Very unjustifiably, in the early 1990s Audi was almost completely shoved out of the U.S. market amidst false claims of unintended acceleration as a result of vehicle malfunction, and not driver error, as was actually the case. Reputation severely damaged, Audi just barely held on in the U.S., its sales volume having declined to less than 15,000 units in 1993.
Yet after licking its wounds for a few years, Audi slowly built itself back up, clawing its way back to prominence with a vengeance, with successful models such as the A4 and second generation A6, which arrived in North America late in 1995 and 1997, respectively. Least integral to Audi’s comeback, however, was its largest and most expensive model, the A8.
Introduced in 1994, though not arriving in North America until late-1996 as a 1997 model, the Audi A8 succeeded the 1988-1993 Audi V8 as the brand’s flagship luxury sedan. Whereas the Audi V8 was built on a stretched version of the Audi 5000/100/200’s C3 platform known as the D1, the Audi A8 was built on an all-new aluminum space frame monocoque platform known as the D2. Designed to significantly reduce weight (partially to compensate for the added weight of all-wheel drive) while maintaining structural rigidity, the A8 holds the distinction of being the first mass-produced car featuring an all-aluminum chassis.
With standard-wheelbase A8s riding on a 7-inch longer wheelbase, and overall dimensions being 6.8 inches longer, 2.6 inches wider, and 0.7 inches taller than the Audi V8, the A8 was a more appropriately-sized flagship, as it fit right between the E38 7-Series and W140 S-Class in terms of exterior dimensions. Long-wheelbase A8’s added 5 inches of wheelbase and length for truly limousine-line rear seat room.
Over the course of its run, the A8 was available in the two aforementioned wheelbases, choice of front- or Quattro all-wheel drive, and with one of six engines, depending on wheelbase and drive train configuration. Engine choices included four gasoline engines: 2.8L V6, 3.7L V8, 4.2L V8, and 6.0L W12; as well as two turbocharged direct injection diesels: 2.5L V6 and 3.3L V8.
Despite the wide range of possible configurations, North American consumers predictably had less freedom of choice when it came to the A8. Beginning with its introduction as a 1997 model through 1999, North Americans only had the choice of short-wheelbase A8s in either front-wheel drive 3.7L V8 (230 horsepower) form or Quattro 4.2L V8 (300 horsepower) form. The 4.2L (which gained 10 horsepower) and Quattro became standard in the U.S. for the model year 2000, and the long-wheelbase A8 was added, also only available in 4.2L Quattro guise.
2001 also marked the much-belated North American introduction of the high-performance S8. With a more powerful version of the 4.2L V8, making 360 horsepower and 317 lb-ft torque, under the hood, the S8 boasted 0-60 times of about 6.2 seconds. Offering standard Quattro, special front sports seats, and a few unique trim pieces, the A8 was offered a good combination of high performance and features for a far lesser price than similar-sized competitors.
From a luxury standpoint, the A8 certainly wasn’t lacking either, with numerous standard and available amenities to satisfy the average German full-size luxury car buyer. Lined in high quality leather, real wood trim, and electronic gizmos galore, the A8 presented its drivers with a top-notch interior and a very functional layout. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of this vertical seam leather seat design Audi used in its higher-end models during this period. It’s classy, and combined with the piping and dark burl wood, invokes a clubby, almost Jaguar or even Rolls-Royce-like vibe.
Predictably, most luxury equipment came standard, with three major option packages for this car’s 1999 model year available: Cold Weather (front and rear heated seats, ski bag), Warm Weather (power rear sunshade, manual rear side shades, solar sunroof), and Electronics (Xenon headlights, power rear headrests/lumbar support). The aforementioned solar sunroof was a novel feature, as it incorporated solar panels which powered the car’s fans when the vehicle was parked and not running to reduce interior temperature by up to 50%.
Rightfully so of a new flagship, the A8 ushered in a new era of design language for Audi. Ditching previous Audis’ sharper angles and wedge-shaped styling, the A8 boasted flowing lines and much rounder sheetmetal for a far more contemporary and upscale appearance. In fact, the only major styling trait carried over from previous Audi designs was its power bulge hood with integrated grille.
Still more conservative than groundbreaking, as almost always the case with Audi designs, the A8’s styling exuded a far greater degree of boldness and elegance than any prior Audi design. Uncharacteristic of most Audis, the A8’s low, wide stance gave it the defined muscular athleticism which the Audi V8 lacked. Equally uncommon for a sedan in the A8’s class, was its fast, coupe-like roofline — something that really gave it a sporting look. Personally, I see a lot of Mercedes-Benz C126 SEC rear end in it, and as a matter of fact, Audi did build an A8 coupe prototype which would’ve made an interesting SEC/CL competitor.
Yet as fetching as the A8’s design was, it had two major limitations: one being what it looked like, and the other being what it did not.
First, and fully North American market specific, was that the A8 didn’t go on sale until the 1997 model year. This meant that it appeared one year later than the entry-level A4, which borrowed heavily from the A8’s styling. Thereby, despite a role traditionally reserved for a flagship, it was the A4 to premier Audi’s new design language in North America, and not the flagship A8.
Secondly, and more importantly from a global perspective, was how the A8’s design compared to its prime competitors, the BMW 7-Series and Mercedes S-Class, as well as other competitors such as the Lexus LS and Jaguar XJ. Versus these competitors, particularly its German ones, the Audi just didn’t have that wow factor to truly make it stand out verses the competition.
Furthermore, the bigger picture as far as it related to the A8’s success was in the very fact that it was an Audi, and not a BMW or Mercedes-Benz, therefore not having the same level of status. Notwithstanding this, the A8 was a very nice car all around, generally comparable to the 7 or S in terms of features (apart from some of their very high-end technology options), and a significant bargain. Yet Audi just didn’t have the same prominence as the other two German luxury brands in the minds of consumers, and the A8 just didn’t have that wow factor of its competitors, failing to bring anything new, noteworthy, nor exciting to the segment that mattered to these consumers. To some degree, think of it as the German Acura RL.
Subjectively speaking, this lack of prominence is something Audi has made strides to overcome in the present. However, 15-20 years ago, the brand was still digging itself out of the hole it was pushed into in the early-1990s, at least North American-speaking. Additionally, on a global scale, Audi was extending upwards into territory it had never ventured into before, resulting in its less-established, lack of presence in the segment when compared to BMW and M-B.
I don’t have any production figures from the 1990s to support this, but based on the last ten years of U.S. sales, I think it’s safe to say that the first generation Audi A8 was no record breaker, and did not top the 7-Series or S-Class in sales. Within the past 14 years, A8 sales have never topped 7,000 units in the U.S., whereas in any given year, 7-Series sales are about double the A8’s, and S-Class sales are anywhere from double to quadruple the A8’s.
Keep in mind this is all while Audi brand sales in the U.S. have increased at a consistent pace, and by a greater percentage increase than BMW and Mercedes. Of course, this is mainly attributed to sales of Audi’s smaller vehicles, namely the A3, A4, and Q5.
The first generation A8 showed us that Audi was ready to be taken seriously as a player in the luxury field. In the years since, nearly every other one of its vehicles below the A8 have managed to shake the “junior” status in comparison to BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and generally hold their own. The A8 however, has never truly been able to break through this barrier, suggesting that Audi’s ceiling is somewhat lower than that of the other two.
Regardless of whether this is due to the A8 at all lacking in they key areas of interior, technology, performance, styling, and/or general personality, Audi’s flagship largely remains stuck at the same line of scrimmage which has not moved since the 1990s.
The Audi 5000 Unintended Acceleration Debacle (Automotive History)