Light Fantastic (Part Two)

Continuing the story of the 1994 A8, the car that propelled Audi into the German premium car firmament.

Image: bestcarmagz.net

After the very striking polished aluminium Audi Spaceframe Concept of 1993, the 1994 production A8, a car that majored on subtlety over ostentation, was bound to be something of an anti-climax, if only in visual terms. It was certainly not a car for those who wanted to flaunt their wealth and success. For those who looked at it more deeply, however, there was plenty to appreciate.

Car Magazine covered the A8 in an extensive eight-page feature published in the May 1994 issue of the magazine. Journalist Georg Kacher introduced it boldly as “a technical marvel, a marvellous car.” A source at Audi was quoted as saying that “the old V8 cost us a lot of money, but the new [A8] is going to lose us a small fortune.” In order to establish itself in the luxury saloon market, Audi expected to sell the new model at a substantial loss in the early days.

The short-wheelbase A8 was just 75mm (3”) shorter than the W140-generation S-Class Mercedes-Benz, but “the sleek styling makes it seem far smaller and far more elegant.” Inside, however, “the A8’s cabin is actually longer than the gargantuan Merc.” With the engine running and windows closed, the A8 was “as quiet as a Rolls” and that impression was “barely changed when you open up the throttle.” Moreover, the engine was “exceptionally eager and refined, its take-off performance making the A8 feel really lithe and nimble. After just five miles’ driving, it’s clear the A8 is good enough to frighten its established opposition.”

The interior was that of a “true luxury car” with walnut veneer on the dashboard, centre console and doors. Equipment levels were “suitably generous” with electrically adjustable seats and steering wheel. There were some irritations too with “fiddly push buttons on the air-conditioning control panel and the cheap-looking plastic kickplates.” Visibility was “good, but parking can be a little awkward thanks to quite substantial roof pillars and a rear end that drops out of sight.”

The performance of the A8 was impressive, with a claimed 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 7.3 seconds and an electronically limited top speed of 155mph (250km/h). Equivalent figures for the 2.8-litre V6 were 9.1 seconds and 143mph (231km/h). The automatic transmission was Porsche’s Tiptronic unit from the 911. This was fitted with a feature called Dynamic Shift Programme that ‘learns’ the driving style of the user and adjusts the timing of up- and down-shifts accordingly. The auto could be manually overridden, but a safety mechanism prevented downshifts where there was a risk of exceeding the engine’s rev limit.

Image: thetruthaboutcars.com

Ride comfort was “certainly one area in which the A8 clearly outshines its predecessor – and most of its rivals, for that matter.” There was some low-speed brittleness felt, but pick up speed and “the A8 glides rather than rolls.” When cornering hard, “the A8 combines the cosseting comfort of a limousine with the dynamic virtues of a sports car.” It enjoyed a “degree of surefootedness that has hitherto been denied to luxury-car drivers.” With the quattro 4WD system, you “simply forget all you’ve heard about understeer, oversteer and weight transfer, because it isn’t going to happen.”

The variable-ratio Servotronic power steering was something of a curate’s egg. At low speeds, it made the car feel “small, agile and extremely manoeuvrable” but at higher speeds the steering became “over-assisted, uncommunicative and totally uninvolving.” Moreover, it was lacking in stability around the straight-ahead position. The brakes were, however, “quite brilliant” with “riveting stopping power, easy modulation and fast response.”

So, a largely positive first impression from the new A8, at least in isolation, but how would it fare against the established competition? Two months later, the magazine subjected the A8 to a comparative ‘Giant Test’ against its three main rivals, the new BMW (E38) 740i, the Jaguar (XJ40) XJ12 and the Mercedes-Benz (W140) S420. Perhaps surprisingly, the A8 was unanimously adjudged the winner. While it wasn’t the quietest, most spacious, or most cosseting in terms of ride quality, it was the fastest, the best handling, thanks to the quattro 4WD system, and the one car that felt really forward-looking, because of the innovations in its construction and technology. “If it’s a real advance you want, a real technological leap, then you must look to our winner, the Audi A8.”

Image: autocentrum.pl

Writing in the November 1994 issue of the magazine, renowned automotive journalist Leonard (LJK) Setright shared his thoughts on the new A8. As was his wont, Setright took a contrarian view of the car’s unique attribute, its aluminium construction. While approving of the material, he described the construction method employed by Audi as “clumsy, inelegant, costly and inefficient.”

Despite this criticism, Setright still thought that the A8 4.2 V8 Quattro “comes closer than any other to the ideal” of the best car in the world because of its wide repertoire of strengths and qualities and, in particular, its versatility, not an attribute normally found in “a magnificent town carriage.” The latter was Setright’s description of the one-dimensional nature of traditional super-luxury cars. He elaborated thus: “It may seldom or never have to suffer the indignity of being a shopping car, but it should be able to serve as such”, a reference to the A8’s understated and discreet appearance, of which Setright apparently approved.

Of course, the luxury car segment is, almost by definition, highly conservative and status-conscious, so an endorsement such as this is not necessarily a ticket to success. Moreover, there was a significant delay before the A8 was introduced to the US market. This finally happened in October 1996, when it was launched as a 1997 model. Earlier in that year, a high-performance S8 4.2-litre Quattro model was launched in Europe. This featured an uprated engine that produced maximum power of 335bhp (250kW) and torque of 310 lb ft (420Nm). The S8 reached 62mph (100km/h) in just 5.6 seconds, but the top speed remained electronically limited to 155mph (250km/h).

In 1997, a lower-priced front-wheel-drive version was launched with either the 2.8-litre V6 or 3.7-litre V8 engine, while ESP and side air bags were added to the specification. For high-mileage drivers concerned with fuel economy(1), the A8 was now also offered with a 2,496cc V6 turbodiesel engine that produced maximum power of 148bhp (110kW) and torque of 229 lb ft (310Nm). This was still good for a top speed of 137mph (220km/h) and a (just) sub-ten second 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time.

Image: oldconceptcars.com

Also in 1997, Audi displayed an A8 Coupé Concept that would have been aimed squarely at the Mercedes-Benz CL. Sadly, the company could not make a convincing commercial case for it, so it never made series production.

Late 1999 brought a minor facelift, with different headlamps, a slightly altered front grille and a secondary chrome-rimmed lower grille in the front valance(2). These changes were accompanied by trim and equipment revisions, but nothing that altered the fundamental character of the car. The S8 became available in the US market, while the FWD 3.7-litre model was dropped from the range. A 3,328cc V8 turbodiesel engine was added. This produced maximum power of 222bhp (165kW) and torque of 354 lb ft (480Nm), good for a 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 8.2 seconds and top speed of 150mph (242km/h).

In 2001, the Volkswagen Group’s mighty 6.0-litre W12 engine was installed in the A8. In this installation, the W12 produced maximum power of 414bhp (309kW) and torque of 406 lb ft (550Nm). The A8 W12 achieved a 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 5.8 seconds, which was actually inferior to the S8’s, thanks to the additional weight of the engine. This was an extraordinary feat of engineering, but commercially insignificant, as only 750 of the D2-generation Audi A8 were produced with this engine and it was never sold in the US market.

Image: auto-mane.com

Production of the D2-generation Audi A8 ceased in August 2002, after a total of 105,092 cars had been produced over eight years. While this was, by Audi’s previous standards, an impressive number, production of the contemporary W140-generation Mercedes-Benz S-Class over seven years from 1991 to 1998 totalled 406,532 units, and production of its successor, the W220-generation car, totalled 485,000 units over the subsequent seven-year period.

Although a fine car and superb technical achievement, the A8 remained an alternative choice for those willing and able to look beyond the allure of the three-pointed star. Nevertheless, it did its job in establishing Audi as a serious player in the luxury saloon segment.

(1) Presumably the chauffer-driven luxury private hire market.

(2) We didn’t realise it at the time, but this was a precursor to Audi’s still controversial deep one-piece front grille that would become a design signature for the marque.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

34 thoughts on “Light Fantastic (Part Two)”

    1. More intriguing is the question why Volkswagen left an Audi 100/A6-sized gap in its lineup until 2017 and the Arteon? More noticeably peculiar with the introduction of the A8-sized Phaeton in 2002?

  1. The A8’s start in the US happened after Audi had sorted out and reshuffled their production processes when they’d learned how to produce an aluminium car. The car needed to be absolutely spot on for the US because Audi couldn’t afford another ‘unintended something’ media disaster.

    One attractive feature of the A8 was that you could get it with a manual gearbox because Ferdinand Piech hated automatics. This and his insistence on large fuel tanks made the cars relaxed mile eaters.

    In the first winter after the A8’s presentation Audi did a typical Piech marketing stunt.
    Piech invited German industry captains for a ‘fireside talk’ dinner in a resort located deep in the Austrian Alps and owned by the Piech family.
    They only had to keep their fingers crossed for typical Austrian winter weather. Everything worked as intended and on that particular evening there was heavy snow on the road to the resort.
    Audi had available a small fleet of A8s and picked up visitors with big Benzes and BMWs that had got stuck in the snow despite the use of obligatory chains. They were driven to the destination in an A8 without snow chains while another driver took their car downhill if necessary.

    1. I was thinking why Audi was so late selling its top luxury saloon in the biggest market of all…
      And why Audi didn´t sell the W12 in US… was the W12 an unreliable engine and they feared getting bad press again?

    2. It took Audi a bit more than a year to learn about the details of production processes for aluminium cars like the right time to harden the external panels or how to cure the bonding material as quickly as possible.
      That’s certainly not something you want to do on a market as far away as the US and not with the kind of media attention you might draw there.
      After Audi made the necessary changes to the production processes they effectively relaunched the A8, including its presentation in the US.

      That the W12 didn’t make it to the US might be down to two reasons: they only made a couple of hundreds anyway so maybe the homologation for the US wasn’t considered worth the effort (and the W12 was more of a statement against the competitors anyway and less of a real world advantage over a V8) and it would have driven up their fleet fuel consumption – the W12 was a thirsty engine.

  2. By coincidence, I was followed by a facelifted example of one of these this morning for about 10 minutes. I did have to do a double-take at first to make sure it wasn’t ‘just’ an A6, but the width, slightly flared wheel-arches, and chrome trim around the grille below the front bumper were the eventual give-aways. It’s a delightfully subtle car, especially given its size, and I found myself mildly envying its driver.

    A really nice set of articles about a very desirable and significant car. Thanks.

    1. Thank you, SV and Faisal. Glad you enjoyed the pieces.

  3. It’s a most impressive car, this generation of A8. It also encapsulates the fabulous understatement that reigned supreme in ’90s luxury saloon design – they most definitely don’t make ’em like that anymore.

    Having said all that, for all its qualities and historical relevance, I’d always find myself drawn towards its successor. That A8 is no more brash than the D2 – at least before it got single framed – yet endowed with almost an overabundance of exquisite details (its take on the codatronca being literally unique). And there there is one of the greatest cabins of all time.
    A pioneer like its predecessor it wasn’t, but to me the D3 resembles the same formula in perfected form.

    1. I always thought the back lights on the D3 were very nicely done.

    2. Yes, early, pre single-frame D3 is probably one of the most elegant cars ever made. It greatly mixed panache with simplicity. D2 is fantastic, but maybe even too subtle for it’s class.

    3. For me the D3 already had too much bling-bling in its interior with the chrome frames around everything. Here certainly less would have been more and the more restrained D2 has a more elegant atmosphere. And the D2 has a real handbrake and this could be the deal maker for me because I hate those electric parking brakes.
      The only detail that really dates the D2’s interior is the absence of a screen. In the D3 the screen was at least a foldaway item and not the super size coathanger of today.

    4. ‘the more restrained D2 has a more elegant atmosphere’ – other opinions are available, Dave.

      To others/me, materials used in the D3 are even more sophisticated, to say nothing of the exceptional angled centre console and, most obviously, the simply beautiful solution that was the retractable central screen.

      The D2 is lovely, but – to some/me – quite conventional a cabin in comparison.

    5. I remember getting a brief ride in a (rental) D3, and being equally fascinated when the driver selected reverse and the screen folded out. I remember wondering who was going to fix that after the warranty ran out.

    6. I cannot disagree: the D3 A8 is a very fine piece of work:

      However, I don’t see it as a perfection of the styling of D2. Both are, in my eyes, equally fine expressions of different styling themes, rounded and organic in the case of the D2, geometric and linear for the D3.

      Incidentally, I took a look at a picture of a facelifted D3 with the single-frame grille and a resemblance to a rather less exalted (but still handsome) car struck me for the first time:


    7. Thank you for pointing this out. I was not aware that the single frame D3 looked that brash.
      Now I’ll be unable to unsee.

    8. For me the D2 is the nicer design. In a way it might appear as too soft, but the more angular D3 isn’t an improvement. To my eyes the D2 looks better in a darker exterior color.

      I like the interior of the D3, but I agree with Dave there are too many shiny bits in the interior of the D3. With a mat finished wood, mat stainless metal instead of the chrome it would be a very nice place.

      I nearly bought a D3. It’s a car that’s not a regular sight here in The Netherlands, so there are not that many available. The particular example that caught my attention was for sale at a reputable garage and the price was right. Somebody else thought so too and got there first. Probably better as the D3 is more car than I really need.

    9. I’m not a big fan of decorative wood in a car’s interior (only non-structural carbon fibre is worse) and always liked the alternative treatments Audi had on offer, at least for their smaller models. My A4s all had brushed aluminium and it looked far better than any wood.
      The S4/S6 also feature woven stainless steel which looks good.
      I once saw an experimental interior with neoprene trim which was quite attractive but didn’t make it into production.
      Regrettably aluminium isn’t offered for the A8 but there is (at frightening extra cost) a deep gloss ‘piano black’ option that looks fantastic but is very scratch prone – you wipe it with a microfibre cloth and it’s damaged.

    10. Daniel,

      please excuse my arbitrary wording: the D3 clearly marked a departure from its predecessor’s organic design style, although volumes et al still share a resemblance. Yet despite those clear distinctions between either generation of A8, both were designs only Audi could ever have come up with.

      Freerk,

      I have good news for you: all the metal inside the D3’s cabin is aluminium (the proper stuff, to an overwhelming degree). Open-pore wood was also available. Et voilà.

    11. Hi Christopher. That centre console looks very finely wrought. I’m ambivalent about the choice of materials for a car interior, as long as they’re genuine and not masquerading as something else, such as ‘chrome’ ‘carbon-fibre’ or ‘burr walnut’ made from plastic.

    12. The materials used inside the D3 are second to none. When speaking to designers who worked on that cabin, they couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I asked them about today’s budgets in comparison. Not a single one of those real aluminium components would get sanctioned today, at any ‘premium’ car maker.

    13. Thanks, Christopher. I like the fact all the metal looking stuff is proper aluminium, but I think there is just a little too much of it. I’ve seen how the speaker grilles of the Bang & Olufsen sound system was made in Factory 5 in Struer on two occasions. What they can do with aluminium there is quite amazing. After every single step in the process the aluminium is anodized again.

      The tuning of that sound system is something special too. Geoff Martin, who I’ve met there as well was responsible for it. He found that the middle seatbelt in the rear was vibrating at 53 Hz (I think it was that number, but I can’t remember the exact number). Whenever the music hits that frequency the sound system turns it down to 52 Hz or up to 54 Hz.

      The open-pore wood is better than the shiny stuff. I would like ash instead of this dark walnut, though.

    14. Audi had an astonishingly large range of options for the decorative strips in the interior.
      About a dozen different types of wood from smoked oak to very light colours. If you weren’t happy with those standard offers Audi quattro individual was willing to provide anything you liked at extra cost like this one (which for my eyes looks awful)

      In theory Audi individual can do anything a customer wants but in reality they try to steer people away from stuff that is detrimental to the resale value of the car. My Audi Zentrum once had an RS4 with lilac exterior and bright yellow leather inside which sold at next to nothing despite of being just over a year old. That’s the stuff they try to avoid.
      I once saw a car with trim strips made from very light coloured open pore small bamboo strips.

      For what it was (wood) it looked refreshingly different but I’d still take the piano black option

  4. Cannot help but admire the V8 diesels used in the A8 as well as the D2 and pre-facelift D3 models. Despite the following likely resulting in commercially pointless white elephants, could a case have been made for the early A8s to be available as understated luxury 2-door coupes at least in the US market (that may in turn encourage Chrysler to develop a 2-door 300)?

  5. IMO the coupé proposal misses the marque completely. Wheelbase way too large, greeenhouse too fragile looking. They could have done better to capture the demeanor and temperament of the saloon here instead of chasing after a particular model of Mercedes.

    —–

    I recall reading a leaked brief stating the design goals for the 2005 Cadillac STS. “Seamless glass to metal transitions” was high on the list. It’s a feature found on the 1999 W220 S-Class. You can see how this intention translated to the production car here:

    Compare the clean, unadorned style of finish in this area to the D3 A8 (or any Audi from this era). I personally find the copious amount of uncouth rubber sealing surrounding Audi’s updated *nearly* flush glazing to look horrid up close. The D3 and other Audi’s from that era added exactly what Mercedes and GM were trying to eliminate from their own upmarket products. The simultaneous cheapening of the this detailing at Audi, going from clean to messy (rubber oozing out of gaps like an alien sea monster) rather than their more overt stylistic missives, for me marks the point of inflection where Audi lost their design discipline.

    Of course using trim to entice and divert the eye has never really gone out of style, so both Mercedes’ and Cadillac’s efforts at cleanliness* as a mark of quality seem mere footnotes in car design history. Same for Audi’s “pin and track” perfectly flush glazing which also effectively hid most of the rubber sealing on the exterior. However I found Audi’s subsequent embrace of sloppy rubber sealing, to an extent that even budget brands never dared to be off putting. Is this the kind of detail that only pedants notice?

    *It’s always been a signifier for hot rod culture, not so much for mass production.

  6. Hi gooddog. The STS is indeed very ‘clean’ but there’s something unhappy about the conflict between the curved trailing-edge shut-line to the rear door and the sharply angled lower corner of the quarter-window. It looks particularly awkward in your rear three-quarter photo, but is apparent even in the side view, albeit to a lesser extent:

    To my eyes, it makes the door window frame look narrow and weak at the base of the DLO. This falls into the category of an ‘unforced error’ in that bit could easily have been avoided by adding a curve to the trailing corner of the quarter-window or redrawing the door shut-line to eliminate the curve.

    1. Yes Daniel, you’re right… How did they manage to screw that up?

      They could have even had art _and_ science.

  7. Good morning all, and thank you again Daniel.
    How time gets away from you!
    Amazing to think that these beautiful cars were replaced twenty-one years ago. As a piece of design to be viewed (the only way I’ll get to experience one of these magnificent machines), to me this would be Peak Audi. While I understand those who prefer the succeeding model, and it certainly has its appeal, to me the style of this one emphasises its material lightness; it not only is light but it looks it. It looks dainty and nimble. Later A8s look heavier; more prestigious and imposing perhaps, but they aren’t traits I happen to value.
    But who am I kidding? I was never in the market for an Audi!
    Even more amazing is how long that W12 engine has been around. It seems only yesterday I was reading about it for the first time, marvelling at the complexity of the concept, and wondering how it would hold up in service.

    1. Oh, I’m sorry… I thought you said “Pike’s Peak Audi”.

    2. A vague acquaintance of mine had a D3 W12 and used it as his company cars for a couple of years. He then got an A7 3.0 Tdi as a company car and used the D3 W12 as his private car. Over 400,000 kilometers and counting without much issues, apart from the costly fuel and maintenance bills.

      One of my friends in the States had two D2’s V8 Quattro’s. One for him, the other for his wife. Those cars had more than a few issues I’m told.

  8. A quick and dirty rework to illustrate the two possible fixes. Original on left:

    The first fix (middle image) adding a little curvature to the rear corner of the quarter light, does the trick nicely.

    1. Indeed, the subtlest tweak would probably not have required any changes to the tooling, nor spoiled the designer’s intention. Well done.

  9. As a teenager in the midt-late 90s a friend from school had got his hands on a brochure for the A8. This was the time before internet so an A8 brochure (at the time when the stripped 1,6lt A4 was considered a luxury car in Greece) was an eye-watering experience. I remember I kept reading the part on the solar panels and the automatic air-condition that shifted according to sunlight. I must have told everyone I could get hold of , even my 75 year old grandmother was fully informed of Ingolstad’s latest advances while my grandfather had an extra soft-spot being a long time DKW daily user (i.e. well into the 90s).
    My neighbour has one now, a diesel one, in daily drift, impressive feast for norwegian climate. A brief look in the used car ads will show that these cars easily go to 300000 km.
    The S8 of course is already hailed as a future classic, surprisingly prices are not sky-high yet. Maybe I should contact my friend for a look of that brochure once again.

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