or minivans can make that claim? And every time we climbed into the driver’s seat we felt like sporting a chauffer’s cap.

Although the A8 L is large, measuring 204 inches in length with a 121.1-inch wheelbase, it is still nearly a foot shorter than traditional American luxury cars such as the Lincoln Town Car and Cadillac DeVille.

It’s of the size to make it maneuverable in tight parking lot situations or on crowded city streets.

One of the knocks on the previous A8 was its very conservative design. If you wanted stealth luxury, the A8 was the answer. It didn’t turn heads.

The 2004 A8 remains on the conservative side of the ledger but with a positive twist. It has now taken on a more aggressive stance, especially with the optional 19-inch wheels. Its roofline is more swept back and the sides have a more sculptured look. Audi has moved the A8 design more into its family of cars and you might say it now looks like a bigger edition of the A4 and the A6. Think of an A6 on steroids.

For those who want a less forceful stance, 17-inch and 18-inch wheels are available. But for us, the $1,900 19-inch wheel option turns the A8 into something special, and if we were limited to only one option it would be the wheels.
The mechanicals are the heart and soul of any car and the A8 has the goods. The big Audi, which weighs in at a stout 4,483 pounds, is powered by a new 4.2-liter V-8 generating 330 horsepower and 317 pound-feet of torque. That’s 20 more horses and 15 more pound-feet of torque than the previous car.

The V-8 is mated to a 6-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission and power is directed toward all four wheels through Audi’s quattro system.

This adds up to a 0 to 60 time of around 6.5 seconds and a quarter mile time of 15 seconds at 95 miles per hour. Those numbers match up well with the competition, and it’s the kind of performance that Audi owners should find satisfying.
The A8 rides on a unique air suspension. Traditional steel springs and shocks have been replaced with air-filled struts. Keeping everything inflated is an electric air compressor in the engine compartment and an air pressure reservoir mounted beneath the trunk.

The suspension is adaptive allowing the driver to select from four settings – comfort, dynamic, lift and automatic. The lift mode raises ground clearance about an inch to 4.7 inches. The comfort mode allows a softer ride while the dynamic setting stiffens things up if carving up winding roads is the order of the day. The automatic setting does just what it indicates, sets the damping according to conditions.
One might think with air suspension the car would have a floaty ride. Actually, the A8 ride is well controlled and the big car can eat up the curves with the best in class. Road feel with the power rack-and-pinion steering is excellent.

The suspension settings, along with many other functions such as audio and navigation, are derived through Audi’s Multi Media Interface, or MMI system.

MMI features a seven-inch monitor that automatically powers open when the ignition is switched on. A large twist and press knob and four large buttons in the center console operate the system. It sets up much like BMW’s overly complicated iDrive system, but it is more intuitive and immensely simpler to operate.
We spent 30 minutes with the owner’s manual trying to figure out how to pre-set radio stations during our first visit with the BMW. With Audi’s MMI, there was never any need to consult the book. Everything was self-explanatory as we followed along from screen-to-screen.

Blessedly, none of the climate controls are embedded in the MMI system. Wheels and buttons in the center stack operate them.
Likewise, many of the audio controls are right at hand in the center console so that driver can change stations or CD tracks without taking his eye off the road.
Of course with a car of this magnitude comes a price of great magnitude. Base price of the A8 L is $69,190 including destination charge. It’s loaded with goodies, and options aren’t necessary to live life large in the Audi.

But some extras may be desirable including the aforementioned 19-inch wheels. Other options on our test car included a convenience package made up of a rear sunshade, rear vanity mirrors and a tire pressure monitoring system; a cold-weather package made up of heated seats and heated steering wheel; front and rear parking assist; dual-paned security glass; and rear-seat lumbar adjustments. Those items brought the price of the test car to $75,190.

Most people who buy the A8 can probably afford to drop a handful of dollars every few months for scheduled maintenance. But it won’t be necessary. Audi will pick up that tab for four years or 50,000 miles.

And with the A8 it’s unlikely for you to be afflicted with the blahs. If you should feel a bout of melancholy descend, just jump in the Audi, slip your favorite tunes into the CD changer and find an open stretch of road.