Review: 2009 Audi A8L - requiem for a heavyweight
We come not to bury the A8L, but to praise it. Next week the newest generation of Audi's aluminum spaceframe panzer will greet the world in Miami, and we expect it to be a leap through a wormhole compared to today's car. After a week with the current model at the end of its six-year run, we walked away from a saloon that still has us smitten. What we didn't expect was that, even though we didn't come to bury the thing, we would end up throwing quite a bit of dirt on it.
A funny thing happened on the way to reviewing the 2009 Audi A8L: we discovered ourselves writing compromising things about the four-ringed flagship. This is a sedan that we adore mightily, and having thought it over, we might even say unreasonably. It became the girl you're dating that you first describe as "She's great!" just before divulging a list of mildly unseemly behaviors that you'd never considered all at once, ending with, "Wow... I really do like her, but come to think of it... she's a little kooky." That might make the Audi A8 the Megan Fox of automobiles.
We drove the A8L W12 a couple of years ago, and it was possessed of so much battleship-gray girth we wanted to call it the
Photos copyright ©2009 Jonathon Ramsey / Weblogs, Inc.
First, let's lay out the scenery: the BMW 7 Series, Mercedes S Class and Audi A8 are fabulous cars. There isn't a loser among them. The S Class has been The Business since Elvis Presley was a teenager -- and Elvis died at age 42, almost 33 years ago. The S Class is like driving Gibraltar. Quickly. The 7 Series, born the same year Elvis left the building for good, owns dynamic; to sit in one is to discover a steering wheel that feels half the size of a 5 Series tiller, after which it's crystal clear what game the 7 is playing. The latter two Transporter films notwithstanding, the Audi is trumps in neither gravitas nor go.
Which is only right. The A8 is but 15 years old -- it's just getting out of middle school. Sure, there was the Audi V8 before it, but when that car came out in 1989 it wasn't even close to the top Merc or BMW in almost any category; Audi was selling a barely dressed up VW only a few years before as the Fox (some things hardly change). And that was probably part of the reason the V8 was a relative bargain: it was $10K less than the 735iL and $14K less than the 420SEL back when those kinds of numbers meant something.
The introduction of the lengthy lozenge that was the original A8 marked the first swing of Audi's sledgehammer upon the rock that is Merc and BMW hegemony. And so now at the end of this model run and like the best 15-year-olds, the A8 is many parts brilliance mixed with a splash of ungainly.
Outside, we're still taken by how much we enjoy Audi's outgoing design language when there appears to be so little to it. From the side there's only one sharp character line, a minor number down by the rocker panel. The other is a whispered affair, starting at the edge of the front bumper and forming a shoulder that all but disappears by the time the eye reaches the C-pillar. The A8 is wide, long, low, with a hint of upward sweep from front to rear. Audi's wheel designs remain the best. It's a beauty we just feel; but if we want to figure out why it's so, we've got to look for it.
But then there's that front overhang, seemingly lifted from a proboscis monkey. As with the design's other notables you need to be paying attention and looking at it from the side to notice it, but once you do you can't un-notice it.
Inside, for our money and our eyes, is the best big premium sedan interior to be had in a car that isn't labeled "Maserati." For many, it does not beg the exclamation "Oh my..." when seen for the first time. There aren't great welts of stitching on the dash, there is less leather and more hardness than one might expect, and it lacks an alluring tactility that suggests "You will love it when you touch me here, and here, and here."
Nevertheless -- and we warned you it was going to be like this -- the materials are rewarding, the workmanship solid, the texture and depth welcome. There are no tricks and no gimmicks, simply a robust chunk of a cabin that feels carved, whole, from sandwiched strata of leather, wood, and aluminum. It is luxury without pretense, with divine seats in which to enjoy it.
There is the matter of the fan control, which requires one too many buttons to change. And the plastic surround on the steering wheel, which is just too obviously plastic. And the front seat controls which, for as much as we dig subtle, we think are too plain. And the rear seat headrests that don't recline (except the one in the middle), so your three-quarter view is a tad narrow. No matter, we can forgive.
There is no forgiving the stereo, though. A $6,300 option, the 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen needs no forgiving at all. It is also found in other cars, but in the Audi it has the space and resonating chambers to make the most of its abilities. It's brilliant.
Press the Start button and roll off and you find the car is dynamically sound. With 350 hp and 325 lb-ft from the 4.2-liter V8 pulling a 4,321-pound car, it's about 50 horsepower but more than 100 lb-ft down on both the BMW and Mercedes. Progress, therefore, isn't of the "Egads!" variety, but brisk enough.
What is noteworthy is how much more you can feel the progress in the A8 than in the other cars. The wind, the tires, the tender thrum of a machine, all of these things come through. Relatively to cars in general it's nothing, relative to the competition you find yourself quickly thinking, "This is new -- I can feel this car working." It's never harsh, nor unpleasant. It brushes off all but the most unruly asphalt catastrophes. It comfortably gobbles interstates. It's just that, as opposed to the subterranean cave of the S Class and the Opera House that is the 7 Series, you can really feel the A8 laboring its way through all of those things.
Work, however, it does. The A8L is big and feels it, but your limits will be tested before the car's are. The steering is confident. The brakes are bracing and, used properly, will help you avoid default understeer and also hold up admirably. It changes direction briskly enough, and the Quattro system will keep you out of the poo without shutting the whole circus down. Yet while it will do what you ask of it, the A8L will communicate what it's going through, and the question is how long you care to experience the only slightly abridged sensations of 2.5 tons fending off nature's most important laws. It's nowhere near floaty. But it isn't locked down, either.
So where does that leave us? Ostensibly with an executive sedan that is neither as insulated, nor as luxurious, nor as dynamically refined as its competition. But that isn't really fair, since its competition is pretty new in the case of the Mercedes and brand new in the case of the BMW. The 2009 A8L is a monument to what Audi was thinking six years ago, so it shouldn't be asked to fight today's fight – besides, that's what next week's car is for.
Still, the 2009 A8L stands up for itself. This might sound like going back on the 1,200 preceding words, but we're not: the A8L is beautiful in a few places, damn good everywhere else, and as a complete package simply works. Again, it's the woman who might not be the best on paper, but to experience her flips all the right switches. Audis are monumentally subjective that way, and because there is practically nothing ostentatious about them they're difficult to explain. Even the company's tagline, Vorsprung durch Technik, is arcane. That insider-ness is a big part of the reason they don't sell as numerously as their German competition. But as far as this subject is concerned, we're in.
Not that we won't take this time to make a request of Audi. A few days before the fourth Thursday in November we'll give thanks for the current A8L. Even though our ardor needs to close its eyes and forgive a few things, we know that it's real. But if we can move from giving thanks to requesting an early Christmas present, what we want from the next A8 is this: less Megan Fox and more Heidi Klum, please.
Photos copyright ©2009 Jonathon Ramsey / Weblogs, Inc.
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