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2004 Audi A8

2004-04-04 17:03

John Oxley

For some time now I've been jokingly telling people that various cars could recognise my fingerprints, which is why I didn't need to unlock the door when getting in.

Of course I was bluffing - the "Keyless Go" available as an option on some Merc models uses a radio transponder key that is recognised by the car's security system when you're within a few metres of the car.

However, I've now got to eat my words, for the latest Audi A8 DOES have fingerprint recognition software - although it's not used for access to the car.

Instead the A8 recognises your fingerprints so it can use your personal settings each time the car is started, making sure you're tuned to your favourite radio station, with the volume YOU like and the seat, mirror and steering wheels settings the way YOU like them.

And the A8 still has its own version of "Keyless Go" - Audi calls it "Advanced Key" - which means you never have to take the key out of your pocket when getting into and starting the car, although you DO have to use the key's buttons to remotely lock it.

Headline catchers

Of course, these things are just the headline catchers in the new A8, for there are many more important features that set this car apart from the rest - and which, for my money, makes it currently the best car in the large luxury segment.

In fact, what Audi has done is to produce a car that addresses most of the complaints we have had about rivals the BMW 7 Series and the Mercedes S-Class, and which also adds in a lot of unique touches, all of which explain why in many parts of the world - including its native Europe - the latest A8 sells nearly as many as the 7 Series and S-Class combined.

In South Africa, however, the A8 has always been a slow seller, mainly because of restricted imports and some fears about repairability of its aluminium bodywork.

However Audi SA says this is about to change, and sales in South Africa are expected to follow the European trend.

"The Audi A8 will redefine Audi's position in the premium segment of the market," says Greg Levine, newly appointed general manager for Audi sales and marketing.

"By combining class leading technology with the advantages of a high-tech aluminium construction and quattro permanent four-wheel drive, the Audi A8 embodies Audi's ideal of Vorsprung, setting an example for others to follow".

New features

The latest Audi A8 has a number of new features over its predecessor, most notably new bodywork that sees a brand-new frontal look (though not the deep grille shown on the A8 W12 or the latest A6) as well as a coupe-like side profile and a neat new tail.

At the same time the V8 quad cam 4.2-litre engine gets a boost in power to 246 kW, while the addition of a new 6-speed tiptronic automatic gearbox assists in the car's rapid off-line performance - 0-100 km/h in just 6.3 seconds. Top speed is limited to 250 km/h.

Like its predecessor the latest A8 has permanent quattro four-wheel drive, but this features more alloy parts to reduce unsprung weight, plus a new adaptive air suspension with four pre-defined settings ranging from comfort to dynamic (sport), plus an automatic mode that adjusts according to the way the car is driven, and a lift mode for use on rough roads that raises the car by 25 mm at speeds up to 85 km/h.

Plush interior

Inside the car the accent is on luxury with practicality.

Burr walnut trim and leather abounds, while a feature I especially like is that the centrally-mounted monitor screen - used for features ranging from audio settings to satellite navigation - folds away when it's not in use to give a very clean dashboard.

And Audi is very proud of what it calls its Multi Media Interface (MMI) technology which makes it easy for the driver to use features and to get information.

I have complained many times about BMW's i-Drive system and how illogical and difficult it is to use.

Mercedes-Benz uses a simpler system, but sometimes the navigation system trips over itself and makes one repeat processes.

Audi uses what is arguably the best of the three.

It is logically laid out, and takes less than three minutes to find your way around. And there's the added advantage that when you HAVE set things up the way you want, the fingerprint recognition system ensures that things are always how you want them, when you want them, no matter what your teenage son does to the settings...

And this includes such items as the in-built TV, telephone, satnav, suspension settings and car sound.

I'll give full details of what the car has got later. But first I want to tell you what the A8 is like to drive.

On the road

Because there was a limited number of cars available on the launch, which was held in the Eastern Cape, we travelled four-up in the car. But that was no hardship, and at least ensured that we all got a chance to drive in the back, where I noticed headroom and legroom were more than sufficient.

While in the back I also was impressed with the ventilation system, with two outlets each side, and by the electrically retractable rear window blind - controlled from either front or rear - to stop the sun burning the back or your neck.

However I first had a stint behind the wheel, and I made the best of it - remembering, of course, that I had passengers to consider.

It's dead easy to get a perfect driving position thanks to the reach and height adjustable steering column, as well as the fully adjustable electric seats. And the A8 is one of those cars that "shrinks" around you - after just a few minutes behind the wheel it feels like a much smaller car.

This is in no small part due to the agility of the car as well as the responsiveness of the steering and brakes. On top of that the A8 is lighter than its opposition thanks to its aluminium construction.

Setting off is easy. The A8 comes equipped with an electric parking brake operated by a tiny lever on the centre console, but unlike those on the BMW 7 Series, Renault Vel Satis and the new Renault Scenic II, you have to release it yourself as well as engage it when you stop.

An integrated starting assist function facilitates smooth driving off on hills without the driver having to manually disengage the brake.

Push buttons

The MMI system is very easy to operate - you merely push buttons until the right part of the menu is reached, then move a pointer to whatever you want to change - so I tried out the suspension settings first.

There didn't seem much difference between automatic and comfort, but on dynamic you could feel the suspension stiffen up and become more responsive.

Add to that the superb grip afforded by the quattro system, and I was soon revelling in a car that just surges through corners without a care in the world - well, until I realised the others weren't enjoying being chucked around as much as I was.

Naturally it's got all the latest electronic gear to ensure you can't easily toss it off the island, plus steering wheel paddles for those who want to make instant manual gear changes without taking their hands off the wheel.

The gear change was smooth and flawless, but if you're going to have a "manual" system it should at least lock up in the gear you choose. The Audi tiptronic, however, changes up if you reach peak revs...

Comfort levels, as expected, were very high, and the seats firmly hugging without being overly tight around the hips.

As expected it's quick off the mark, but I was also surprised at the fuel economy, as shown by the on-board computer. Audi claims an overall average of 11.9 litres/100km, which is great by big car standards.

Naturally the A8 comes with all the luxury features you'd expect, such as climate controlled air con, electric windows and mirrors, an advanced audio system with a shuttle in the glovebox, plus cordless cell phone, TV, and satnav.

The current model, the 4.2 petrol, comes in at R763 000, which makes it less expensive than either the BMW 745i or Mercedes S500, while on acceleration it beats both hands-down and in fact compares with the hugely-quick Bentley Continental GT.

A turbo-diesel option will be available in the latter half of this year.


I can understand why the Audi outsells both its competitors abroad, for it offers solutions where the others merely compromise.

On handling it's even better than the superb BMW; on looks it's cleaner and more modern than the Mercedes, especially at the back.

And on its overall ease of operation it beats both hands-down, without stinting on anything.

The trick now is to get South African bums into Audi A8 seats.

Click here for full details on the car

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