The Judge's Choice: Audi A8

Dec. 14, 2006
The A8 packs performance, intelligent safety, and security, plus a decadent amount of comfort, into an elegant but understated sedan.

The Audi A8 has active bi-xenon headlights that point where the driver intends to steer the car. The car determines a driver's intentions based on speed and steering-wheel angle. The vehicle also sports separate cornering lights that send illumination out at right angles from the car when the driver takes a turn, and LED-based daytime running lights.

Active front head restraints, a totally mechanical system, use the seat occupant as the sensing device. When acceleration pushes the occupant back into the seat hard enough, a lever moves the head rest (or restraint) forward, reducing the distance the occupant's head will travel on recoil. This should reduce the severity and number of neck injuries.

The A8 interior, which comes in either walnut, sycamore, or birch trim, features leather seats (and headliner), a pop-up display for the navigation system and other controls, and uses a multimedia interface (arrow) to navigate between control panels. It consists of four soft keys which have functions dependent on what control screen you are in and several hard keys that always take you to certain screens.

MACHINE DESIGN editors Lawrence Kren (right) and Stephen Mraz admire the W12 engine nestled under the hood of the A8. The A8 gets 450 hp from its 6.0-liter, DOHC W-12 engine, which, in effect, is two engines joined side-by-side.

More than a few judges would have liked to drive the Audi A8 home and park it in their garage. But with a sticker price just north of $130,000, the A8 W12 quattro AT6 (the car's full name) will remain another dream car for most of us. That didn't stop the judges from awarding the sedan MACHINE DESIGN Smart Ride's "Judge's Choice" award for its classy combination of intelligent safety and convenience features. And many of the judges granted this award without knowing the car had a refrigerator tucked into the console between the two back passenger seats.

Unlike American-built and marketed long-wheelbase luxury sedans, the A8 targets Asian and European markets. There, these big sedans are most often chauffeur driven. Therefore, much of its comfort and convenience centers on the rear seats. Hence the refrigerator (a $1,500 option), four-zone comfort control, and LCD screens in the back of the front-seat headrests that let those in the back watch DVDs. But there were still enough high-tech security and safety features up front to garner the award.

For example, judges appreciated the car's stabilization system, a combination of traction control, ABS with electronic-brake-force distribution, and AWD with an electronic differential lock. "All of these are networked to stabilize the car's behavior in uncontrolled situations by applying brake or engine management to slow you down and keep the driver in control," says Filip Brabec, manager of the over-all product line at Audi. "It's an especially good combination with full-time four-wheel drive."

And judges might not have noticed, but the ABS system was regularly "wiping" the 18-in. ceramic brake discs during the somewhat wet and rainy conditions of the competition. This keeps the brakes dry and improves the initial response when braking according to Audi.

Judges did, however, take notice of the car's parking assistance, which comes in the form of audio and visual feedback. Four acoustic sensors at the corners of the vehicle sense distance to obstacles. As the distance shrinks, an alert beeps faster and faster until it becomes a constant tone when the obstacle is 1.5 ft away. Similarly, a four-bar graph shows distances to nearest obstacles from the four corners.

Next year, the A8 will also carry a backup camera that puts video from a rear-mounted camera in the dashboard display to help people edge into tight parking spots or just back out of the garage without running over a mislaid bicycle or power tool. The camera will use antidistortion software to compensate for the fish-eye lens. There will also be guide lines with distance bars placed every 1.5 ft from the back bumper on the display. The guide lines indicate the direction the car is going in reverse and, naturally, turn when the steering wheel turns. The first distance bar, a red one, will coincide with 1.5 ft away from the back bumper. A convenience feature standard on the A8, and becoming more popular on high-end vehicles, is the advanced key, which really isn't a traditional key at all. Instead, it is a transponder that sends a variety of messages to the car. If you have it in your pocket and approach the locked car, for

example, it unlocks the driver's door. If you throw the fob in the trunk and close it, it pops open the trunk to prevent such a bone-headed move from having any real consequences. Last, but not least, it lets the driver start the car by pushing the starter button.

One thing the key doesn't do is automatically adjust settings for the seat, outside mirrors, steering wheel, and HVAC temperature and air distribution to a particular driver's preferences. Instead, this happens once the driver pushes the starter. Then an image scan-ner reads the fingerprint, compares it to up to four in memory, and makes the necessary changes.

The A8 was chock-full of thoughtful security, safety, and convenience features. But as one judge pointed out, "This is not the car for people unwilling to read the owner's manual." Unless, of course, they want to leave that to the chauffeur.

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