Audi recently let me drive their 2011 A8 and it was a life-changing experience, if only for a few days.
Here's why. Had I studied engineering or economics in college I might actually be able to afford this $90,000 car. I was a foolish young thing though, and instead earned an English degree and a non-teaching one at that. While there are perks to freelance writing such as mastering my own calendar and spending more time with my kids than the average working mother, the truth is that the guy working at local fast food restaurant probably makes more money than me. My regular car, worth a measly $4,000, is a 2000 BMW 328 boasting nearly 200,000 miles with a phantom radiator leak and blown-out struts.
My fortune was about to change. It was a blustery winter night when I picked up the A8 at a location three hours from my house, much to the chagrin of my husband who was stuck in the BMW for the return drive home. Opting to ride with me in the A8 (obviously), my teenage son strapped himself in and began pushing things.
Personally, I was a bit overwhelmed with the myriad of buttons, screens and dials staring back at me. Yet it wasn't all of the playthings, polished wood accents or the leather clad seats and dash that immediately suggested luxury. What whispered affluence and opulence to me was a little thing, the ambient lighting piped around the ceiling of the cabin (think of a limousine).
I entered my home address into the navigation system using a dial on the center console. This dial, about two inches in diameter, is the main way to control many of the car's seemingly endless features and in my opinion works better than the touch screens showing up in many new cars. It's difficult, if not impossible, to control a touch screen without looking at it.
Once you turn the A8's main control dial to the correct setting (which has a nice subtle clicking feel to it), it is just a matter of pushing down on it much like "enter" on a keyboard. There's even a "back" button you can push if you just want to return to the previous screen you had displayed on the retractable display sitting on top the center stack. Again, you might be surprised that the "back" button was one of my favorites. I liken it to clicking on the back arrow in your Internet browser, doing that is often easier than starting from scratch when you're trying to find something.
The route to the Interstate took us on deserted country roads and it was snowing so I was grateful for all wheel drive.
The A8 seemed undeterred by the weather. What I did notice were the headlights. Fully LED, they have a bluish beam to them and powerfully illuminate like regular lights can't.
Once we got to the busy highway where snow wasn't accumulating I quickly experienced the car's side assist that vibrates the steering wheel when I inadvertently moved into another lane without using a turn signal. The A8 has hidden sensors and cameras all around its body so the vehicle knows where it is and what's going on around it at all times. In fact, a camera mounted on the back of the rear-view mirror can see the paint lines on the road, detect what drivers ahead are doing and can even read speed limit signs.
Speaking of speed limits, we wanted to get home so I used the adaptive cruise control to keep the car about seven mph over the speed limit (generally the threshold of what most state troopers will tolerate). The car kept displaying a warning on the driver display to tell me I was over the limit, which I found annoying. After some dial turning and clicking I finally figured out how to disable it. As for the cruise control, the cameras and sensors come into play again and slow the car down if a car ahead is getting too close.
The A8 also has a pedestrian detection system that uses a thermal imaging camera mounted in the grille that transmits black and white video of the car's front view to the driver display behind the steering wheel. When the car detects something giving off heat, like people or animals, it highlights them conspicuously yellow on the screen. When they are dangerously close the display shows them as red.
As for my son, he was mainly interested in the car’s music capabilities. After jumping around Sirius satellite radio stations, he found in the glove box a music CD Audi provided to show off the theatre-like experience that the optional 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system provides (Bose is standard). I have to say you tend to feel like you're somebody when rolling around in a luxury vehicle with "City of Dreams" by The Loft filling your ears. During my short stint with the A8 I imagined myself to be a high-powered VP on my way to some significant venue where I would be lauded for my wit and brilliance. As pathetic as it is, I listened to that song at least 50 times, playacting in my head every time. You just can't help but have attitude when behind the A8's wheel.
While the press vehicle I drove didn't have it, A8s that will be showing up on dealer floors in coming months will have Wi-Fi so passengers can use their own laptop, iPad or smart phone to access services such as Google Earth 3D navigation so you can see what a point of interest actually looks like before you get there, or get gas prices and weather information. And the multimedia interface on the center consol has a little touch screen on which you can draw a letter with your fingertip to make changes to navigation or the radio, and all of us can draw letters without looking, right?
While I originally was going to knock the A8 for having seats built for a 6-foot-tall executive instead of a 5'4'' mother of four, once again it just took me a while to learn how to use the seat controls. First, the A8 gives back massages to both the driver and passenger if they want one, which of course, we did. Second, the seat, which at first made me feel like a little girl sitting in a big chair, can be infinitely adjusted to fit any frame. All I had to do was use the controls on the side of the seat along with the main control dial to retract the front and side edges of the seat for my smaller body. The position and tension of the seat belts are also adjustable.
As for how the car drives, obviously with 372 hp and 328 ft lb of torque, the A8 is fast. I found this out one evening when driving behind an SUV that was operating suspiciously, going too slow and making erratic movements. I wanted away from that guy ASAP. Even though I could see a distant car in the other lane, I shot past the bad driver like a jet. It was like this: shhooom, shhooom and he was behind me in a matter of a few seconds. You can imagine how much I wish my BMW (170 hp) could do that.
The last day I had the car I took it out by myself for a last (and sad) drive on lonely winding roads. I can't put this any other way: I would rather be driving the A8 than doing almost anything.
First, there are four options in terms of performance, dynamic, comfort, auto and individual, the latter being a custom mode wherein you can manually adjust things like suspension, steering, accelerator, transmission and more. In dynamic mode the body is lowered slightly to increase stability and reduce wind resistance. In auto mode the body is also lowered but only after driving faster than 74 mph for more than 30 seconds. In comfort mode the ride is nice and soft and the body is not lowered at all. I trusted Auto for most of my driving in the A8.
In all instances of cornering at high speed I felt the car was in command, and because the A8 is built to be so intuitive, it makes little adjustments imperceptible to the driver. Driving it is simply a blast.
Unfortunately, I had to give the car back. I felt exactly like Cinderella going home missing a shoe after the Ball. All they left me with was a glossy six-fold brochure highlighting the A8's superior technology. Shown on the back cover: A tall handsome man confidently walking hand-in-hand with a beautiful high-heeled woman in a black leather dress. She's looking at him like she can't wait to get him alone.
My only gripe with the A8? It's made for people like the guy in the brochure, somebody with an important job and a big fat bank account. I was a little depressed when I realized I'll likely never be able to afford the car. My next story is going to be on time travel. I'm going to go back and change all sorts of things, starting with becoming a plastic surgeon and decidedly not a writer.