Road Trip: Taking the A8L 4.2 Quattro to the B-Roads
By James Wong
It doesn’t sound like a very good idea to begin with. Bringing an almost 5.2m long, 1835kg luxury sedan to the kind of roads that are plied by trucks carrying chickens, with children cycling at the dirt pavements and gaping potholes covering the whole dual carriage-way of the thin strip of tarmac. But consider that the road trip will start at a time where everyone would still be snoozing the Friday hangover away, and then it starts to make a little sense. Consider also that the car we’ll be taking will have a 335bhp, 430Nm V8 coupled with quattro and it seems like a more plausible idea now. But as my alarm clock rings early in the morning, nothing of all that matters, as I drag myself out of bed and start the Audi fresh after its 45,000km service, heading towards the meeting point of the inaugural drive event of the Audi Club Singapore.
The fresh morning air was laced with a hint of dampness that was also evident on the roads. It was raining earlier in the morning, and I was a bit worried if traction would be a problem. But as I crossed the causeway to Malaysia all those worries evaporated (no pun intended) as the roads dried up. The cruise to the meeting point was necessarily slow as I was early, and while the A8 ambled along it returned rather surprisingly bad mileage – about 13-14L/100km while doing a 70km/h cruise. Before readers might comment that it is rather good for a V8, the A8 has returned even more amazing mileage before, the best at about 9L/100km, achieved on a long distance drive. I figured that it was because I wasn’t going at the optimum speed that would return the best fuel consumption; for a car as lazily geared as the A8, a cruising speed of something closer to 100km/h would be its comfort zone. Nonetheless, with its suspension set to the Automatic mode the Audi was impossibly comfortable to the point that I almost felt like sleeping again. Not good…
Reaching the meeting point, there were an impressive group of Audis which turned up. There were a couple of A4s, A6s, two S3s, a TT-S Roadster, a RS4 Cabriolet, among others, and a massive Audi Q7. Suddenly, the A8 didn’t feel so very out of place anymore. Linking up our communications, we split into two convoys and off we went. On the highway, we went at 110km/h as we were the ‘normal’ convoy as opposed to the ‘faster’ convoy. Passing through some bustling towns for several kilometers, we finally reached a junction where we turned right to enter a whole series of B-roads that will lead us from the West to the East of Johor Bahru (a state in Malaysia that is adjacent to Singapore).
Traffic didn’t look promising for the first few grueling kilometers, as slow-moving trucks hogged the single lanes, making overtaking difficult with poor visibility. Fog made things worse as it reduced visibility to within 3-4 car lengths. However, as we turned deeper and deeper into quieter lanes, the fog cleared and traffic was noticeably less, at some stretches even non-existent. Time to turn on the taps.
While the A8 has a claimed 0-100km/h time of 6.3 seconds, it certainly was working very hard to catch up with the smaller, more nimble cars like the B8 A4 1.8T for in-gear acceleration. The reason for this, I suspect, is because of the V8’s tendency to maintain its usual place in terms of engine speed much higher in the rev band than where the engine revolutions in the turbocharged cars usually reside. Also, the weight penalty was inevitable. Where it lacked in low-end power, it made up for in sheer pace, as once the A8 got up to speed and overcame its inertia, the car was already catching up in a very terrifying way. When it got to that stage however, there was a need to slow down as the convoy prepared for its next overtaking procedure. The lack of punch down below and the gearbox’s unwillingness to downshift unless forced made overtaking somewhat of a difficulty. It just doesn’t feel right; the power doesn’t come at the right time, and when it does it is already too late. There is a mismatch of ability here. The A8 definitely has ability, but it doesn’t really work effectively in this environment.
Nonetheless, the A8 never lost sight of the cars in front. As the roads became more twisty, the A8 had to put its quattro all-wheel-drive system to use, and it didn’t disappoint. I pondered over its handling abilities after the drive and came to this conclusion. While the car’s long wheelbase meant that the rear was very susceptible to fishtailing, the car was actually very tidy in the corners. Give it a 3rd gear entry into a horseshoe turn and there is no shortage of grip; coupled with the suspension set to Dynamic, body roll is kept to a minimum as the car is lowered to a level that may rival even some sports cars. The beauty of quattro is that for even such a large car, grip is unflappable; I know that the car can be capable of even more speed it can carry through to a corner, but the uneven road gave the car jitters that would otherwise wouldn’t be there. In addition, the car’s gigantic bulk also meant anything that puts the car off-course would be very hard to correct. At one point, I entered a decreasing radius corner; the car understeered and I braked; it came within control and the quattro system allowed me to power out of the corner confidently.
Praise should also be given to the car’s suspension, as it handled the potholes very well, never giving a jarring ride and instead offering a good mix of suppleness with minimal rebound. At some points, when the car almost lifted off the ground and then came down hard on the road, the suspension almost bottomed-out but no harshness was felt. And the sound? Racecar-like above 5,000rpm, as melodious as any V8 can be. It’s muted in the cabin though, and virtually unnoticeable in noisy environs.
Nonetheless, if the A8 were to be compared to another car of its class, say a Mercedes S-Class, then the Audi trumps it in these roads, no question. But with, say, the new BMW 7-Series, the BMW offers much more direct steering feedback with its four wheel steering and coupled with the lighter weight and rear-wheel drive, I do believe it would provide more excitement on these roads. However, the A8’s performance is very commendable indeed, in light of its main purpose to be a luxury sedan first and foremost.
That said, there are two things that I felt Audi could make right in the replacement A8. Firstly, the steering was horribly lifeless. It is not exactly light, but its feedback was numb to say the least. If you were to drive dead straight, and give the wheel a little tug to the left and right, the car might not even respond with any change in direction. That vagueness carries over to the corners; due to a slow rack, you literally cannot ‘feel the front wheels’. Sometimes, I had to correct a steer that I turned to little or too much, as it is not so easy to get it right the first time. It just doesn’t instill confidence into the driver. Oh, and a small note to mention, the cubby-hole below the steering wheel refused to close due to a faulty latch; it kept hitting onto my right knee which was most irritating.
Second, the Tiptronic gearbox shifted at a very leisurely pace. It is okay for an luxury car, but since dual-clutch technology has already been in the market for a few years now, its perfect upshifts would do wonders to reduce drivetrain losses as well as introducing a whole new level of efficiency in the car. Like what Porsche did with the Panamera, it might be a good idea if Audi put a S-Tronic gearbox into the car. The Tiptronic’s Sport mode held the gears longer and was much more responsive than in Drive, allowing the driver only to change to a top gear of 5th. However, what I felt was most enjoyable was using the paddle shifters. While it responded to my inputs with some lag, the car allowed me to pull the engine up to its redline and offered some control to the driver. This improved driver involvement a lot. That said, I kept thinking the car could have performed so much better with S-Tronic.
Departing after a short breakfast stop, we then took a coastal road which was totally deserted and rather scenic. While potholes here are more severe, the A8 swallowed them up commendably, and at some straight stretches the car could hit at Autobahn cruising speeds with a safe visibility of at least a few kilometers. Stopping for lunch at a small town called Sungei Rengit, the car tooled around town amicably and while its immense length proved to be a challenge for busy junctions, it was a cinch to drive.
There was no other car in the group that I wanted to drive more for the journey back to Singapore. Despite its faults, no car can do highway cruising like the A8. It eats up the miles effortlessly and with good mileage as well. With a big fuel tank of close to a 100 litres, it could also cover immense distance before refueling. Reaching home in the late afternoon, I was sure I would have felt more tired had I been in any of the other cars in the group. Nonetheless, the early morning wake-up still took its toll on me and I crashed the moment I hit the bed.
While it is most unorthodox that the A8 was brought to the B-road, and even more surprising that it didn’t do very badly either, the car when brought to its unnatural habitat still handled the challenge well. Give it another battle on the highway and no prize for guessing who conquers the open road.
Two watermarked photos courtesy of Audi Club Singapore – photographer Jason Gan
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