Light Fantastic (Part One)

At the fourth attempt, Audi finally produced a luxury saloon to challenge the Mercedes-Benz S-Class head-on.


Audi is now a fully-fledged member of the German premium triumvirate. Together with rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz, it dominates the European market for such vehicles. However, its entry to this exclusive club was neither quick nor straightforward and its early attempts to join were met largely with indifference by the market.

The first car that Audi attempted to pitch above its traditional E-segment ceiling was the 1979 200 saloon. This was based on the 1976 C2-generation Audi 100 and was little more than a plushly trimmed version of that car, distinguished externally by slightly chintzy looking quad rectangular headlamps lifted from the US version of the 100(1) and a thick perimeter rubbing strip that ran along the lower bodysides and continued around the front and rear of the car above the bumpers.


The 200 was powered by a 2.1-litre five-cylinder fuel-injected engine in naturally aspirated or turbocharged form. The car was fine as far as it went (which wasn’t very far) and it found a respectable number of 51,282 buyers over its three-year production run.

Audi’s second attempt was based on the 1982 C3-generation 100 model. External identifiers were limited to larger, partly body-coloured bumper shields and shallower but wider twin headlamps under single glasses. The 200 was again powered by five-cylinder engines, this time in 2.1, 2.2 and 2.3-litre capacities, again in normally aspirated or turbocharged form. Late in its life, the 200 received flared wheel arches front and rear, which gave it a bit more visual muscle. This 200 sold 103,348(2) units over nine years on the market, of which 6,153 were Avant estate versions.


Audi’s third crack at this market was a rather more compelling proposition as a range-topping model. The 200 was the basis for a new flagship that combined a 3.6-litre V8 engine with automatic transmission and Audi’s Quattro four-wheel-drive system. To emphasise its difference from its lesser sibling, the new model was called simply ‘V8’ and went into production in October 1988.

The V8 engine, transmission and 4WD system was a technical tour-de-force. The all-aluminium alloy 3,562cc 32-valve fuel-injected DOHC engine produced maximum power of 247bhp (184kW) and torque of 251 lb ft (340Nm). Drive was via a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual gearbox. The Quattro system nominally split torque 50:50 between front and rear wheels but could automatically reapportion it 80:20 in either direction if driving conditions demanded it.


The V8 demonstrated Audi’s seriousness of intent in challenging BMW and Mercedes-Benz at the top of their ranges. However, just a year after its launch, the C3-generation 100 was heavily revised to become the C4, which borrowed many of the V8’s styling cues such as the flared wheel arches and a front grille integrated into the leading edge of the bonnet. Hence, the V8 could easily be mistaken at a glance for the 100, despite its (mildly) different front and rear end treatments. It remained in production for five years, during which time a total of just 21,565 were made, of which 271 were a long-wheelbase version with an extra 318mm (12½”) inserted between the wheels.

The failure decisively to propel Audi into the top tier of the German automobile firmament was a source of frustration for Ferdinand Piëch, the company’s Austrian chief executive. Piëch, an engineer by training, was a man of great ability and vaulting ambition, both personally and for the company. He would be promoted to Chairman of the Executive Bord of the Volkswagen Group in 1993, but would leave Audi with an extraordinary parting gift, the A8(3).

Finally, this would be a ‘no compromise’ flagship that could hold its own in any company. Under Piëch’s direction, Audi had signed an agreement with the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) in 1982 to co-develop a new construction methodology for cars. This would use an aluminium spaceframe assembled from extruded sections to which aluminium inner and outer skin panels would be attached, the latter largely unstressed. Audi estimated that bodies built in this way would require between 25% and 30% fewer components and would be both lighter and more rigid than those constructed from steel. After a decade of development work, the new construction method was ready for series production.


What would be called the A8 in production form was revealed as the Audi Spaceframe Concept at the Frankfurt motor show in September 1993. Externally, the concept was largely identical to what would be the production car, apart from the fact that it was strikingly finished in highly polished unpainted aluminium. The design, signed off in the summer of 1991, was by Chris Bird and Dirk van Braeckel.

The production D2-generation A8 was unveiled in February 1994 and had its formal launch at the Geneva motor show a month later. Series production began in June 1994. The A8 was a large and imposing car, sitting on a wheelbase of 2,882mm (113½”) and with an overall length of 5,034mm (198¼”). A long-wheelbase version added around 128mm (5”) to those figures. Some criticised it for looking too much like an XL version of the recently renamed Audi A6(4) but those who took the time to study it more closely found a beautifully muscular and sinuous body stretched tightly over its skeleton, with not a single frivolous or superfluous detail.


The A8 may have been large, but it was no heavyweight. The unitary body weighed just 249kg (549 lbs), which Audi claimed was around 40% lighter than a similarly sized body in steel. In some areas, the aluminium was almost twice as thick as it would have been in steel, in order to maintain strength with the inherently softer and more malleable material. Audi claimed that it could have pushed the weight saving even further, potentially to 60% over the steel equivalent, but didn’t want to make any compromises to the safety or refinement of the A8. Audi claimed improved crash protection and more precise handling(5) as further benefits of the construction method, and easier end-of-life recyclability(6).

The launch A8 was powered either by a 4,172cc V8 engine producing maximum power of 296bhp (221kW) and torque of 295 lb ft (400Nm) or by a 2,771cc V6 with 172bhp (128kW) and 184 lb ft (250Nm). This was mated to a four-speed automatic transmission and drive was routed to all four wheels. The weight-saving achieved by the new construction technique and materials was impressive: despite the extra weight of its 4WD drivetrain, the A8 weighed 1,750kg (3,859 lbs), which was around 140kg (309 lbs) less than the RWD Mercedes-Benz S320.

The cabin sound insulation was significantly improved by a new type of laminated glass containing a thin plastic foil, which also cut UV penetration to less than 1%. Ingeniously, the air-conditioning control unit was able to monitor the position of the sun and automatically distribute more cooling air to passengers seated in its glare, and less to those in the shade.


If the A8’s method of construction was revolutionary, the interior was entirely in the tradition of German luxury cars, with walnut veneers on the dashboard, centre console and door cards, deeply upholstered electrically-adjustable leather seats and a multitude of electrical equipment. The centre console was peppered with an initially bewildering array of buttons.

Although its aluminium skeleton was welded together by robots, the A8 was largely hand-built built at Audi’s Neckarsulm factory, a time-consuming process that meant that the model was, in its early days at least, sold at a loss. Its importance to the company was, however, not measured in financial terms, but as an image-building ‘halo’ model.

The story of the Audi A8 continues in Part Two shortly.

(1) Badged ‘Audi 5000’ in that market.

(2) US sales of this generation models were adversely affected by the ‘Sudden Unintended Acceleration’ controversy that engulfed Audi in the mid-1980s.

(3) In 1993, Audi introduced a new alphanumeric model naming scheme that saw the 80 become A4 and the 100 become A6, hence A8 became the name for the new range-topping model.

(4) It would look even more like an XXL version of the new B5-generation A4 saloon when that model was launched in October 1994.

(5) Thanks to the body’s greater torsional strength.

(6) There was, however, an input-energy cost penalty in building the car from aluminium that would take around 40,000 miles (65,000km) of improved fuel economy to recover.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

42 thoughts on “Light Fantastic (Part One)”

  1. For me the A8 D2 is the best looking Audi of all.
    No silly grille and no unnecessary bulges and creases, just reduced and function oriented design in the best tradition of German industrial design.

    The A8’s structure wasn’t welded because welding would have meant distortion of the aluminium which would have meant less tightly controlled tolerances to the detriment of handling precision and panel gaps.
    Most of the A8’s space frame was bonded, some of it had a stretch fit where the extrusions were pulled over a bulge in the underlying cast node, causing the hollow extrusion to shrink around the bulge.
    This also was the reason why accident repair to the A8’s space frame could only be carried out in specialised repair centres because the special prodecures to cure the bonding material and keep everathing within tolerances weren’t available to dealers with the required precision.

    Audi as well as anybody else did not have any experience in real series production of an aluminium car and had to develop all relevant production processes from scratch.
    One prominent example was the step of ‘hardening’ the visible aluminium panels which were heated to a certain temperature, changing the characteristics of the material and making its surface harder.
    Initially this step was done at the end of body-in-white (or silver) production to make sure all panels were treated the same way. This led to lots of damage to the bodywork during production because the aluminium was so soft that even slight contact for example with a hard object in a worker’s trouser pocket made dents in it.
    After about a year many production processes were re-organised using the lessons learned until to then. The hardening step then was done before the aluminium panels were fitted to the substructure.
    In Audi engineers’ eyes this meant a complete re-launch of the A8 would have been appropriate but of course this didn’t happen.

    1. “For me the A8 D2 is the best looking Audi of all.”

      Good morning Dave. I couldn’t agree more, and would go further to suggest that the D2-generation A8 is possibly the finest looking large saloon of the modern automotive era (say, the past half-century). I simply love the way its athletic and muscular aluminium skin appears to be stretched tightly over its underpinnings. It is a large car, but there is no hint of excess or superfluity, but instead a beautiful spareness to the design. It is just perfect to my eyes.

    2. Daniel: This explains why it was so hard for Audi to follow it up. In truth all they had to do was revise is in accordance with best practice in production – iteration not revolution.

    3. Daniel: This explains why it was so hard for Audi to follow it up. In truth all they had to do was revise is in accordance with best practice in production – iteration not revolution.

    4. I remember that CAR wondered how Audi would design a successor to the D2 because it was difficult to imagine a way to improve on its design.
      And indeed the D3 doesn’t have the unique quality of the D2 and has aged much worse.
      The D2 is simply timeless. Even the interior is perfect and dated only by the absence of an overdose of electronics and the lack of a forgotten tablet computer poking out of the dashboard.

    5. I can only fully agree with your assessments. It was peak Audi and es war peak great looking large saloon.

    6. Totally agree about the D2 A8. It’s something like the Jaguar E-type of sedans – which, now that I think about it, says as much about Jaguar as it does about the Audi.

  2. This is pretty much the last word in Audis. The 1994 A6 was also spot on. The 1994 A4 and 2000 A4 also met this stardard. After that Audi lost their own plot. Chris Bird´s contribution to the car deserves underlining. Thirty years later the car still looks 100% correct, which is quite some achievement. The same quality was brought his cars at Ford, and amazingly, at a completely different price point.

    1. The Audis you mention not only look timeless they are durable products as well.
      The A6 C4 lasts forever and I regret it every day that I didn’t repair my A4 B6 but bought a newer A4 simply because I wasn’r prepared to invest 4,000 Euros in a car with more than half a million kilometres. I should have done because even at that point the B6 showed more quality than my B8 and B9 when they were new.

  3. This A8 was the first Audi (and not Mercedes) used by a german chancellor.
    The difference between Helmut Kohl with the Mercedes W140 and Gerhard Schröder with the Audi A8 was a obvious sign for the beginning of a new era, whether better or not.

    1. Quite a change! An official recognition of the rising profile of Audi, pretty much coinciding with the decline and fall of Mercedes-Benz.

  4. Such an elegant design. I personally have a even more love for it’s replacement – D3 – and I think that was the last truly elegant, coherent looking Audi. Especially early cars without garish full-witdh grille. Whereas it’s not as “bauhaus”, or as radical as TT or C5 A6, it’s very imposing in teutonic, coherent way. Much less modest than D2, but in my opinion D3 is even better looking. C6 A6 was the first Audi which made me doubted in the company’s design abilities.

  5. I’ve not much to add, I also find this as close to perfection as I can imagine perfection looking like. It became down-hill from this generation of Audis in terms of design – the current A1, A3, A4, A6, A7 and A8 are so blighted by extraneous creases, bulges and false vents that they look brittle, especially in comparison with their forebears of the mid-90s.

  6. How interesting that people are mentioning the 1994 A6 (revised 100) as the A8’s stylistic companion great… As good as the first generation A8 is, the 1998 A6 is my personal peak-Audi in terms of visual design. Do others feel it went too far, perhaps?

    1. I’d also see the A6 C5 als a companion to the A8 D2 and don’t think Audi went too far with the rear lights of the C5 saloon which were opinion splitters.
      It’s just that the C5 initially was plagued by incredible quality troubles and the C4 wasn’t.

    2. Chris, I am 100% with you – the 1998 A6 was sublime and has my vote, even over the A8 in question.

    3. My first car was a 1992 Audi 100 2.3 C4 I bought in 2002. What an inert, stolid thing but the build quality was nothing short of sensational. In my opinion even better than the much-vaunted Mercedes-Benz W124 (sorry, I can´t help thinking that the W124 is overrated).

  7. Here’s a picture of the A8’s aluminium space frame structure

    It’s amazing with how little material you can build such an immensely stiff structure when the material is used correctly (cast nodes and extrusions and not stamped sheet metal)

  8. Thanks Daniel and all participating commentators.

    I am still impressed by the extent and depth of thought process that brings to earth (and us) the A8. So much so when I was asked to contribute as a co-author for an academic-grade book on Automotive Engineering, I penned a special mention on A8. Too bad the pandemic makes the book stillborn. Pity the future generation. Hehe

  9. I have to agree with others who consider this at the contemporary A6 and A4 to be peak Audi styling and quality, although I would say that dynamically they were not very good cars at all.

    I think it’s also fair to say that the A8 and probably the A6 have become totally irrelevant today, to the point that I’m not sure why they bother. My experience of the A6 (with an awful 2 litre diesel rattler, of course) is that it has been that very rare thing to find today; a genuinely poor car.

    1. The supposed dynamic inferiority of Audis is more down to journalists’ preference for oversteering cars than a matter of reality of everyday driving.
      These Audis were extremely competent supersonic autobahn stormers and that’s exactly what they were designed for.
      My own A4 B6 made you trust it at full speed no matter what the conditions were because it was immune to crosswinds and other factors that made you instinctively go fast. My B8 needed determined persuasion to go fast but in the end did what you demanded. My B9 feels insecure at higher speeds (not least because it is insanely sensitive to crosswinds) and gives the impression that it is designed to make you drive slowly – for which I don’t need an Audi.

    2. I remember the first time I drove an A4 B4, a 1.8T from a friend. The car was about six year old and it was a let down for me: the engine wasn´t very refined, the chassis a bit clumsy and the rear seat space poor. A pity because I think it´s one of the prettiest cars of the ´90s, even prettier than the A8. The muscular profile of the A8 is emphasized in the shorter A4. The five spoke alloys suit it perfectly.

      I owned a Primera GT P11 at the time and it was a lot more nimble and much more fun to drive with its rev happy engine and perfect gearchange. Of course, it was a very different animal to the Audi; the A4 surely more comfortable and relaxing to drive at high speeds on the motorway. Back then I was younger and I appreciated more a sporty car.

    3. The car in the picture is an A4 B5 which had a rather primitive rear axle and all kinds of initial quality problems. It took Audi two facelifts to bring quality up ro expectations and a new model to fit a new multi link rear suspension.
      Audi 80 B4

    4. True, Dave, the A4 B5.
      I suppose the quattro versions had a more sophisticated rear axle and better handling, but you have to carry that AWD transmission that in my neck of the woods is only weight, friction and a future and expensive repair.

      The picture of the 80 B4 only underlines the drastic improvement between the heavy-handed and clumsy 80, and the stylish and sharp A4 (well, at least to my eyes…)

    5. I’d never buy an Audi with quattro AWD for all the trouble you have with tyres alone.
      To keep stress for the differentials low you have to permanently keep an eye on the tyres’ diameter/circumference.
      All four tyres need to be the same type, you have to swap front and rear tyres in regular intervals to make sure they were evenly on both axles and in case of a tyre defect you have to replace all four.
      The rest is as you said – weight, friction and maintenance cost.

    6. DaveAR, Do any AWD systems (aside from those using separate motors that are mechanically decoupled front to rear) avoid, solve, or minimize the tyre diameter issue?

  10. Fully concur on the A4 B6 and A6 C4 and C5. Great designs which seem to get their visual interest mainly through proportions than abundant, gimmicky details. For its technical make up as much as its design, I’d like to add the A2.

    There are still a few around near where I live and I’m always happy to see them.

    1. A2s are very long lived cars and have a large fan club and they fetch astonishingly high prices if they’re in good condition. Their material and build quality is head and shoulders above any other car of its class and puts many larger cars to shame.
      It’s a pity the had to make it look so weird to prevent it from cannibalising the A3.

    2. As I understand it, it was a very expensive car to make (no wonder with all the aluminium and innovations). Making it less attractive than the A3 was probably the economically sound decision, however regettable in other ways.

      Weird looking it may be, but it still follows the Bauhaus-like Audi style that we all (judging from the comments) regard so highly. Imagine Audi doing something like this now (without even considering the conceptual courage they’d need)…

    3. The biggest difference is that the A2 fetches real money and people are prepared to pay the price.

    4. In a sense, Richard: I think the A2 gets cherished because people like the way the car works. It seems a more functional admiration than that for Citroëns. As I see it, with a Citroën, you accept the quirks because they make the car special (a bit like Alfas, though with different emphasis). I get the impression that the A2 is simply a very good (instead of quirky) car for a certain – limited – demographic, a type of car that doesn’t really get made anymore.

  11. Good evening all and thank you for your comments. Audi really enjoyed a purple period in design terms during the 1990s, prior to the introduction of the ‘big gob’ grille in 2005. From then on, it has been largely downhill, sadly, with a distinct lack of anything fundamentally fresh and new, the company instead relying increasingly fussy and overwrought detailing to distinguish each new model from its predecessor .

    1. When Peter Schreyer left Audi Fugen Ferdl’s comment was ‘that’s a severe fault. You should not have let him go.’
      He was right.

  12. I like this generation of A8, and also have a soft spot for the A6 C5 and A2. Out of these I’ve only driven the A6 C5. The lack of feel from the steering was a huge let down for me.

  13. What is it that happened with Audi steering? I got used to driving an NSU RO80 many years ago and, other than an R8 and an Ur Quattro, no later Audi has had the same quality of steering. There’s a sort of wooden deadness about it. on all the Audis I’ve driven. It must be deliberate, but I wonder why.

    1. They seem to engineer in a dynamic inertness to all their cars; it’s not about oversteering journalist antics, they all feel rubbery and dead with a very clear preference for carrying on in a straight line. The hilarious engine position won’t help, but it must be largely by design and something their customers desire.

    2. Admittedly I haven’t driven a 21st Century Audi, but I’ve always assumed that the deadness was originally engineered in to disguise the behaviour of an excessively nose-heavy vehicle. Over the years, with a somewhat improved engine position, better engineering and electronic aids, the need for deadness has reduced, but I guess Audi assume that’s what their owners now expect, and maybe they’re correct – lack of involvement is a virtue for many drivers. Another example of the motor industry making a virtue out of a deficiency?

  14. My favourite of the big Audis is definitely the V8. Some criticized it at the time for being too similar to the 200 (5000 Turbo Quattro in the US). Kind of like the criticism directed at the Lancia Thema 8.32 in its time (that of being excessively expensive and complex, while not being that much faster or different from the regular big-engine model one step below).

    Back to the V8, what I like about it is the wide track and wheel arches and the tight radii of the bodywork, which give it a solid stance. Quite the opposite to my impressions on the A8 D2, which to me (sorry to disagree, Daniel!) seems boring and with not enough tension in its surfaces, by comparison to the V8.

    The problem with the V8, as I remember from period US magazine tests, is that the V8’s performance underwhelmed due to its relatively high weight and smallish, high-revving engine. It was also quite complex and full of electronic bells and whistles right at the period when Audi’s reputation for quality was very low.

    Fun fact: The V8 featured the most interesting disk brakes I have seen on a car. The calipers that held the brake pads were fixed near the centre of the rotor which was attached to a stamped steel plate that looked like a steel wheel and which carried the actual car wheel. The result being that you couldn’t see the disks through the alloy wheel spokes. The idea behind this concept was to reduce the heat build-up of the pads and rotor by allowing the rotor diameter to be larger since there was no need to leave any clearance between caliper and wheel, so the rotor diameter could go all the way to the inner surface of the car wheel.

    1. The theoretical advantage of the UFO brake was the outer diameter of the brake disc closer to the rim, increasing the diameter of the disc in relation to the wheel because there’s no space needed ty the caliper on the outside. This allowed Audi to use really large brakes inside 15″ wheels – Audi didn’t want to fit larger wheels because they wanted to keep the comfort of the small rims (how times have changed since then).
      The practical consequence were brakes that were noisy, shudder-prone and costly to maintain because these discs cost about three times the sum of a conventional item and changing brake pads is a six hour job because everthing has to be dismantled.
      C3 200 turbos and old C4 S4s also had these brakes, late C4 S4 had conventional brakes and many V8 owners retrofit them because they work better and are cheaper.

      The first car with brakes of that design was the Porsche 356 B Carrera 2 with the 2,000cc ‘Fuhrmann’ quad-cam engine.

  15. These were never a common sight in Australia, but it did at least have a starring role in an episode of one of the country’s finest satires…

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