Haven’t driven an expensive car? You’re probably not missing as much as you’d expect…

Posted on July 4th, 2004 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

Perhaps for many of you this it is the most esoteric of hair-splitting, but after spending a week in the AUD$207,000 Audi A8 4.2, I can say that the advantages of forking-out $200,000 on a car – as opposed to AUD$100,000 or even $150,000 – aren’t really there. Well, not if the Audi is indicative of the category, anyway.

AutoSpeed contributor Michael Knowling put it best: the Audi A8 4.2 is a $100,000 car with another $100,000 of gadgets installed in it. That’s not to say that the gadgets are unimpressive – with brilliant sound, cruise control and navigation systems, they’re actually very good indeed.

But the Audi as a car simply isn’t good enough for the money.

Some of you won’t believe me, but let me try to put it into some kind of context.

Whatever the figures say, a 5.7-litre Holden Caprice has far more effortless performance. (Oftentimes – and especially in hot weather – the 4.2-litre, 246kW A8 feels rather gutless.) The Audi has lotsa cams and a six-speed sequential shift auto with steering wheel paddles – but it all amounts to ‘so what?’ when you put your foot down and not much happens.

Oh yes, and the Holden is also far better packaged inside – compared with the A8, the humble Holden’s interior space is huge. Think about that for a moment. You’re a company MD and you want to take some clients out to dinner. You stick them in the back and they have less legroom than in the locally-produced equivalent… despite the Holden being vastly cheaper and having similar exterior dimensions!

Click for larger image

Ahhh, you’re thinking, but what about the Holden suspension? Well, what about it? I don’t think that I have ever driven a car that hops sideways over sharp bumps the way the A8 does. Drive along a straight bitumen road, hit a typically Australian pothole and you can clearly and distinctly feel the A8 jerk sideways. If just the same characteristic hadn’t been noted by Michael Knowling when he test-drove the less expensive 3.7-litre A8, I would have thought that this particular car had worn bushes or some terrible build fault. I kid you not, it’s the sort of driving behaviour that you’d expect in Australia’s cheapest car (say, a Daewoo Matiz), not one of Australia’s most expensive.

And the handling? Well, with Audi’s long experience of four-wheel drive (hell, they basically invented its modern iteration) and with the sort of advertising copy that Audi generates, you’d expect it to be blistering.

But you’d be wrong, wrong, wrong.

Worked within its (good) grip levels the Audi’s handling is fine – you steer and it goes. But start getting into the area of slip angles and it doesn’t really matter what you do with the wheel or the throttle – all you’ll get is understeer until the cornering loads are reduced. Even with the standard stability control operating, it’s quite possible to get literally metres of understeer when throwing it through roundabouts. It would be far easier to clout a gutter in the A8 than in countless purportedly lesser cars. (Reasons for this aberrant behaviour? Well, consider the engine way out ahead of the front axle line, the ‘dumb’ four-wheel drive system that has literally no active electronic component to its torque splitting – hell, that’s enough…. After all, even a Nissan X-Trail has a far more sophisticated all-wheel drive system!)

And the A8’s ride? Well surely that should be beyond reproach? Nope. Despite having electronically selectable damping levels, even the ‘comfort’ setting is dramatically let down by the suspension behaviour over sharp-edged potholes. Yes, again on bad roads… of just the sort we came across numerous times in a week spent driving the A8 around urban Sydney. Sit in the (excellent) seats, set the suspension setting ride on Auto and enjoy a ride that is normally plush, plush, plush – then bang!, a crash jolts through the cabin. After passing along one stretch of suburban road I wanted to get out and check the rims for damage…

So the V8 must be a paragon of engine smoothness – you know, can’t-even-tell-that-the-engine-is-running kind of stuff? Not so – in fact I can list a heap of cars with far smoother engines, from idle right through to the redline. The AUD$40,000 Honda Accord, for one. The amount of vibration coming through the pedals of the A8 is disconcertingly bad – and it would be in a $100,000 car, let alone one costing well over double that.

On the plus side the fuel economy that we averaged in difficult – often slow and congested – city driving was respectable at 16 litres/100km. And surely the crashability of the A8 would be world-class – but then before driving it, I thought a lot more easily assessed characteristics would also be standard-setting…

Maybe at 250 km/h on the Autobahn it all comes together. Maybe without the Australian government’s tax policies the A8’s pricing would make more sense. Perhaps the Audi was never designed for roads that around here are common. But even with all those things taken into account, the A8 would be nothing to write home about.

To state even more clearly what could only be the views of an automotive philistine, I think that an all-wheel drive Mitsubishi Verada with leather and lots of expensive gadgets (including of course many not currently available in the Mitsi) would have been as enjoyable and competent over the week as the mega-dollar A8.

Someone getting out of an HSV Grange and into the 4.2-litre A8? They’d be disappointed by the car – but at the same time quite probably think the sound system and the everyway-adjustable seats and the navigation system and the radar cruise and the fingerprint recognition and the exterior LED courtesy lighting and the TV were all great.

But are the brilliant gadgets sufficient justification for the dollars being asked? Not when the underlying car has so many deficiencies…..

3 Responses to 'Haven’t driven an expensive car? You’re probably not missing as much as you’d expect…'

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  1. Ben said,

    on October 7th, 2008 at 9:05 am

    How can you say fuel consumption is “respectable at 16 litres/100km” after being so critical of the Holden/HSV V8 in numerous other tests? A car with more power and performance than the Audi.

  2. Julian Edgar said,

    on October 7th, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    Quote the whole sentence, not just part. Crikey, the HSVs we drove did that consumption in free-flowing traffic!

  3. Geoff said,

    on October 15th, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Julian, I’ve noticed some of what you point out when I’ve moved cars interstate for the Supercar Club.

    The Audi RS4 wagon has a sparkling V8 engine but I found too many compromised aspects to the package. The throttle is too touchy in first so going over a sharp bump at slow speed can cause some kangarooing if you aren’t ready for it. The brakes have too much pedal before they bite, and then they bite very sharply. The ride is just a little too harsh for a car this expensive and can make a drive a bit tedious.

    I also had a Lamborghini Gallardo for a few days from Sydney to Brisbane and the seating position was nothing short of agony. The right front wheel well intrudes deep into the footwell leaving the driver no choice than to sit with his legs cocked off to the left while the seat holds the upper body straight ahead. I also found the suspension a bit too hard for most Aussie roads and highways unless you were travelling at over 130kmh (surprise, surprise) when the aero package puts extra load on the suspension and no cruise control to allow some relief from the hideous driving position on longer drives. Otherwise it is everything you would expect a 500K Supercar to be.

    The Maserati Quattroporte was an awesome machine but the rear had an unnerving yank to the left going over harsh bridge joints.

    My favourite ride though was the Bently Continental GT. An engine with acceleration like a force of nature, comfortable ride and seating and very good handling. After driving straight through the night from Brisbane to Sydney I was refreshed enough to return immediately in the Maserati.

    So I agree, there are a lot of very expensive cars that don’t seem to justify the expense, but I could write of the many complaints I have of my BA XR8 auto Ute I have for towing that demonstrates our local models are far from complete.