The constellations lined up in just such a way last week that two stunning vehicles arrived simultaneously for evaluation. The “next generation” C5 Corvette (about which I’ll say much more in a later column) got all the winks and thumbs-up from the teenage boys in the neighborhood. But the Audi A8 had me answering so many questions all over townboth in and out of trafficthat I wondered what strange magnetic pull could effect such an attraction.
After all, everyone knows that aluminum isn’t magnetic (in the usual sense at least); yet aluminum represents both the core and the decor of the A8’s extraordinary charm. The deckplate that serves as the gate for the automatic transmission shifter catches the eye first: It’s a smooth hunk of polished aluminum that dominates the interior with a satin-finished gleam. A more covert blazon of this car’s special status is the discreet aluminum escutcheon on both rocker panels, which are hidden under the lower edges of the front doors. The “ASF” monogram refers to the Audi Space Frame technology, a feature so intrinsic to the car’s overall deportment that even total strangers feel compelled to lavish their praise upon it.
Of course, what’s visible on the surface is merely the A8’s svelte silhouettea blend of feline curves and Rubens-esque dimensions, spiced with a hint of R. Buckminster Fuller’s proto-modern Dymaxion car of 1933. But the sculpture of the (mostly) aluminum-alloy body panels is dependent upon a complex and unprecedented aluminum skeleton within. Because of the lighter, stronger, and more rigid qualities of the frame, this luxury sedan is quieter, roomier, and quicker than many, if not most, of its main rivals.
The A8 is available in two distinct flavors: a 3.7-liter V8 with front-wheel drive, and a 4.2-liter V8 mated to Audi’s Quattro drive systemthe only all-wheel-drive powertrain in this luxury class. In a field where curb weights can bloat up to 4,100 lbs. (BMW 7-Series) and 4,600 lbs. (Mercedes S-Class), the A8 Quattro is downright spry at 3,900 lbs. So when you give the crop to the 300 horses underhood, don’t be surprised to hit a 60-mph stride in less than seven seconds. The even lighter 3.7-liter car, with “only” 230 horsepower, rates just over 8 seconds zero-to-60. This is how weight loss translates directly into performance gain.
The crucial factor with either powertrain, however, isn’t rush; it’s rhythm. An electronic five-speed automatic handles gear shifts seamlesslyso blithely, in fact, that the inveterate hot-rodder might lament, “The thrill is gone.” One moment you’re blocked in traffic; when the embolism clears, you suddenly but surreptitiously become radar-bait. You’ll feel no kick-down shift or blast of acceleration as you crowd the century markbut coppers aren’t likely to care when you say you didn’t even notice how fast you were sailing.
The A8’s rigid structure eliminates the aural and tactile cues typically associated with the hustle and bustle of going fast. Handling, to use a technical term, is “tight as a tick,” so you’re not isolated from the driving experience in the least. You’re just insulated from its harsher aspectsthe better to bask in the A8’s sumptuous interior. Leather this and burl-wood that swaddle and surround. In the rear, leg- and headroom are fantastico. In fact, it just may be that first-class passengers will prefer the A8’s rear seats, with their dedicated HVAC controls, optional seat heaters, and retracting sun-screens at side and rear. It’s the limo without the stretch.
Up front, where the action is, the comfort is comparable, and conveniences come in nice touchesliterally, in the case of “one-touch” windows all-’round. The standard sunroof, moreover, is my favorite. It’s not only “one-touch” to open and close, but it will also stop automatically at programmed detents for a variety of partial openings.
I beg to quibble with but two things: The first is Audi’s predilection for flat, undifferentiated push-buttons to manage radio and climate control. It’s well-nigh impossible to drive while simultaneously trying to “program” either system, although the optional radio-volume and radio-station controls on the steering wheel are a limited boon. I also found myself marveling at the mysterious, migrating armrests for driver and front passenger. A ratchet-locking feature allows each center armrest to climb inexorably with every chance nudge; at the top of the adjustment range (when your wrist is chin-high), you must release a latch and reset the armrest to begin the annoying cycle anew.
I’m happy to say that I’ve left another benefit of the A8’s space frame untested. The aluminum structure’s crashworthiness is one of Audi’s main touts, and the explication sounds convincing. Complementing the talk of crush zones and controlled deformation cells, moreover, is the auto world’s first suite of six airbags: frontal bags for driver and front passenger, side bags (mounted in the seat bolsters) for all.
After a week driving both of Audi’s new A8s, I’m convinced that the “curb-value” of either car speaks for itself: Man- and woman-on-the-street reactions confirmed a sincere interest in the sedan’s chic demeanor and obvious substance. Whether this interest will migrate off the curb and into the showroom is Audi’s big gamble. At nearly 69-grand, the upper-end Quattro compares squarely in price, performance, and amenities with its obvious big-dog rivals from BMW, Mercedes, and Jaguar. But at $56,900 base ($61,900 as-tested), the “baby” A8 overprices and in some ways underperforms counterparts like the Cadillac STS, Lexus LS400, and Infiniti Q45t. Technologically and perhaps aesthetically, Audi is holding the high card. But even an A8 up the sleeve may not guarantee Audi’s trump.
Off the floor
If the shoe fits
With the announcement last week that Beaman Automotive Group has purchased the location of Off Broadway Shoe Warehouse, Nashville’s largest collection of auto dealerships is preparing to consolidate its family along Broadway and I-40. Plans are to build a new Toyota facility on the site of the shoe store and the adjacent Crest Used Cars location. Beaman Lincoln-Mercury will move from its Eighth Avenue location in Melrose to the former Toyota home, and the group’s Pontiac/GMC and Suzuki operation will stay put between the two. The entire relocation process is expected to take 18 months. The building at 17th & Broad to be vacated by Toyota and reoccupied by Lincoln-Mercury is the site of the nation’s first Dodge dealer. Beaman’s decision to consolidate downtown will bring to 10 the number of new car nameplates located along Broadway from 17th to 12th Avenues, representing a resurgence of sorts for Nashville’s original “auto alley.”
Joining an apparent industry-wide frenzy to produce the next eye-catching exoticar is BMW, which released news and photos of its ’98 M-Coupe last week. Based on the immensely popular Z3 roadster body style, the M-Coupe, according to a BMW of North America spokesman, will be “the absolute performance leader in the BMW lineup.” The car’s unique layout is a no-nonsense mixture of hard-top and hot-rod, vaguely reminiscent of Jaguar’s E-Type 2+2 coupe of the 1960s. According to Russell Stover at BMW of Nashville, the M-Coupe will boast the same 3.2-liter, 240-horsepower inline-6 currently available in the M3 coupe and sedan. It will follow the similarly powered, soft-top M-Roadster into showrooms next spring. “BMW is already warning dealers that production will be very low,” Stover says. “At most, we’re likely to get just one or two of them in Nashville.”
A kick in defender
After sitting out the ’96 model year, Land Rover’s Defender 90 has returned to dealerships this month with at least one surprising change. This is the no-holds-barred, macho-maniac four-wheeler that features its own external tube skeleton and never met an off-road obstacle it didn’t like. Mike Mykeloff at Andrews Land Rover says that power is up a bit, thanks to a new 4.0-liter powerplant. But the big news is the transmission: “It’s only available with an automatic,” he says; “the 5-speed is gone.” Although the powertrain setup seems counterintuitive to veteran trail-busters, the Defender 90’s hands-off automatic is raising eyebrows in the hard-core enthusiast press. “We’ll only get about 10 or 11 of ’em for the year,” says Mykeloff, “and so far about the only thing we haven’t been able to do in one is drive it into the showroom before it sells out from under us.”
Dealer news and other views are invited by fax at 615.385-2930 or via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com.
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