After joining Audi for the 12 Hours of Sebring, we stood in the parking lot of The Inn On The Lakes on Sunday morning, our thousand-yard stare interrupted by the Citgo gas station across the street. We had one key, three bags, one white A8 L TDI, something like 17 gallons of diesel in the tank and one week to burn through it. For the purposes of a Quick Spin, we could have simply traipsed around the central Florida outback, all citrus, dusty scrubland and diners lifted from Cronenberg films, made short work of measuring the refinement and potential rarefaction of the oil burner under the hood and made our way back to the Orlando airport.
But dear readers, where would the adventure be in that?
After all, the wherefore of a diesel engine in a large luxury sedan we take to be only ostensibly about the CAFE numbers. Yet we think a side effect is that it demonstrates to US audiences what European businessmen and bureaucrats already know: Put a frugal diesel in a large car and you get the ant's pants and the bee's knees: room to move with interior space and room to roam with decent gas mileage.
So this A8 L TDI was our Bactrian beast, the camel we were going to ride until it ran out of fuel, at which time we'd fill it up and continue on. Our final route ran: Sebring, Miami, Ocala, Daytona Beach, New Brunswick (Georgia), Atlanta, Birmingham (Alabama), Atlanta. It was 1,682 miles of driving in ten days, it was two fill-ups, a lot of strange food, Spring Breakers, graffiti, Dairy Queen, sand and motorcycles – and one Ferrari – along the way.
But first we'll give you the short story via our Driving Notes:
- The cipher to translate the diesel A8, thrown up in the sky like the bat signal, was "24-36-28-857." The first three numbers are the EPA fuel economy ratings for the sedan – 24 city, 36 highway, 28 combined. Take that highway number and multiply it by the 23.8-gallon tank and you get a hypothetical range of 856.8 miles, enough to drive almost the entire coast of California – on the scenic route – from San Diego to the heart of the Redwood National Park near the Oregon border. Or you could go from New York City to Atlanta with ten miles worth of hydrocarbons left in the tank. That's what you call "range."
- The instrument striking the note is a 3.0-liter diesel V6 with a single turbo helping it put out 240 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque. That power number could read a little low for a long-wheelbase sedan with a curb weight of 4,564 pounds, but that lopsided torque figure is ready to pull the hard load. In price, weight and torque, it slots in between the long-wheelbase A8s with their 3.0-liter V6 ($79,395, 4,409 pounds, 333 hp, 325 lb-ft) and 4.0-liter V8 ($88,095, 4,630 pounds, 420 hp, 444 lb-ft) gasoline engines, but has 97 less horsepower than the 3.0-liter and is slower than both in the run from 0-60. It gets there in 6.4 seconds, the gas V6 takes 5.5 seconds, the V8 takes 4.7. On the other hand, it's 0.6 seconds quicker than the Mercedes-Benz S350 BlueTec in the same race.
- Don't be duped by the numbers, though – this car is appealingly brisk. All of the torque is called into service from 1,750 rpm, so even though it isn't a firebolt, when giving it the heave at a light or when you need to jump into a (sizable) space in traffic, you never have to worry about having enough acceleration. Give it a running start and it's even sweeter, the sedan being quick to pick up speed when rolling at 45-mph-and-above expressway clips.
- We also enjoyed the way it managed its power. One evening during the race weekend we drove the 4.0 TFSI some 8.9 miles from the track back to the hotel, and it was the celebrated jumping frog of Highlands County – push a couple of millimeters too far into the throttle travel, the turbos kicked in and you were off. It didn't take long for us to keep our right foot resting as lightly as cotton candy on the accelerator, happy to avoid its "Catapult" mapping. The 4.0 TFSI is a fine car, but in just nine miles, we were ready to exchange the keys for the breezy-yet-brisk diesel.
- As for detecting it was a diesel by its noise, you'd have to stand outside the car, be quiet and listen closely, or sit inside the car, turn everything else off, roll the windows down, be very quiet and listen very closely. It's a non-factor.
- The fuel mileage is a factor, and it's why we loved this engine. Look, if we need to start clubbing other drivers over the heads with our V8- and V12-powered nether regions, there is the much more expensive W12 on offer or bottle rocket barges from the voiture couture houses of AMG and Alpina. But the A8 L TDI has everything we're looking for in performance, and after 1,682 miles of city and highway driving at an average speed of 41 mph, we averaged 30.2 mpg. Compare that, in real-world driving, to the EPA's highway mileage ratings for what could be called the competition: 31 mpg for the Mercedes-Benz S350 BlueTec, 25 mpg for the S400 Hybrid, 30 mpg for the BMW ActiveHybrid 7 and 23 mpg for the Lexus LS 600h L. Lest you think the hybrids are at a disadvantage, the S400 and Lexus are rated 19 mpg in the city, the BMW is rated 22 in the city – 5 mpg and 2 mpg down, respectively, on the A8's city spec.
- The bonus: It has the largest gas tank, the furthest range and it's the least expensive of them all. You'd save about $2,000 compared to the ActiveHybrid 7, almost $10,000 versus the S400 Hybrid, more than $10,000 versus the S350 BlueTec and more than the price of a brand-new A4 compared to the Lexus. And inside, it's still all Audi A8 – so if you like the sedan with any other engine, you'll like this one, too. Worlds have collided in this car, and they've gone champagne frugal supernova.
Turns out ten days testing the indefatigability of a camel leads to a lot of adventure – more than we'd think proper to detail in a single piece, lest we keep you here all evening. So we'll detail our run from Sebring to Miami and then to Ocala, and catch you up on the rest in Part Two.
The First Leg: Sebring to Miami, Zombies, and "Where are the Starbucks?"
We collected the car at the Park to Fly at Orlando airport and spent the first four days getting to Sebring and commuting between the track and hotel. When we got in the car after the race at Sebring to begin our endurance test, things stood at 133.7 miles at an average of 30 miles per hour and 27.3 miles per gallon. Our first stop: Miami. Getting there meant a trip through The Walking Dead.
Kind of. We find central Florida possessed of a special kind of lonely – for miles and miles of highway there will be signs of human habitation but no signs of any actual humans. We know Homo sapiens have been there because of the rows of orange trees, but we can't ever remember seeing a house or a humanoid. If zombies had emerged from the adjacent orchards – smelling of citrus and blood – instead of dust and dust devils and the occasional stray orange, our response would have been, "Oh, no wonder." And when we did come across towns, they all seemed to be crowded into a nugget of land cut out of the fields. We didn't stop in any of them, we just asked, "Do these people live here on purpose?"
The other bizarre discovery we made: There were no Starbucks. Or they were cached away as thoroughly as the homes, because we didn't come across one for more than 30 miles when we gave up looking. We don't even drink
That part of the journey did give us plenty of time to absorb the ride of the A8. It weighs about 250 pounds more than the BMW 740Li (comparing six-cylinder sedans against one another instead of the battery-penalized hybrid), 220 pounds less than the S350 BlueTec and is the least cushy of the bunch – it's still upholstered like a five-star salon inside, but there's more road feel and driving sensation sent from the tire contact patches to your seat bolster compared to the other sedans. Instead of feeling like a living room or a cavern, it feels like a car even when cruising, and we like that.
Ray LaHood might have infotainment systems on his distracted driving hit list, but the engineer's laboratory of comfort-tuning possibilities must be getting someone's attention. I couldn't enter a destination while I was driving, but I could scroll through and hone the four driving dynamics settings, experiment with my 22-way seat, assay the five different methods of massage, navigate the playlists among my iPad, Zune and Bluetooth-paired phone and tweak each input to my desired sound through the Bang & Olufsen system, and when I was ready for a chocolate chip malt, I could bark orders at the integrated Google search to "Find me a Dairy Queen!"
We could have done all of these things while driving, but we didn't. Except for the Dairy Queen part.
Point being that, as with every sedan in the segment, you could devote three days of dedicated study to figuring out everything the A8 can do. Unlike the other sedans in the segment, we think the A8 presents the best way of doing them – at least until the 2014 S-Class actually goes on sale, the sleek, lucid design of this cabin is the best interior in the class. We have only two issues to grouse about, and this is the case with every Audi: the MMI controller rotates counter to what we find intuitive – to scroll down you turn the dial to the left, counterclockwise – why no menu setting, Audi? – and you have to press a button and then turn a knob to change the fan speed, which strikes us as one operation too many.
Once dialed in, Florida has barely any curves and no hills that we could find, but the steering didn't keep us guessing, we weren't anywhere close to worrying about the diesel tank, and all we needed to do was relax into our first stop in Key Biscayne, which we, somehow, found a way to do.
At the end of the leg this was the tally: 295 miles, 38 mph, 29.4 mpg.
Miami and Pompano Beach – The @#$%! Roads and The Jedi
We spent three days in Miami, and although we considered a run out to Key West, we thought it might be better to make pilgrimages to autophile destinations rather than merely pile the miles on.
The best part of cruising Miami was the car we were in; having to deal with the roads and the traffic was confounding. The road surfaces are unfortunate, and the Miami tourist finds that single streets suddenly fork into two streets, or your lane suddenly becomes a turn lane, or, with the ubiquitous construction, your lane might just disappear. The constantly thick traffic meant we spent a bunch of time trying to make sure we were in the proper lane or asking our next-door driver to let us in. Even though a lot of other drivers seemed just as confused, or just as poor at reading the signs, as us, we can say they were decent enough to make space for us when we needed.
Yet the tough tarmac and stop-and-go did reinforce our earlier impressions of the ride and the eight-speed transmission in the A8 L TDI. We'd done a 'hot' lap of Sebring, and the A8 soaked up the legendarily bad surface and spit out the bumps before they reached our posteriors. It did the same in Miami, where expansion joints and steel plates and every kind of jumbled road-building material were swept almost right past our notice – and again, all this without sacrificing the feeling of actually being in a car.
The transmission also gets check marks for being smooth, taut and committed to a gear. We didn't find any speed at which it would play around with its ratios trying to figure out which one it wanted to be in. And when you shifted from Reverse into Drive, say, it wouldn't roll backward for a foot before changing direction – something we did experience in a competitor. Compared to its own sibling, the 4.0T, we were thrilled not to have to deal with that binary accelerator action when doing business in close quarters with other cars.
We made Champion Motorsport our first destination, and it was worth the adventure to get there. Set in Pompano Beach, Champion was the outfit that ran the Audi motorsports program from 2000 until 2008, when it was taken over by Joest. Champion's Audi R8 endurance racers were on the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans from 2003 to 2005, and finished first and third in 2005.
What caught our eye first when we entered the Champion Motorsport facility, though, was The Jedi: a street-legal Porsche 911 RSR recreated over the skeleton of a 911 Turbo S. For the long story check out this Car and Driver article, but the short story is that it required a year of toil to create because they wanted an accurate, road-legal RSR that was just as well put together and luxurious as a regular 911. So they ended up making their own carbon fiber panels because they didn't like the gaps with the RSR panels they had bought. It took two months to figure out how to re-route the mod-cons that the actual RSR does without. They put half a roll cage in the back and cut off the roof of the Turbo S – the sunroof wasn't accurate and added weight up high – and replaced it with the roof from a GT2 RS. On top of the bodywork they made, Champion designed the exhaust, the turbo compressor wheels and the $30,000 set of single-bolt, 19-inch magnesium wheels. It's got 640 hp and 600 lb-ft of torque, and according to C/D, it takes a single second to get from standstill to 30 mph, another 1.7 seconds to get from there to 60 mph. It cost Champion $395,000 to build, and they did it just because they wanted to.
That ethos of 'Let's do it, ourselves if we have to, and let's do it right' appeared to run throughout Champion Motorsport. That's why The Jedi was surrounded by glass cabinets gleaming with trophies from when they ran the R8, the R8 TDI, the Audi S4 and RS6 and Cadillac CTS-V in the World Endurance Championship. The dealership – Champion Porsche, said to be the largest Porsche dealer in the world by volume – was another shrine to victory. The pre-owned section of the dealership had one wall just for ex-Champion drivers who had won Le Mans (with any team), and another wall of helmets for those who hadn't. Every wall in both facilities was covered with memorabilia, from driving suits to photos to a helmet that 2004 ALMS Championship winner Marco Werner had cut in half and mounted as a gift to the owner.
Champion Motorsport still works with Audi: Mike Peters, the "Ambassador Sales Representative" at the dealership who drove the first Champion cars in races in 1993 after the dealership owner bought a race car a client brought in, called the strategy for the winning Audi at Sebring this year. Mechanic Mark Murray led tours of the Audi paddocks at Daytona and Sebring. Others in the company have a deep motorsports history, like Jerome Freeman, the general manager who was in charge of team logistics and running the Spring Training for the pit crews and their mandatory gym workouts. Or Tim Munday, who ran the Porsche team that won the GT2 category at Le Mans in 2005 with Mike Rockenfeller, Marc Lieb and Leo Hindery behind the wheel. We met him in the garage as he was working on a vintage 911, having given up team ownership for wrenching at Champion.
Elsewhere in the garage, we found people working on custom modifications for wealthy international owners who leave it to Champion to turn their cars into victors. When we asked what the R33 Nissan GT-R was doing there, we were told "The owner couldn't find anyone who could fix it properly, so he bought it to us." When we asked, "You work on GT-Rs?" we were told, "We can work on anything" – but the subtext was, 'We'll take the time and it will cost you the money to get it done right.' Upstairs, Champion houses branded parts of its own design: it is the US distributor for Tubi exhausts, it designs wheels for Dinan and it doesn't do anything on the cheap.
That kind of detail and commitment made it understandable that Champion would have run a team for Audi for eight years. Peters, for instance, detailed how the length of a fuel hose could give a competitive advantage during a pit stop and the precision required to make it work.
Audi has been startlingly subtle when it comes to making such connections, a trait that could change if they build that R8-based diesel-hybrid supercar. Yet the same detail and precision that guides its corporate racing programs is what guides the build of a car like the A8. The steering feel might not have been cold-forged – but let's face it, this is a luxo-brougham, and the hobgoblin of electrically assisted power steering has even managed to steal the royal jewels from Porsche – yet there wasn't any slop to the car. Even assuming our press car was given three once-overs for its date with journalistic immortality, there were no creaks, no rattles, no crunchy noises that begged the question, "What was that?"
The Second Leg: Exit Miami, Enter Georgia – via Ocala and Daytona Beach...
We left Miami 3.5 days later in the small hours of Thursday morning, headed for Ocala, but not before assisting a photographer pal with a photo shoot featuring a Ferrari Califonia for the official Ferrari magazine. It was somewhere in the midnight of the Florida wilds that we finally had to stop for gas, having rung up a 31-mph average speed getting 27.5 mpg. We put 20.992 gallons in the tank and the pleasure of the fill up cost us $89.40 at $4.26 per gallon. We had gone an indicated 660 miles on a single tank.
Before we sign off to get ready for Part 2, let's make sure we truly understand the context of those numbers. The 2013 Toyota Corolla with a four-speed automatic is EPA rated at 26 city, 34 highway, 29 combined. At the FuelEconomy.gov site, the column for "Our User's Average MPG" lists 30.5-mpg, but that's for just three vehicles at 29, 30 and 33 mpg. Even using that number, though – one our right foot didn't create in-house, from scratch – and not the official combined number, that means you'd only pay a penalty of three miles per gallon for driving the A8 L TDI over the Toyota.
Better yet, the 13.2-gallon tank of the Corolla would get you 402.6 miles at 30.5 mpg, so you'd need more than 1.5 tanks of gas to get the 660 miles the A8 L TDI did. At $4.15 for regular, as it was at the time and at the station where we filled up, it would cost an even $83 for enough gas to go as far in the Corolla as you did in the A8. That's a difference of $6.40, which means there's just a couple of Venti lattes at Starbucks between driving a Corolla and an A8... once you eliminate the pesky difference in the purchase price.
Oh, but that's before we get to the fact that we did 765 miles on the next tank of fuel.
Which to us means that while the 2014 S-Class might boast The Interior, when it comes to what's under the hood - without crossing the line into bonkers cylinder counts or outputs – the 2014 A8 L TDI lays claim to The Engine, hands, and cylinders, down.
We'll be right back with more on the story.