MIAMI // Audi couldn't find a traditional motor show to coincide with the launch of its A8 limousine, so it created its own super-extravagant, one-car launch of its hi-tech flagship in Miami, Florida this week. The lighter, leaner, slipperier Audi limo has been trimmed down, strengthened and cleaned up all at the same time in an effort to finally fight and win against BMW's 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz's long-time class leader, the S-Class.
Audi chairman, Rupert Stadler, insisted the all-new A8, which is longer, wider but lower than either of its German rivals, "embodies everything Audi is capable of." And one of the things Audi is capable of, it seems, is putting on a show, even while the car industry is struggling through one of its most difficult financial periods in history. Headlined by movie-star host, Lucy Liu, tied together with the mega-expensive Art-Basel exhibition (which Audi has long sponsored) and attended by the entire Audi board and a glittering array of contemporary art and B-list movie talent, conservative estimates are that Audi spent in excess of $10 million to launch its limo.
It almost fully booked the enormous Fountainbleau hotel (of James Bond's Goldfinger fame), with its six swimming pools on the Miami beach front, shipped in more than 800 guests and loaded up two charter planes from Munich and countless commercial flights from around the world with journalists and designers. Landing in Miami International Airport (with the unfortunate airport code of MIA), they were greeted by wave after wave of Audi Q7s and A6s and shuttled to the Fountainbleau, where a bottle of water cost $10.
Audi then offered a choice of walking down Miami's beachfront board-walk or a shuttle - which most considered unnecessary for 500 metres - to reach its massive, multi-storey venue for the A8 presentation. The purpose-built, beachfront presentation hall featured a stage large enough to accommodate two of the new A8s on revolving turntables, theatre-style seating for 800 people, a modern-art exhibition, a back-room stage for three more A8s, air conditioning, three bars (including one on the roof) and a balcony. And don't bother looking for it on Google Earth, because it's already been torn down for its next life as a sporting venue for underprivileged children in Miami.
After the presentation, Sex and the City's Mr Big, Chris Noth, prowled around the A8s in a double-breasted blazer while Liu charmed the board to redeem herself after a particularly shoddy display of autocue reading. There were local athletes, too, including baseball players and basketball stars, who will probably only consider A8s when the long-wheelbase versions arrive. One of the Art-Basel mover-and-shakers tried to redeem himself, too, after insisting on stage that anything useful couldn't possibly be art - just before Audi's design director, Stephan Seilaff, insisted that great aesthetics without practicality quickly become annoying.
Audi polished off its presentation by providing a bag, which weighed marginally less than the new A8 itself, full of press information, Miami magazines, Art-Basel presentations and catalogues, self-serving car-as-art books and a press kit. The wise just kept the USB stick. If such extravagance in uncertain times is unusual, the A8 is already a rarity among new cars by weighing far less than its predecessor in spite of being larger. Stadler claimed it will come in at least 100kg lighter than all-aluminium A8 it replaces.
For all the underbody technology in the space-frame aluminium setup that has had Germany's metallurgists, physicists and toolmakers tearing their hair out for nearly three years, there are some who suggested the A8's looks didn't go far enough. Neat, clean and classy, with a best-in-class drag coefficient of just 0.26, one school of thought at the extravaganza was suggesting that it looked like "a bigger A4". The car's exterior designer, Chris Winkelmann, insisted that was simply because the A8's proportions lent themselves to a clean design.
"The surface is more generous and there is a lot more sculpting in its surfaces," the 32-year-old insisted. Winkelmann, who designed the Q5 SUV and whose A8 ideas won a shoot-out from five other design directions four years ago to decide the limo's future direction, insisted the car's proportions were the key. "We might have this brand proportion so we can have people think there are similarities," he said.
"With these proportions, we have more light and shadow, so we have to do more sculpting with these side panels. There is no other car with this level of sculpting in it," he insisted. One way Audi has tried to effect that strategy is by stuffing the headlight surround of the A8 with an aggressive set of more than 70 LEDs that act as driving lights, indicators and even fog lights. While Audi might have linked the A8's design as closely as it could with the US and European contemporary art elite, the grittier reality is that the A8 will need to fight - hard - against the BMW 7 Series and the Benz S-Class for supremacy, and address the old car's weaknesses in residual value. Both Benz and BMW limos offer V12 options and both have petrol-electric hybrid setups. Audi won't do that, at least not initially.
Its newly designed aluminium chassis is up to 110kg lighter than the old car, and Stadler insists that alone will pull its fuel consumption down by half a litre per 100km. Instead of a hybrid, Stadler said, its eco-credentials will be based around its late-arriving, 3.0L turbo-diesel V6 engine, which emits just 159 grams of CO2 per kilometre and gets 6L/100km on the combined fuel economy cycle - both claimed numbers well below what the BMW and Benz hybrids can muster.
From the start, though, there will be a slightly thirstier V6 TDI, a V6 petrol engine and the heavy hitters will be a pair of 4.2L V8 engines in the all-wheel-drive A8 chassis; one a direct-injection petrol engine, the other a turbo diesel. The petrol V8 whips the big Audi to 100km in just 5.7 seconds with 366hp (up 16 per cent) and 445Nm of torque, but uses 1.4L/100km less than the V8 in its predecessor.
The V8 diesel will be the headline act for everywhere except the Middle East and the US. It crunches out an astonishing 800Nm of torque with 346hp and is two-tenths of a second faster to 100kph than the petrol version. Even though it has picked up 24hp and 150Nm of torque over the outgoing A8's V8 TDI, the new car's consumption is down 19 per cent to just 7.6L/100km and it slips just beneath the 200 grams/km barrier for CO2.
The initial V6 diesel won't be slow, either. Though it's only front-wheel drive, it still launches the A8 to 100kph in 6.6 seconds. With 247hp and 550Nm of torque, it has been massively boosted in its mid-range strength. It has 100Nm more torque between 1,500 and 3,000rpm as well as another 18hp on the old V6, yet it uses 1.9L/100km less fuel. This is partly because it uses a start-stop system to switch off the engine at a stop, but to have this performance and drop consumption 22 per cent to just 174 grams of CO2/km is impressive.
All of the A8s use a new eight-speed automatic transmission linked to a stubby, space-saving gear lever. Dripping with luxury inside, the main innovation is an innovative touchpad system to control its multimedia functions. Just to the left and in front of the gear lever, the driver can just trace out the letters on the pad to enter an address into the navigation system. firstname.lastname@example.org