Adding Suspense – Audi A8

The new Audi starship has landed and while most commentators have chosen to fixate on its style, we’ve elected to crawl underneath, pretending to understand what we find there.

Well, it’s an Audi – what were you expecting? Image: autoblog

Audi’s new flagship saloon is a technological marvel, possibly the most advanced luxury car it is possible to pre-order for Autumn delivery right now – or at least until the next one comes along anyway. Not content busying themselves with a power race as fervid as that pursued by the Detroit big three fifty years ago, the German luxury brands are now shifting their battleground into hitherto unrealised realms of electronic wizardry and fearsome complexity.

So while opinion as to whether the A8 lives up to the stylistic promise of Marc Lichte’s 2014 Prologue concept remains a matter of debate, Audi’s commitment to technology appears to be more solidly grounded. A 48-volt electrical system now supports the potential for what Ingolstadt describes as ‘highly automated driving’, allowing the car to be autonomous in slow-moving traffic and at speeds up to 31mph under tightly regulated parameters. Adding to the suite of sensors, scanners, radar and cameras, Audi also claims the A8 is also first to be fitted with a laser.

So much complexity in one so young. Image: autoworld

Well, when you’re up against Mercedes-Benz’s much publicised ‘Magic Ride’ (amongst other technological wizardry) you need to have something up your sleeve, which has prompted Audi to come up with an even more complex predictive ‘electromechanical’ suspension system. The five-link front and rear suspension employs the obligatory air springs, but Ingolstadt engineers have taken matters further, fitting an electric motor to each wheel, working in concert with what Audi describes as “a rotary tube together with internal titanium torsion bar and a lever which exerts up to 1,100 Nm on the suspension via a coupling rod.” Taking information relayed by road-scanning cameras and sensors, this combined system softens or firms the air springs accordingly, which Audi claims, will virtually eliminate road shock and vibration.

Image: audi.co.uk

It all sounds (and looks) fiendishly clever, does it not, and one has to admire Audi engineers’ ingenuity and craft, but lets reflect on this for a moment. Yes of course it’s refreshing to see ride comfort being prioritised, although if a car in the limousine class doesn’t ride well, one has to question its purpose in life. However, as these cars become ever more weighty and complex, so too do the issues for chassis engineers. Despite all efforts to reduce the bulk of the body in white, ladling additional sensors, motors and suspension hardware (to say nothing of the battery packs for hybrid models) only makes these issues more vexing.

What we appear to have now is a situation where engineers are chasing ever more complex solutions to issues of ride refinement and the minimisation of NVH that to a greater extent were close to being resolved a number of decades ago when such vehicles weighed a fraction of what they do now. The dynamic and kinematic issues were broadly the same then, the obvious difference now being one of spiralling weight and the never-ending search for the next tech advantage. It’s as much a power race as the powerplant residing beneath the bonnet, driven by the necessity to outclass one’s rivals, but surely it’s one that is ultimately self-defeating?

This one goes to eleven. Image: Car

No car with this degree of built-in obsolescence needs to be as complex and technologically dense as this A8 has become. Fabulously complex and marvellously clever it may be, but can we seriously continue in this vein?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

11 thoughts on “Adding Suspense – Audi A8”

  1. I don’t know what my Grandad, who was a motor mechanic in the mid-twentieth century would make of it, were he still with us. He taught me how differentials worked and why we needed them (something I later confirmed with the Lego Technic Car Chassis!) I think he’d be appalled by the complexity – “there are too many things to go wrong” and “you can’t work on them”. When I talked to him he seemed to think the Holy Grail was the quest to reduce mechanical friction. Rotary tubes together with internal titanium torsion bars didn’t come into it!

    As a software developer, it’s the software I worry about. Mercedes ran some adverts a few months ago boasting about how millions of lines of code are running the new E-Class. I’m sure the new A8 has a similar number. That’s not something to boast about! How many of those lines are new, who wrote them, how were they tested and how well debugged are they?

  2. The complexity is certainly a concern, especially with German cars and their less than stellar reputation for reliable electronics. And of course the new A8 weighs too much – don’t they all?

    A brief word on the design: it works for me. I wonder if Marc Lichte does better when there are very strict, formal limits on what he is allowed. This is a very orthodox sedan but rather nicely done. Give him more leeway and it seems to go wrong – the latest A5, for example, is a mess.

    1. The latest A5 was pretty much finished before Lichte was ushered in (my interpretation is that ‘his’ version of the Plakettengrill was added to an existing design late in the process).

      I also rather like this A8 from a stylistic perspective. What worries me regarding Audi design’s future though is that literal elephant in the room, the Q8 concept. If that one is the future…

  3. This car does nothing for me and as for being a technological marvel and most advanced car of the moment it just proves Audi wants to continue with ice propulsion while adding a token electrification for low speed use.
    Nothing yet has come close to Tesla for simplicity, propulsion, performance, packaging and electronic connection, this defines a modern advanced technological product in my eyes.

  4. The tech is mind-boggling, but I question the use/ value of most of it in the real world. On the styling, the frontal aspect is really clumsy and clunky, especially the grille. From the rear 3/4s, at sill level it looks too chunky (like all the weight has settled at the bottom of the car), and the rear pillars somehow are too thickly set.

  5. Is there any chance Audi might grasp that the A8 Mk1 could not be topped? Stephen Bayley may not have thought all that hard about his words regarding the first one: “I can’t wait see what they do next”. They have remained with me for two decades. It transpires Audi never did something fundamentally better though the 1998 A6 is something of an unsung achievement. This car, the A8, is akin to whatever BMW and Mercedes have been producing in the same class for a decade, wierdly forgettable or unmemorable products. I’d have to consult references to visualise reliably any of these cars. I’d like to know if people aged 20 notice these at all the way I notice this class of car in 1991.
    D Gatewood lands one bull’s eye in saying Tesla’s T does a better job of linking technology and status – if only the T didn’t look so anodyne.

  6. Audi engineers were obviously frustrated by simple MacPherson strut front suspension on the 90. I leased a ’94, and it was a ponderous tub of a machine compared to the Mk 1 square quattro saloon I owned prior, with a anorexic SOHC V6 supplying sleepy propulsion and yet equipped with an incredibly hard suspension. I blame myself for the choice, the test drive taking place on a -14 degree C day, possibly masking these problems in my mind. That’s my excuse anyway.

    Of course, the A4 appeared while I was driving that 90. Those whacko links on the front suspension, where rubber bushes essentially allowed two separate pivot points to somehow allow the wheels to turn for steering despite geometric conflicts, causing no end of trouble. Arms failed left and right, bushings were tortured to death, etc. Naturally this new A8 has the same system which was finally fettled to work almost 20 years ago without tearing itself to bits. But who cares? Nothing wrong with double wishbone is there? The R8 has them. As does the Q7. But of course, front double wishbones don’t allow Audi engineers’ holy grail of separating lateral stiffness and longitudinal compliance. The R8 is just a handler and the Q7 is just a truck, they say.

    Ladle on ever more “bright ideas” and you end up with this miasmic conglomeration of wet dream parts, plus predictive sensors/electronics to read the road and relay signals to tighten or loosen up this or that bit of the suspension for a magic carpet ride, to the point if it ever goes wrong, some poor guy quivering in intellectual dismay as an Audi Top Tech has to fix it when it grenades. Which it will, because potholes never sleep where rubber band tyres are concerned. Sure, he’s on a video/voice/data link to “experts” at head office (seen that at the local Audi $7 million super-bunker/retail dealer here in Halifax NS, import point for Canada, and responsible for fixing dud cars off the boat if they need to), but it’s a hell of a mountain for anyone to climb. Of course, practice makes perfect, so by the twentieth example, hey! No problem!

    Based on my two decades of Audi ownership, their technicians are never short of work, but A8’s are going to be thin on the ground due to price and experience fixing them shallow, so why bother when you can save yourself the VW Group trouble and just buy an S Class 300 metres away as the crow flies, or a Lexus from the dealer literally next door to that. The BMW dealer is a mere 100 metres away across the road from Audi in a whiff of the opposite direction, trying to flog the basking whales known as the 7 series to an unsuspecting clientele. Next door to the Audi dealer is Porsche and the Panamera, sharing a laneway with the Jaguar dealer, and the Volvo low grade rubbish is in the complex as well, looking decidedly common.

    When I leased my 90, the dealer was a combined Audi/Subaru dealer. Their chief mechanic, who had rebuilt my earlier quattro’s fuel injection distributor’s squirting fuel leakage (argh!) with handmade copper washers in a morning, opined when I complained about the 90 that I should try a Subie. “The nuts actually come loose and aren’t rusted tight after three years,” he said! So I did and never looked back, plus saved some loot. He went on to be top technician three years in the Subaru Canada national competition, and got sent to Japan one year for world finals where he emerged third. An actual pro.

    Here we have a new A8, which I cannot afford to even inspect on the showroom floor because it’s $200 to valet after you put your greasy fingerprints on it, and the question I ask which can never be properly answered, unfortunately, is this: Is the ride as soft and cosy as the Citroen DS on 80 section tyres from 1955? On a gravel road as well? If it isn’t, then FAIL. Few people, aka actual owners, are likely to hurtle an A8 around to test its handling limits, so I have to ask, why the complication and what purpose does it really serve? The only answer I can guess at is bragging rights, which is whyactive rear steering is ladled on as well. Good God! All it’s missing is deployable sky hooks.

    The new Quattro Ultra ditches a centre diff for a knock-off Subaru multi-plate clutch (plus Audi rear axle disconnect gimmicks that save 1% fuel, IF you’re lucky) they’ve used since 1988 on cheaper automatics, much as BMW did in 2005. Instead of wasting money on this suspension, why hasn’t Audi bitten the bullet years ago, moved the engine rearward instead of hanging it out front, and adopted a system where the front axle is mounted in the sump like BMW and Mercedes ( and Cadillac and Chrysler and Jaguar)? That would reduce the front axle load and front/rear weight distribution problem and polar moment of inertia all at once. Then perhaps a semi-sane suspension would give the same subjective ride and handling for a fourth of the price.

    Commonsense is missing here I think.

    1. I have to agree. The way Audi builds cars is strange in that they go to extreme lengths to mask a layout problem. Unfortunately, if you drive one aggressively under slippery conditions you can still feel the weight ahead of the front axle, especially on the Diesel models. I have to say i do like the looks of the new A8

  7. If humanity expended as much time and treasure solving global warming as Audi’s engineers do larding electronic gizmos on to the A8, I would actually have faith that humanity will survive. As it is, we’re going to hell in a global air fryer and there is little that ground scanning laser technology will do about it.

  8. In a way, the Audi A8 is the NSU Ro80 of our days. Not in the sense that it fails, but in the sense that the same engineering ideology lives through it. When VW bought NSU and gave it to Audi, all their engineers came with the purchase. And the A8 is made in the old NSU factory. It just gives me some solace seeing this as an NSU in all but a name…

  9. Having owned two RO80s in their heyday I don’t share your comparison to this Audi unless it’s prime mover placement only. The RO 80s engine was light weight and simple in the extreme as was the entire car,
    This Audi is the opposite.

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