miércoles, 23 de mayo de 2012

Luxury Can Be Lonely

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Ross Ward

With a base price of $133,500, the A8 L W12 is primarily a chauffeur-driven saloon.

Our test car—a $175,315 Exclusive package, glittering in chrome and black paint—is targeted more at the ministerial class, which is to say, expendable bureaucrats. I have no doubt that right now there are European undersecretaries of finance running around Athens in this model, perhaps wishing their car too had bombproof underpants.

They'll want for little else. Among the ticked boxes in the Exclusive package is a refrigerator (between the rear seats, in the rear bulkhead); two beautifully tailored electrical outlets on either side of the fixed center console in the back; and what Audi calls a "relaxation seat" in the right-rear position. This business-class seat reclines and marries up with a motorized footrest that deploys from the back of the front passenger seat. Heating, ventilation and a very robust multi-mode massage function complement this lordly perch.

You want enumeration? Here's some: 22-way adjustable front driver's seat, also with heated/ventilated/massaging function; dual-panel panoramic sunroof; power rear and side sunshades; four-zone climate control; dual rear entertainment system based around 10-inch motorized displays; and Audi Connect, which turns the entire car into a Wi-Fi hotspot. Audi's navi system also includes Google Earth mapping. The Exclusive's sound system gets an upgrade from the A8's standard Bose amplification to a Bang & Olufsen mega-system, with 19 speakers, a 60GB hard drive and a nice round 1,400 watts. That's not even touching on the superb LED indirect lighting, the ceiling-mounted vanity mirrors and a slew of other swell things.

And then there's the leather, whole stockyards of it. The cabin trim on our test car was an exquisite claret-colored Nappa top grain leather, set off with alloy and lacquer-black wood trim. The seats are covered in yet softer and more exclusive Valcona leather (color-matching two different grades of leather is itself something of a technical feat). The headliner was a lush, suede-like Alcantara in charcoal black. From the rear center console a lovely writing table folds out that's suitable for chopping up lines of pharmaceutical-grade privilege.

“You are not meant to identify with, nor celebrate the good fortune of, the owner of this car. You need only submit. And wave. I said wave!”

It all sounds rather awesome, doesn't it? But I have to tell you, beyond the usual isolations of wealth and power, there is something terribly lonely about this car. Start with the fact that this is a four-seat car (a five-seat configuration is available). The motorized footrest deployed from the back of the right-front seat requires that seat to be moved all the way forward. That means that when the boss is in the car, the navigator's position will be empty. And because there is only one preferred seating position in the back, the rear cabin itself constitutes a two-class service. What minister worth his dacha will want to sit in the diminished, and diminishing, position behind the driver?

That leaves only the driver for the chargé d'affaires to converse with. Not a bad fellow, the driver, but rather dull in conversation. Princeton, you know.

There is a machine under all this luxury, and it's astonishing in all the ways you'd hope. The "W12" refers to the 6.3-liter, 500-hp direct-injection engine, with four rows of three cylinders conjoined at the crankshaft. This engine is so utterly sonorous and smooth it feels like it's lubricated with mink—not the oil but actual minks. The mighty 12 is backed up by an eight-speed transmission and Audi's Quattro all-wheel drive system (with electrically locking front and rear differentials, no less).

[AUDI1] Dan Neil/The Wall Street Journal

2012 Audi A8 L W12 Exclusive

Base price: $133,500

Price, as tested: $175,315

Powertrain: Naturally aspirated direct-injection 6.3-liter DOHC 36-valve W12, with variable valve timing; eight-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode; full-time all-wheel drive with front and rear electronically locking differentials.

Horsepower/torque: 500 hp at 6,200 rpm/463 pound-feet at 4,750 rpm

Length/weight: 207.4 inches/4,473 pounds

Wheelbase: 122.9 inches

0-60 mph: 4.4 seconds

EPA fuel economy: 14/21/16 mpg, city/highway/combined

Cargo capacity: 13.2 cubic feet

Dimensionally, the long-wheelbase A8 is exactly the same as the A8 (the trunk in both is 13.2 cubic feet, for example) except for the five additional inches of wheelbase and overall length, which translates to 4.2 more inches of rear legroom and an extra inch of rear headroom. The weight penalty for the extended wheelbase is minimal, a mere 44 additional pounds (4,453 pounds). These cars use Audi's aluminum space-frame construction as well as alloy body panels. The use of alloys amounts to about 600 pounds in weight-savings in the L over a comparable steel-bodied car.

And here we meet the class-war waging implications of the A8 L W12. For ordinary drivers in ordinary cars, yellow lights last about 3.5-4 seconds. But the A8 gains speed with such blurring intensity (0-60 mph in 4.4 seconds, about as fast as a Porsche Panamera GTS) that it actually seems to freeze yellow lights in time. If the chauffeur can see the yellow light, chances are he can beat the red light. That just ain't fair. Once out on the highway, or Autobahn, or King's Road, it's an effortless loft to 150 mph.

Should some prosaic utility vehicle, such as a Cadillac, get in the minister's way, the chauffeur can call upon the nearly 15-inch front brake rotors. Meanwhile, Audi's four-corner, four-mode air suspension deftly zeros out nearly all of the lunging and hammering, leaving the rear-seat occupant to focus on controlling the destiny of millions.

So, to summarize: Faster than hell, with every imaginable convenience, lonely and formal to the point of being ceremonial. The A8 L W12 Exclusive wouldn't even make a good hotel car because of the single prestige seat in the rear; it wouldn't be a good car for a funeral home, unless the deceased had one or fewer relatives.

But for masters of the universe? Oh yeah. Thy will be done.

Email Dan at rumbleseat@wsj.com.

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A version of this article appeared May 19, 2012, on page D12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Audi A8 L W12 Exclusive: Luxury Can Be Lonely.

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