Most cars are made to be driven, of course, and there is a select group of vehicles that are made to be driven in—the Rolls-Royce Phantom, the Maybach 62, the Ford Crown Victoria. But beyond that, there exists the infinitesimally small number of cars that have been engineered with both missions in mind, offering dynamic excellence for those twirling the steering wheel and five-star appointments for those occupying the rear seats. The 2011 Audi A8L W-12 is one such vehicle, and it satisfies in almost all aspects.
The L in A8L refers to “long wheelbase.” Beyond an extra five inches between the front and rear axles, the regular A8 and the A8L don’t differ much. The forward cabins are identical, and most folks won’t be able to tell the difference from outside without the cars parked next to each other. The range-topping model we drove, with a W-12 engine under the hood, gains some additional chrome on its nose and unique exhaust finishers, but the classy, black-tie look applies equally to short- and long-wheelbase A8s.
Slide into the buttery-soft leather of the back seat, however, and the distinction between A8 and A8L is immediately clear. All five inches of extra wheelbase were given to rear-seat occupants, and whereas the already-roomy A8 makes you feel comfortable and cosseted, the studio-apartment-size rear cabin of the A8L makes you feel high and mighty. A panoramic glass roof adds to the expansive feel, and the A8L W-12 sports a pair of power-adjusting heated rear seats, split by a flowing center console that can be optionally equipped with a fold-out table and fridge. (The A8L 4.2 has a rear bench as standard, with the individual seats being an option.) The chairs can be further outfitted with ventilation and massage, and the final frontier for true titans of industry is the relaxation seat. It’s a rear-passenger-side-only personal spa and business-class airplane seat all rolled into one, with heating, cooling, massage, and a power footrest the folds down from the back of the front-passenger seat. Choosing this seat also adds a smorgasbord of rear-entertainment technology, including two 10.2-inch monitors mounted to the front seatbacks, Bluetooth headphones, a separate DVD drive, a pair of SD card slots, a TV tuner, and an additional MMI controller allowing access to navigation and media functions. Additionally, W-12 customers get MMI “navigation plus” as standard. It features a touchpad on the front center console that can decipher inputs drawn with a fingertip. There’s also a special Google search function for the navigation, as well as the A8L’s ability to be its own Wi-Fi hotspot, turning the car into perhaps the world’s nicest mobile office. (The A8 and the A8L go on sale here in November, but the Wi-Fi connectivity won’t be available until sometime next year after a wireless data provider has been chosen.)
The W-12 is exclusive to the long-wheelbase model and is the step-up engine from the base 4.2-liter V-8. Now in its second generation, the W-12 has been revised with an increased cylinder bore and direct fuel injection, the latter of which required reworked cylinder heads. The net result is an additional 50 hp and 33 lb-ft of torque for totals of 500 and 461, respectively. Quattro all-wheel drive is standard on U.S. A8s (for now), as is a new, ZF-supplied eight-speed automatic transmission. The eight-speeder provides almost seamless shifts, and it helps fuel economy, too. The car is rated for 26 mpg on the highway in Europe—impressive, even if the test cycle over there is notoriously optimistic. If asked, the gearbox will even execute an eight-to-two downshift during spirited driving.
The air suspension provides excellent wheel control and delivers a plush ride, and the standard “Audi drive select” keeps unseemly body motions in check. Rotors larger than the base A8’s and six-piston front calipers (versus the 4.2’s two-piston binders) handle the braking, and the setup delivers good feedback through the pedal, making modulation an easy task. Compared with the 12-cylinder competition from Mercedes and BMW, the quiet and velvety smooth W-12 is down on power and torque, but you’d be hard pressed to notice by the seat of your pants. Acceleration is definitely brisk, and there are power and torque available for the taking whenever you want them. The car surges forward when requested even during triple-digit autobahn runs. The A8L isn’t an all-out thoroughbred, of course, but it will definitely dance when asked, a trait enhanced by the extensive use of aluminum throughout—keeping weight down—and by the optional understeer-mitigating, torque-vectoring sport differential.
We had one gripe. In our road test of the A8 4.2, we wrote that the weight of the steering is just right and its accuracy surgical. The same can be said of the W-12’s rack, but we found this car’s steering so sensitive that rotating the wheel merely a touch off-center sent the A8L darting rather uncouthly toward the requested direction. Toggling through the dynamic-steering and adjustable-chassis settings did nothing to alter that feeling; the steering was as sensitive in comfort mode as in any of the sportier settings. It made the car hard to drive smoothly and made some rear passengers motion sick. Although we wouldn’t want the feel and accuracy dulled down, cars in this segment demand steering somewhat slower and more refined than this.
Like the regular A8, the A8L is available with all of Audi’s latest electronannies, including active cruise control with low-speed stop-and-go capability, blind-spot monitoring, lane assist, and night vision. The W-12 adds a lot of the 4.2’s optional equipment as standard, including metallic paint, an upgraded Bose stereo (a 19-speaker, 1400-watt Bang & Olufsen system is a further upgrade), acoustic glass, a power trunklid, four-zone climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, additional aluminum interior trim, ambient interior lighting, and full-LED headlights.
Audi has yet to release pricing on U.S. models, but the W-12 will start at €137,000 in Europe. The last A8L W-12 sold here, the 2009 model, carried a $121,000 base price—look, our pricing is affordable!—and we expect this one to cost some small amount more. Given this car’s mastery of its dual roles, we’d say it’s worth it.