W12 stretches A8 too far

So far as I can see, and I accept some subtle point may have escaped me, people who go around in flagship limousines like this new Audi A8 L 6.0 do so for the same reason they buy gold Rolex watches. And I can see but one point to wearing a gold Rolex: to let those around you know you have more money than they have.

And so it is with this A8. Like the aforementioned shiny timepiece, you can’t miss it, thanks to the domineering new grille Audi has slapped on its hitherto discreet snout and, if that somehow eludes your attention, the chromed W12 badge should leave you in no doubt at all that his really is bigger than yours.

Fair enough. This is a car that will sell in tiny quantities and if Audi reckons it can shift ’em, we’re not about to say it shouldn’t. Indeed, if you’d never travelled in any other A8, you could well escape from an afternoon in the company of the W12 thinking it was one of finest ways of getting from one place to another yet devised. But it’s not.

Here’s why. At £75,775, it costs £17,440 more than the next-most-expensive A8, the similarly long-wheelbase A8 L 4.2. For that you’re buying more than the W12 engine of VW Phaeton and (in turbocharged form) Bentley Continental GT fame. Options to the value of £6970 are included in the standard equipment list, but this includes £1250 for different 18in alloy wheels and still values the engine at over 10 grand.

It is just difficult to see how it’s worth it. Yes, the W12 will hit 62mph from rest in 5.2 rather than the 6.4sec of the 4.2, but is this really so important in such a car? Both will reach the same electronically limited 155mph, while the W12 slurps unleaded at 20.5mpg combined, compared to the still scarcely frugal 23.5mpg of the 4.2-litre car.

But even this is not really the point. What we found hardest to accept was the fact that the 444bhp W12, far from being the paragon of refinement you might expect from such a flagship limo, is actually more intrusive than the V8s of lesser A8s. We don’t remember significant engine noise at a 90mph cruise in V8 A8s but in the W12, it’s there all the time.

Audi’s engineers may or may not be able to produce sound readings to prove the W12 is quieter at such speeds than its eights, but on a qualitative assessment, to these ears, the V8 is the smoother, sweeter engine.

Our final gripe concerns ZF’s six-speed automatic gearbox, a unit we had presumed, until now, could do no wrong. We’ve driven Jaguars, BMs and Bentleys (not to mention other A8s) equipped with this gearbox and been unable to find fault with it. But in the W12 A8, or at least in the car we drove, it inexplicably held onto gears longer than we wanted, again not something you want in such a car.

Having now trashed this A8, allow us to put it into some context. We believe the A8 range is still the next best thing to that of the S-Class Mercedes, so we are still talking relative merit.

These cars are limousines and the more you pay for them, the more limousine-like they should be. So if that extra 17 grand brought new levels of ride and refinement to the A8 instead of dubious performance, we’d no doubt feel rather differently about it. But it doesn’t. The ride, so far as we could tell on the smooth-ish German roads in and around Ingolstadt where we drove the car, is no better in the front or the back and yet refinement appears to have taken a backward step.

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Of course, the A8’s many other talents have survived intact – the brilliant driving environment, superb MMI infotainment system and beautiful cabin being chief among them. The 130mm stretch in the wheelbase has also been effortlessly integrated into the design without spoiling the proportions. In the back, legroom is wonderful, even for a 6ft 4in adult sitting behind a 6ft 4in adult.

But you can enjoy all the advantages of the long wheelbase without having to spend over 75 grand – it’s a £3370 option on all A8s save, curiously, the 3.7-litre V8.

In short, the A8 L 6.0 is the most disappointing of the A8s we’ve driven. Turning it from an inspired large saloon into a limousine pushes the car in a direction in which it does not care to travel. The fundamental and well-documented limitations of the A8’s merely reasonable ride do not suit the limo treatment while, in this application, the W12, for all its fine specification and impressive power, is neither sufficiently smooth nor special.

And while there are certainly those in the Autocar office who find the grille perfectly agreeable, the best thing I can say about it is that, mercifully, it’s not going to be a feature of any other A8 – for the time being at least. Its role, then, is as gold to a Rolex – and more evidence to suggest that money and taste are often inversely proportional.

None of this will worry Audi. This is a car it had to build to match the equivalents from Mercedes and BMW and it’s entirely realistic about its chances in the showroom. Orders for UK cars are already being taken right now and it will be happy if it receives two a month.

In the meantime, Audi’s reputation as the luxury car manufacturer with its star most firmly in the ascendant continues to be bolstered by the other less-expensive A8s, like the quite excellent 4.0 TDi, the first luxury car that comes close to rivalling and, in areas, bettering the mighty S-class. It’s just a pity that such an otherwise capable range has been finished off with a stumble, not a flourish. 

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tommallett 11 January 2009

Re: Audi A8 L W12

Autocar wrote:
And I can see but one point to wearing a gold Rolex: to let those around you know you have more money than they have.

The first thing that pops into my head is not that at all. Its why did you not buy the diesel? Answer: probably because this was so cheap that it made some crazy sense as an ex audi car and the dealer had to get out of it. Not that anyone actually paid 75 grand for it.