To drive or not to drive? With the A8 W12 the question is as moot as Hamlet wondering if he should be or not be. Previous tests indicate the A8 is a gem of a car. The interiors are a decadent orgy of technology and you will recall that the A8 is a master at blending sportiness with cosseting luxury. You'll also know that whether it's the 4.2 FSI V8 engine or the 3.0 TDI engine under the hood the A8 is plenty quick. The new W12 though is much faster, period.
As always, subtlety is Audi's approach to the W12 exterior. Blink and you will certainly miss it or rather mistake it for a lowlier 4.2FSI or 3.0TDI. The few fresh bits include a flashier front grille with 8 horizontal chrome slats, twin trapezoidal tailpipes, fifteen spoke 19 inch wheels and W12 badges on the grille and boot. The changes gel well with the cars lines, which I should mention do a great job of masking the A8's gargantuan proportions.
Now with the frivolities out of the way let's get down to the meat of the matter - the engine. Nestled up front is the Volkswagen Group's flag ship motor - the 6.3-litre FSI W12 engine. A revision on the old 6.0-litre W12, this engine gets an extra 301cc taking capacity up to 6299 and kicks out an additional 50PS of power over the old engine for a total of 500PS. Torque stands at 625Nm developed at 3250rpm. Rivals like the BMW 760Li, Mercedes S63AMG and even the Porsche Panamera make similar numbers but with the help of turbochargers and a naturally aspirated engine like this has a more linear and responsive feel throughout the rev range.
The history of the W12 engine makes for a rather interesting read. Audi's initial attempts at building a W12 with two V6 engines were scrapped as they were facing issues with exhaust and ventilation. The engineering challenge was then taken up by the VW Group, their task made easier by the narrow angle VR6 engine already doing duty in the Group. The V in the name stands for Vee engine configuration while the R is a German word, 'Reihenmotor' which translates to 'row motor' or straight engine in English. The VR6 is a very narrow vee layout engine where the two banks are placed very close to each other with the Vee angle around 15 degrees and the cylinders are then positioned asymmetrically. The W12 engine, to oversimplify things, then used two of these narrow angle V6s working on a common crank.
One of the more frequently asked questions about this car is why W12? The W12 architecture lets the designers keep the engine bay compact and the engine weight down (to just 247kg in this case). By comparison the revised V6 diesel engine from the new A6 weighs 193kgs and that's after having skimmed off 25kgs from the old unit. If Audi were to use a large V12 instead packaging the differential and other oily bits from the Quattro system would have beeen very difficult. This being a flagship Audi, no Quattro is not an option!
Getting behind the wheel for the first time is a bit intimidating and that's down to two fundamental reasons. One, the car is ridiculously long and two, there are about a million buttons on the console assaulting your senses. Getting over the size of the A8 took just a few minutes, no doubt aided by the excellent new blind spot warning system which works by using flashing orange LEDS in the wing mirrors to alert you if there's something in your blind spot. The controls however were a different story. It's no easy task trying to fiddle with the settings of the car while driving. I ended up having a colleague sitting next to me set the equalizer on the 19 speaker Bang and Olufsen sound system to my liking and even got him to change the suspension settings to dynamic mode when we hit the expressway. But it's only a matter of spending time with the car and getting to know the placement and function of the various buttons and knobs. Fair warning though, with this car, doing so could take quite a while.
Brain overloading buttons aside, the interiors on this car are just beautiful. The leather's a shade of chocolate brown I haven't seen before and the dials light up with a big W12 right between the speedo and rev counter. Aside from that it's standard A8 fare all round with moan inducing massaging and cooled seats, reclining rear seats and acres of rear leg room. Puzzlingly though the front passenger seat doesn't get the massagers.
Driving the A8 through traffic demands respect. There's no lane changing, cutting or swerving hooliganism with this car. It's just too big for all that. That's not to say it's a tough car to pilot. The gearbox is near seamless and throttle response is smooth and progressive. Just watch your extremities and you'll be fine. On the highway the A8 comes alive. Cruising at 100kmph has the needle hovering lazily at 1700rpm with the transmission in eighth gear. Set Drive Select to comfort mode and you have a wonderful, almost disconnected feel from the road. The suspension is supple and there's precious little tyre noise or ripples from the road creeping into the cabin. The S-Class may be slightly more plush but this is still a damn comfortable car when you want it to be.
When you do find the need for speed however there's an explosive amount of power in store. The W12 A8 hits 100kmph in a very rapid 5.3 seconds and literally runs into the 250kmph speed limiter. Bloody hell, that's just a tenth of a second slower than the RS5 sports car! Consider that and you instantly acknowledge that the extra dough you coughed up for this engine was money well splurged. Roll on performance is blistering as well with the 8-speed gearbox dropping gears near instantly at your right foot's every request. Despite the performance, fuel efficiency isn't as horrific as you might imagine. Keep her at 100 clicks an hour and the onboard computer displays a fairly decent 10.6kmpl. Although if you drive like it's going out of style you'd be looking at laughably low figures. I happened to see it drop to a tear jerking 2.1kmpl on one of the acceleration runs.
The A8 is a stable and predictable handler. While it may not be the most entertaining handler it certainly feels sure footed and planted. The rain was coming down with a vengeance on our shoot but the A8 didn't flinch a muscle. Long sweepers were dispatched at some serious speeds and the excellent Quattro set up ensured we didn't get a squeak of protest from the chassis against the treacherous road conditions. Rear wheel drive is acclaimed for feedback and finesse but when you're hurtling along in a two ton behemoth on wet concrete roads there's nothing quite like the reassuring feel of traction at all four wheels.
After a few hours spent with the A8 I'm all the more confused. Do I revel in the glorious 500 horsepower or do I luxuriate in the mobile royal chamber that is the A8's backseat? Should I scare my passengers witless at the insane speeds this car is capable of? Or should I leave that to Jeeves while I bask in the crisp audio from the B&O sound system that makes even Pune's woefully inadequate FM radio sound like a live performance of the London Symphony Orchestra? To be h
onest I have no answer and I doubt I ever will.
What I do know is this. The A8 W12 isn't the pick amongst its siblings. I'd recommend the 3.0TDI V6 with my eyes closed. But the one reason you'd blow Rs1.26 Cr (ex showroom Maharashtra) on this car is the W in the name. The awesome engine is a true rarity, only four production cars in the world use this engine configuration and when it comes to exclusivity, bragging rights and standing out in a crowd the A8 W12 is in a class of its own.