Despite the precariousness of the economic recovery, oil tycoons and financiers still have lots of money to spend, and they are getting sick of not spending it. To wit, sales of ultra-luxury goods like Louis Vuitton bags are gaining momentum. It's also fair to assume that these billionaires will need a proper luxury sedan to tote them to and from Congressional hearings. That's why, even as Audi promotes more efficient and proletarian A8s, including a 3.0 diesel V-6 that will make it to the U.S. market, it still intends to import its top dog -- the updated A8L powered by a bigger and more powerful W-12. The twelve-cylinder sedan will arrive on our shores a few months after the November launch of the 4.2-liter V-8-powered short and long wheelbase A8.
Much like the short wheelbase model we drove a few months ago, the new A8L W12 brings evolutionary, rather than revolutionary changes. In fact, casual observers might have a difficult time telling if this A8, stretched about five inches from the regular-wheelbase model, is the new one -- something that was definitely not the case when the last generation debuted in 2003. Only a few small badges on the outside and on the doorsills tell people you've got the serious motor. That said, our jet-black test model, with its piano black, chrome accented grille and standard full-LED headlights, certainly had enough attitude to cruise unchallenged in the left lane of the Autobahns around Munich.
The cabin is also a clear evolution from the last model, rather than a groundbreaking new design. The result is handsome and hard to fault, but doesn't have the oh-my-gosh appeal of the new Jaguar XJ. There are some fantastic material choices, ranging from a swathe of brushed aluminum across the dash to linen for the door inserts. The W12 model also has standard navigation, controlled as in all A8s by the latest-generation MMI interface. A touch pad located forward of the shifter allows you to scroll across maps, dial phone numbers, and most impressive, scribble in the names of points of interest.
Another neat new trick is the ability to download satellite maps and updated route information from Google Earth. At the same time, MMI appears to have turned the corner on user-friendliness. It's still plenty intimidating to new users, but it has improved enough so that a driver could hope to learn all its key functions before the lease ends.
The star of the show, the 6.3-liter W-12 engine, has been given a bit more oomph, thanks to an increase in displacement and the incorporation of direct injection. It now puts out a healthy 500 hp and 461 lb-ft of torque. As in all A8s, the W-12 is paired to an eight-speed automatic -- the same basic unit found in the rival BMW 760Li. The W-12, for all its muscle, can't match the twelve-cylinder Bimmer's staggering 533 lb-ft of torque, but then, it doesn't have to. With its aluminum space frame construction, the A8L W12 weighs in at about 4530 pounds, a good 400 pounds less than the BMW. Not surprisingly, it's mind numbingly fast: the trip to 62 mph flies by in 4.7 seconds, according to factory figures. What's really impressive though, is the distinctly expensive smoothness with which this all transpires. The W-12 does its job in near silence until you ask for warp speed, when it responds with a refined yet throaty roar.
The excellent ZF transmission likewise plays a good Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, swapping gears with seamless perfection in normal driving, and then supplying almost instant downshifts at the squeeze of the gas pedal or tap of left steering wheel paddle. The adaptive air suspension mostly holds up its end of the bargain, too, providing a compliant ride even with Audi's drive select in Dynamic mode (some credit here is also due to the impeccably maintained Bavarian roads). The only fly in the A8 punchbowl is the variable-effort steering, which has an unsettling habit of suddenly reducing assist mid-corner. Efficiency won't be a selling point either, though the extra cogs in the transmission and improvements to the engine should yield some improvement from the last model's dismal 15 mpg rating.
So, the top A8 is every bit as pleasant to drive as one might expect of a twelve-cylinder, six-figure German luxury sedan. As cliché as it may sound, however, the A8L is a car best enjoyed from the back seat. The A8L W12 comes standard with two reclining buckets instead of a rear bench, with a high-tech center console in place of a fifth seat. From this comfortable throne, we were able to convert the passenger's seatback into an Ottoman, flip on the message and heating functions, and watch television on the front headrest-mounted LCD screen (you haven't properly appreciated "Two and a Half Men" until you've watched it with German dubbing).
Rear passengers can also keep up with their lucrative jobs, as the A8L is a rolling wireless hotspot. Just punch in the password into your laptop or Internet-enabled phone and you're ready to shoot out e-mails and stream video as you fly down the Autobahn. Audi says it is still searching for a wireless partner to provide this service in the United States, and promises it will be available shortly after launch (and will be available on models already sold). And if your chauffeur decides to job search on his iPhone while driving, no matter, as the A8's full complement of driver aids will remind the fool not to hit someone while changing lanes and will engage full braking if he can't be bothered to slow down after repeated warnings that a collision is imminent.
No doubt, this 500-hp sedan is something of a highbrow dinosaur, even within the A8 lineup. In addition to the more sensible 4.2-liter V-8 and fuel-sipping 3.0-liter diesel, the A8 can be had, in Europe, at least, with a bigger diesel or a 3.0-liter gas V-6, which we also drove and found more than sufficient. A hybrid is also on its way. And yet, as an ultimate expression of over-the-top but at the same time understated luxury, the new A8L W12 still does the job quite nicely.