With Toyota/Lexus and Nissan/Infiniti already wrestling BMW and Mercedes for some small portion of an overpopulated luxury car market, along comes Audi with its quiet but highly significant challenge in walnut, leather and velvet V-8 power.
Stylistically, here is a flagship of handsome looks falling somewhere between dispassionate and dignified--without resorting to body badges, numerics or nomenclature to brag of its muscle and punch.
Technologically, the car has been designed as a masterpiece of safety engineering with driver and passenger protection concentrated where it belongs--in suspension, transmission and braking. And with air bags, a unique crash-retracting steering wheel and impact-tensioning seat belts as klutz-proof backup.
Financially . . . well, here's a sticker that goes beyond shock to a trauma some might associate with stun guns.
The Audi V-8's base price is $47,450. With gas guzzler taxes, freight, a pearl-white paint option, sales tax, registration and assorted startup fees, you'll be driving out the showroom door lighter by $50,000.
At that price, the Audi V-8 costs considerably less than its competing German colleagues, the BMW735i or Mercedes 420. But it's also infinitely more than you'll pay for the rookie Lexus. Or the emergent Infiniti.
Yet, claimed Audi spokesman Larry Brown, these merely are very good cars. The Audi V-8, he explained, is "a truly unique car, an engineering statement reflecting the expertise of Audi . . . also the world's only V-8 with a permanently engaged all-wheel Quattro drive system and a programmable transmission."
Audi's all-wheel drive package is now the third-generation system of Quattro motoring and one that John Phillips III, writing in a recent issue of Car & Driver, described as delivering "remarkable stability in atrocious conditions."
Consider the atrocities to be snow, wet gravel, washboard curves, deeply puddled corners or the oil-water emulsion that is the surface of any Southern California freeway at the first whisper of autumn rain.
With Audi's Quattro system, should one wheel begin to slip, a central differential automatically reassigns engine power to the wheels with a better grip on the road surface. In an instant, if slick conditions dictate, the Audi can become 100% front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive or any percentage in between. At the same time, a second mechanical instinct called a Torsen differential plays with the rear wheels, juggling torque from side to side and transferring power from slipping wheel to gripping wheel in microseconds.
Now add anti-lock brakes (ABS) and you have a handling system providing optimum traction and braking on any surface except one--and we must presume that not too many people commute to work across frozen lakes.
To make the point of Quattro plus ABS, Audi likes to put reviewers in a controlled environment and through evil paces that disclaimers on television commercials say should only be attempted by professional drivers.
We were taken to Riverside Raceway. Cones formed a single lane of asphalt on the back straight. Then the entire area was hosed to sopping and the games began.
The wet lane was entered at 40 m.p.h. In mid-gullywasher, brakes were stomped and held hard as steering was shifted violently to the left.
The car, by all the rules of inertia and dynamics, should have plowed ahead, wheels and steering locked in a collision-bound understeer.
In the Audi Quattro, quick turns were made, direction and control were maintained and the panic stops completed with neither chirp nor slither from any wheel.
Granted, we're discussing worst scenarios under extreme conditions. The motorists' daily lot usually is beneath clear skies on dry roads and at a peaceful pace. So, all things being equal, all-wheel drive with ABS under standard conditions offers no more advantage than two-wheel drive.
Unfortunately, few things remain equal.
Personal Protection Plan
So one might view the Quattro handling package as security against rare emergencies and a one-time personal protection plan right in there with flight insurance, burglar alarms, belt and suspenders.
Safety, in fact, has become something of a passion with Audi.
It could well be rooted in those dreadful years when the company was crucified for a series of accidents, some fatal, involving unintended acceleration of Audi 5000s with automatic transmission.
Critics maintained it was an engineering flaw. Lawsuits flew.
In truth, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration eventually reported, the problem was brain fade among drivers whose misplaced feet hit the gas pedal instead of the brake. Yet the stigma lingers.
As a direct result, all Audis now come equipped with automatic gearshift locks that disengage from park only when a driver's foot is on the brake.