Cars

Audi A8L a tech-laden flagship for winter climes

On a frozen pond in Moultonborough, NH, the thunderous roar of engines is heard in the pristineWhite Mountain forest. The cacophony comes not from a herd of snowmobiles, but fromV8 race cars. They are participating in the Latchkey Cup, which opens the 2013 season of the Lakes Region Ice Racing Club.

The stripped-down, heavily modified ice racers are unlikely companions to the hyper-luxurious 2013 Audi A8L I’m driving, although both are intent on mastering the worst of winter driving conditions. Though the A8L (which stands for “long”) may be new for 2013, it employs the same clean design and focus on technology and performance that underscore the Quattro’s all-wheel-drive. The artful combination of these attributes has become the hallmark of the Four-Ringed German marque, which is fresh off its best sales year ever. Audi sold 139,310 vehicles in 2012, representing a staggering 68.4 percent increase since 2009.

Growth may be good for a car brand, but volume is of little concern to the designers of an automaker’s flagship vehicle. Many long-wheelbase executive sedans, like this Audi, are descendants of the driven-by chauffeur tradition; look for versions in the BMW 7 Series, Bentley Continental, Rolls-Royce Phantom, and Lexus LS. All are elongated at the rear section of the cabin, delivering increased legroom for the rear passengers. To arrive in an “L” variation of any model is to make a stylish entrance.

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The majority of the automotive industry has embraced daring new designs, celebrating the achievements of production techniques such as hydroforming. Audi has decided to take a different path in an almost post-modern approach to car design. The only elements that break up the cleanness of the A8’s design are the bold LED headlights and dual exhausts integrated into the rear bumper. The latter is from whence the A8 spews forth the howl of its technologically advanced power plant.

The base engine on the A8 is 3.0-liter, supercharged, direct-injected V6. Making 333 horsepower, it is one of Ward’s Auto 10 Best Engines for 2013. Our A8L is bestowed with a 4.0-literV8, making 420-horsepower of twin-turbo goodness. Other engine options include the bonkers W12, the fuel-saving Hybrid, and the diesel-burning A8TDI. The latter features a 3.0-literV6, making 406 pound feet of torque and capable of a rumored 36 miles per gallon highway.

Impressively, the modified Chevrolets and Fords that rounded the circular ice track were putting out horsepower in the same neighborhood. Such output was through the ingenuity and know-how of racers like Jake Williams, who won the modified class in his #73 car. To keep traction on the ice, the racers had specialized chains, with rows of metal studs. When encountering ice on the drive to and from the race, I could rely on Quattro. The crown jewel of Audi’s drivetrain tech, Quattro is a highly advanced and capable all-wheel-drive system. It can vector power to the front or rear wheels, depending on where more traction is needed.

This feature and many others are modulated and customizable through the MMI (Multi-Media Interface) control panel in the center console. Audi was once lauded as having the best interiors and control layouts in the world. An onslaught of new technology has crept into the automobile in the past several years. Consequently, Audi interiors have become increasingly cluttered, especially on feature-laden models like the A8. Context should be acknowledged here, as these interiors have become cluttered by Audi standards, but are still among best in the industry.

If you are overwhelmed by the MMI controls in the center panel, there are steering wheel controls that operate a computer screen in the center of the instrument panel, between the speedometer and tachometer. The driver can operate the stereo, navigation, and a paired cell phone, plus access an advanced trip computer. If both of these systems stress you out, there is also a massage chair built into the driver’s seat.

The A8 starts at $72,200, but our A8L comes in at a steeper $87,200. With features like adaptive cruise control, 20-inch wheels, panoramic sunroof, and more, it jumps to $98,145. That price includes the aforementioned massage capabilities, reclining rear seats with separate climate controls for rear seat passengers, Google Maps-enabled navigation system, and Audi’s own cellular link for real-time map updates and Google Street views of your destination. Rear seat passengers are also treated to their own second row sunroof and power retracting sunshades for side and rear windows.

As the afternoon drew to a close and drivers like ChrisTaylor (#8) and Mike Frank (#00) emerged with trophies, my reward for making the 2.5-hour trek from Boston was another 2.5-hour drive at the wheel of the A8. Though the “L” may indicate that the primary passengers reside in the backseat, the power and technology delivered by the A8L reassures you that the helm of this flagship is the true seat of power.

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