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Audi A8 W12: Impressive Engineering and Design Yield Immaculate Luxury and Executive Power
By Andrew Gardner; photos by the author
Dec 1, 2005, 01:54 PST
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2005 Audi A8 W12: Executive Power



This Audi speaks to automobiling at a higher level. This is to normal cars what a yacht is to a mere 40-foot sailboat. The A8 is a sturdy, largely aluminum land-swan, graceful in appearance and feel and execution. The use of aluminum for the space frame is an elegant solution to the diametrically opposed goals of low weight and high strength. The W12 power is executive force in its purest form. The engine is of a great design, unique in configuration with its twin V6's joined side by side and sharing a common crankshaft, strong with its high torque output and sturdy structure, and smooth in its application. The engine is executive in its furtive push and lack of jerkiness. It is a determined, steady driving force.



The A8 is all Audi. The face of the W12 is the new face of Audi, with bold, unwavering eyes, a big mouth wide open and ready to eat up the competition and the road, and great detail which draws your attention in a way no Audi front fascia before it has.



The view from the side is typically subtle Audi, but the outline is out of this world. The particular curve of the roofline and the sheen of the wheels as they rotate at some thousands of revolutions per minute add up to a UFO look. The A8, despite its active suspension setting which lowers the car at speed, may appear to lift off as it drives by.



This spaceship allusion is fortified by the technology found within. MMI, Audi's Multi-Media Interface, connects you to the radio (with optional XM satellite access), DVD entertainment (for rear passengers only when the A8 is in motion), navigation, suspension settings, even a screen that lets you adjust the frequency of the audio signal emitted from the front and rear parking sensors. Plus, if you miss piano lessons for the week, you can practice Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata with the MMI dial as you jump deftly through the frequencies (unfortunately there will be no flight of the Bumble Bee for you; one, the acoustic signals do not cover the full range that pianos do, and two, you will not be able to move the dial as fast as Beethoven even on one of his bad days. Is this important? Does this have any bearing on whether or not this is a worthwhile automobile? Probably not. Then why are you talking about this? Because it is an entertaining thought and, hopefully, entertaining reading. Ok, we're done, back to the car now). The MMI dial is your executive "do it" button for all Audi's electronic interfaces (except the instrument panel information display). There are also four supporting buttons which guide you to major sub-menus of MMI, and make flipping through electronic folders a breeze.



The operation of the MMI is good, though not the best. It is very easy to get through most functions. We had no problem finding the adjustable ride height, the audio controls, the frequency adjustment for the acoustic warning signal of the rear (and front!) parking sensor, or a variety of other features. The most difficult operation was the entry of an address, though it was certainly not tasking. It just seemed less than intuitive when you were trying to setup exactly what kind of route you wanted the navigation system to setup for you, and the entry of the address seemed to go a bit less smoothly than in the ebst navigation system we drove. It is really no problem for anybody who grew up with computers - we only referred to the owner's manual once for help - but for the older crowd who would most prefer this car and who could afford it, the system would be a nuissance (any of these systems is to people who don't use computers, but there exists at least one more easy to use system out there).



The interior appointments are, surprisingly, more functional than you would expect for $117,400. The highlight is an alcantara headliner, standard on the W12 model - it's simply lovely. Vinyl lays over the upper dashboard and the door window sills unless you toss an extra $3200 on the table for the full leather interior option. This is odd for this level car, but perhaps enough owners are worried about the increased cracking of leather due to sun exposure as compared to the vinyl. The cost is negligible for this level of car, so it is not a concern nor is it necessarily a sign that Audi is being stingy or suddenly made an error in judgment on interior decoration - what's another 2.7% anyway?



The upgraded interior does make a huge difference. The leather on the dashboard and windowsills give the A8 the look it really should have ?of pure luxury with no sacrifice. The steering wheel is a mix of smooth leather and wood, instead of all vinyl. The interior upgrade is absolutely the right outfit for this car.

The lighting is lovely. A white light illuminates many of the numbers in the gauges; digits representing engine speeds above redline are, of course, red. The center console lights are an attractive red, but the soft knockout is the gorgeous blue light that gently bathes portions of the interior - the doors, and the footwells, particularly. There was obviously attention put into this detail; the lights aren't simply some white or - heavens forbid - yellowish light. The light blue is gorgeous, inoffensive, and soothing. It is almost art studio lighting, splashing a little brightness on soft carpet and scrumptious leather.



Now, your standard Bentley or Rolls Royce or Maybach may have a nicer leather feel, but will you really notice that? When you ride in a new car, do you really fondle the leather for hours on end? The touche to that en guard is that nicer is nicer and yes you really do notice. But for the Audi buyer there is no sacrifice or settling in interior quality. The interior is fabulous.



The seats number just four in the W12 version of the A8, because even Audi engineers just couldn't squeeze that 5th seat into the tight rear quarters. Haha. This design is really quite intentional. The rear seats are separated by a center console which extends back from the front of the car and provides an amazing continuity to this interior that is nearly unrivaled. The four seat configuration is also intended to provide continuity of design between the powertrain and the interior, and with the banks of cylinders. The four seats are representative of the four driving wheels of the Quattro system. (Did the author just lie again? I think so. What  poor joke.). The center console adds more of that gorgeous wood to the rear. Wood is ridiculously over-common today, but not in the back seat. Here, wood is a welcome addition. In the rear console you find a DVD remote control and your own set of Audi exclusive head phones. Could you expect anything less?

All four seats are Valcona leather skinned and all feature heating. The 160 way - make that 16-way - adjustable front seats also feature ventilation and a massage function that inflates the lumbar support and runs it part way up your back and back down. For tall people, it doesn't cover much, but it might be just enough to remove the stress of your work day. Maybe someday the front seats will include shoulder massage.

The shean of the wood, the slightly oiled smell and smooth feel of the leather, the small fireplace located inside each seat and the classic tunes emanating from the perfect Bose 12-speaker surround sound system mix together with well-thought-out details like a fold-out ski sack meant to keep your snow-covered skis off the precious appointments make this interior a masterpiece theater. Or, instead of the ski sack, you can have a mini fridge to keep your bottle of Martinelli's (no, I am not confused and mean Martini & Rossi champagne; we don't promote drinking and driving, even for rear seat passengers) and two glasses chilled.



The controls are lovely in their Aluminum construction, set in a mix of leather and wood. Operation of the controls feels good, with sturdy rotational motions inducing changes in potentiometers underneath, translating angular position into digital data for the HVAC system to interpret into temperature of conditioned air, direction of flow, and velocity of the myriad of fans which direct the air in just the optimal manner for your comfort.



In the rear, you find a set of wireless headphones that interface with the rear entertainment system. Audio/Video in-ports allow connection to video game systems, and a 6-disc DVD changer is anchored in the trunk. Screens about 5"x7" in size are set in the back of the front headrests. Dual screen action could be just the thing to keep antsy kids - or antsy adults - contented for the 300-plus miles you can traverse on a single tank.



So the rear seats sound like a blast. What keeps the driver entertained? Four hundred and fifty horsepower. That number does wonders for the A8. It will help you get there quick enough to keep those antsy rear seat passengers satisfied. It propels and launches and accelerates this heavyweight with considerable force. That power is truly moving.



Luciano Pavarotti will command "La donna muove" as you hit the gas, the A8 squats on its rears and lifts its W12-laden front end to near the upper limit of its suspension travel, and this heavy lady starts to sing. But Act I has just begun. The first movement is of brutal acceleration of a massive body, controlled by a heady force. Gear 1 gives way in quick transitions to gears 2 and 3 and even 4; the local speed limit comes and goes. The movement suddenly changes its course as big brakes and tires find their grip limits in dispersing this massive momentum and prevent this flagship from hitting shore. Turning the wood-rimmed steering wheel quickly shows some insulation between captain and road, as the A8 rolls one way and the tires pull towards the other. Without much transitional ado - thanks to electronically adapted shock rates and anti-body-roll controls, the car is set for the turn. All wheel drive and a heavy engine mounted up front bring turn-in delay. Anti-Slip Regulation prevents creeping into moderate skid conditions, and only moderate, intermittent squeaks come from the car's rubber feet.



The electronic control opens the electronic throttle body wide open as the input foot slams the gas pedal to the floor. Intake camshafts with variable timing, roller rocker fingers and hydraulic valve lifters thrust dual intake valves into 500 cubic centimeter combustion chambers, followed quickly by the injection of 91 octane and air, which mix as intake valves close and the gases are compressed by pistons all connected to a common crankshaft - and then an explosion. Oxygen oxidizes octane in a relatively fast burn, releasing heat and pushing the pistons down and the crankshaft around. Each explosion brings rotational acceleration which yields forward acceleration for the A8. Variable valve timing varies the phase at which two valves per cylinder open to release spent charges. The A8 W12 produces 428 pound-feet of torque between 4000 and 4700 rpm. Between 2300 and 5300 rpm, 407 lb-ft is available - that is a 3000 rpm-wide window where 95% of the peak torque is available. That is the beauty of variable valve timing.



Maximum torque means maximum acceleration. The result is what Audi claims to be a 5 second 0-60 time, certainly a very competitive result.

The combustion takes place in one of twelve cylinders in twin narrow-angle V6 engines. This resulting W12 formation has already powered the Volkswagen Phaeton, and now empowers this cousin. Arranging these dozen combustion chambers in four rows of three produces a volume which Audi notes is shorter in length and shorter in height than a typical V12. We note that this obviously results in a wider engine. The volume may not have changed too much, but the short-wide layout is beneficial in space efficiency over the length of the car. There is also considerable improvement in strength and durability of the crankshaft versus a longer comperable unit in a V12. This also helps bring the weight farther back into the car and keep the moment of inertia low. The front end is heavy and turn-in is slow, but this orientation sure helps.



Besides spatial benefits real or perceived, there is the valuable asset of intrigue: an extremely unique engine configuration, one that almost approaches a design more familiar to WWII aircraft engines, powering this elegant automobile.

The mode of transmission of power in this vehicle is certainly appropriate. The automatic transmission exhibits nothing but super-fluid motion during shifts. Under light throttle, the transmission was absolutely seemless. At hevay throttle, the transmission was much more crisp in its shifts but was still immaculately smoothBut at certain throttle angles, especially at one third throttle, the fluidity seemed over amplified, and the A8 seemed to ebb and flow like low tide. Under these conditions, we actually prefered to put the transmission into sport mode, where the shifts are always quicker if a bit less smooth. The sport mode was actually a bit more impressive than the normal mode, for the level of comfort it maintained will minimizing the lag-time in moving between gears.



The A8 6.0 has a fabulous engine and a really good transmission, but the big seller on this car is that it's got Aluminum, under its skin. The special Audi Aluminum Space Frame, a rigid and lightweight structure acting as an excellent platform for both high-performance handling and high-performance in a collision. The strong structure is designed to absorb as much energy on the ends as possible while maintaining the integrity of the cabin under a variety of impacts. This design theme has won Audi multiple safety accolades. And it wins the lucky owner the power to walk away from a number of potential serious collisions.



If you have ever watched the movie Ronin, you know the things an A8 can do. Sure, the movie car must have had more power than stock and likely rode on beefed up, stiffened suspension components. But more power back then meant more power than an approximately 300-340 hp V8. Now we have 450 hp. The suspension is not stiff, but the A8 surprises in less than supertight corners with its agility. You can quickly change the direction of this post-two-ton vessel, and you power out of all turns with executive power. You say go faster, and your command becomes action, no ifs, ands, buts or hesitation.



In a calm, logical, legal driving fashion, or in slightly faster driving, the A8 proves itself remarkable over a variety of terrain. The absorption of shock by the independent suspension at each corner is certainly worthy of a car with a low-six figure starting price tag. You may travel where potholes and ruts and bumps abound with the confidence that you will survive the experience with your feathers quite unruffled. This is the type of car so smooth you can even legibly put pen to paper while riding over some very unsmooth pavement. The ride is perhaps a bit smoother than we would have expected for the given handling characteristics, but certainly the ride and handling are about appropriately coupled.



A further benefit of Audi's suspension setup is an adjustable ride hiehgt, varied to your taste at the turn of a button. The air shocks can raise or lower the car -and they do so automatically at speed - which will slightly affect the handling as you adjust the height with respect to the ground of the A8's center of gravity. What is missing from this package is something that puts the A8 at a deficit to the Phaeton in the suspension category - manually adjustable shock rates. The Phaeton had four unique shock settings that let the driver choose between pillowy soft ride quality but poor compliance, and an impressively stiff setting that kept the Phaeton well controlled under a variety of transitional excercises. Audi has the ride quality nailed, but the A8 could certainly use a switch to provide at least one sport mode. 



All the A8's features come together to give you a full-bodied car experience with all the finest German characteristics. It gives you a feel for all the beauty of the region, all the flavor of the people around the car, much as a good wine imparts the flavor of the soil, the water and the air, the total environment in and around the vineyard on your taste buds. The A8 gives you executive power, which in this case means the power to move, as well as the power to please. The W12 makes acceleration instantaneous, and the combination of sensual materials and a loot bag full of electronic goodies keeps all occupants well comforted and entertained. The word bargain doesn't exactly come to mind, yet is not an unrelated concept when you consider the long, long list of features this vehicle offers. It is at least on par with the direct competition in relation to pricing and value, and for those who buy it but can afford better, maybe the truly ultimate in luxury cars don't have that much more to offer for double the price. There is certainly no lack of papmering or power, of features or attention to detail in design. It is a complete machine.


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