As Depeche Mode’s Enjoy The Silence thumped through the A8’s splendid 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen system that night, everything seemed to come into place. The crescendo of the 12-cylinders’ firing order and the British group’s bass inducing track were acting in unison and the scenery started to resemble a Roman road lined by tall cypress trees on either side. I was literally ‘enjoying the silence’, isolated from what lay outside the toughened glass – the engine’s soft beat and the resonance from the 1,000-watt system acting as mind dampers. Time, it seemed, had teleported me into a different orbit. Time and the W12.
Ironical as it may seem, the W12 never began its life in a saloon, especially given how refined it is. In fact, the Volkswagen group had other ideas, one that talked about a supercar. As the world gawped at the W12 supercar concept at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1997, the writing was on every journalist’s PDA – VW was going to develop a supercar, or so it seemed. Realisation dawned much later when the Bentley Continental GT and the Volkswagen Phaeton became the W12’s first recipients. The tale got murkier for our pen-pushing lot as cars like the Flying Spur, the VW Touareg and this, the Audi A8, started to sport W12 badges. Nobody even looked back to ask if VW was still going to develop that supercar, given by then VW’s appetite for acquiring supercar firms.
What everyone however appreciated was what buzzed under the hood. The highly complicated engine – one that was developed to massage Ferdinand Piech’s self-esteem – turned out to be a cracker. If the road were Vietnam, the W12 was its Napalm, pounding whole continents under its Pirelli P-Zero feet. Cities? Oh, they were just a matter of a sneeze! The mating of two VR6s to make the W12 was probably more complicated than the unification of FDR and GDR, but this, the one on the A8 W12, is the least complicated of them all. Unlike its Bentley brethren, it doesn’t have twin turbochargers and no intercoolers and therefore doesn’t register turbo lag if you anticipated it. Instead, it does it all in one big hush! It’s a bit like a nuclear reactor in a sub, so silent that the only way of knowing it’s around is when its Xenon discharge lamps blind you.
But it isn’t so much about the car as it’s about this engine. According to company literature, the engine dimensions are so compact that it’s probably the only production 12-cylinder engine in the world to accommodate four-wheel drive running gear with the engine hanging up front. From the Bulgarian bearded grille to firewall, it measures just 51.3 cm, while occupying 69 cm of space between the wheel arches. This second generation W12 on the Audi utilises the same bank angle of 15 degrees as the original VW VR6s from the 1990s, to help construct the engine. The VR6s’ asymmetric configuration means the bank angle between the two engines is just 72 degrees – making it just as compact as some V8s. Unlike the transversely placed VR6 in the Audi TT, the W12 is placed longitudinally. Yet, it occupies the space of just four and a half cylinders in length – enough to ensure the A8L doesn’t need a hideous extension of its regal nose. But the W12’s brilliance doesn’t stop there. Since the two banks are not in the classic three bank layout, it means there are two connecting rods per crank pin instead of three. Moreover, with the VR6s inherently designed to behave more like straight sixes with their next to no-splay angles between the pistons, the W12 once again comes across as a balanced engine. And to carry that further, Audi have used lighter pistons and con rods. Built using magnesium and aluminium, the VW group have helped reduce the centre of gravity and clamped the A8’s kerb weight at just under two tonnes.
All of this however doesn’t make the W12 an out-and-out race engine. It’s built to cruise the boulevard rather than set Le Mans obliterating times, which is why Audi never took it racing. The engine inherently is built for torque duties and not wringing the maximum out of it at sky-rocketing rpms. Something Ferdinand Piech wouldn’t mind – he has the W16 Bugatti Veyron to do that!
But don’t mistake the A8 W12 for a slow-mo saloon tugging cotton bales along. It is so swift in the way it moves, it’s already set the quickest acceleration times for any car tested by our gear. Think standing start to 100 kph and the car delivers it in 6.2 seconds. Flat! The mid-range times are good enough to leave even most 600cc super bike owners looking up in respect. The difference between the 80 to 120 kph and 100 to 140 kph is so minute, you can’t help but wonder if the 6-speed automatic has any say in the proceedings. The engine develops a mind of its own as mile markers start to disappear in the rear view mirror. Quarter mile, standing kilometre, standing bystanders… they all start to fall one after another in quick unison. If the Germans hadn’t signed the gentlemen’s agreement some three decades ago, this car would go past the 250 kph limiter, with the pounding cylinders finally coming to rest a bit short of 300 kph.
All this while, the engine never feels strained, but it plays the role of Jekyll and Hyde with absolute ease. At low rpms, it’s as easy as running your feet through marshmallows if wine were ever made from them. From about 2500 rpm all the way up to the redline, it snorts, haunches on its rear feet and develops the kind of auditory delight that is only rivalled by the B&O speakers when the throttle is nailed. And I thought the S8 was rorty!
To do that samba, you need running gear that’s goddamn capable. You know everything Quattro is capable of, so I won’t bore you with details. But that it can make a car with 450 bhp of peak power, 57 kgm of torque and 5.2 metres of resplendent aluminium handle really well means Quattro can be termed ‘the hand of God’. There’s some amount of nose heaviness, but you can correct that by judicious use of the throttle around corners and watch how it straightlines mountain passes. Twirling the steering with a finger is child’s play, but you don’t want to take it to be a sports steering until speeds rise. Like in other Audis, you can choose three different suspension settings and that helps if you like to keep the undercarriage intact or just enjoy it around corners. The ride is quite supple, though it can get a tad thumpy at low speeds over ruts. On the inside, not much can hold a candle to the A8. It is awash with so many buttons and functions that you might fail to notice that the chauffeur is playing Destruction Derby. There’s just too much happening on the inside to distract you from what’s outside. Enter through the driver’s seat and you get a choice of lumbar, thigh, lower back and seat warmer settings, apart from the usual controls. All other seats too have their fair share of buttons to play around with before you get a crick in your neck. Firing up the 6000cc engine is a small matter of twisting the key, but if you consider yourself to be Jason Statham from The Transporter, you could use the finger print reader as our test car came equipped with one. Rear seat passengers can play hi-def movies on the screens or share a cool drink from the refrigerator behind the arm rest as they spread their feet on the individual foot rests. The draft free air conditioning, the exhaustive MMI menu and the host of little features are like the undiscovered islands of the South China Sea that would take days to appreciate. But I had only two.
Even those two days were enough to make me understand why the Audi A8 W12 exists. This, after Audi manufactures the brilliant S8 with a Gallardo V10 that produces just as much horsepower and is a tenth of a second quicker to 100 kph. It might sound like overkill to have two equally quick cars, but the W12 is like an iron fist in a velvet glove. One that’s devastatingly quick at one end but pampers you with all sorts of titbits. The S8 is like the poor footballer’s Bentley – the W12 is what men in crisp black Zegnas would drive. It’s a rebel secessionist, one that would like to isolate itself from the rest of the world and yet provide you with enough adrenaline-rush moments. Encapsulated in the aluminium shell, you can say boo to the prosaic through your side glass. You can literally ‘enjoy the silence.’
... 12 cylinder engines that baffle
Imagine an engine that produces 93,000 horsepower at just 100 rpm. Sounds like a nuclear reactor, doesn’t it, but it is the world’s largest 12-cylinder diesel engine. Displacing 21,840 litres (not ccs!), it produces power equivalent to 1,033 Linea diesel engines. Even then, the total displacement of all those Lineas put together is less than a single cylinder. Produced by Wartsila Sulzer, the RTA96C common rail diesel engine is actually smaller than the 14 cylinder version they offer, which produces over 1,03,000 horsepower with just 3,640 litres of additional displacement. It burns fuel at the rate of 200 ml per cylinder per cycle which is probably the amount of fuel a Linea would burn over 3 kilometres of driving. Something similar in sheer capacity, if not numerically, roamed the roads of 1930s. In fact, it was based on an aircraft engine, the first of the 12-cylinder engines in the world. Called the Napier Railton, the 24-litre engine used a W12 format, but unlike the W12 in our story here, it used three banks of four cylinders each, which explains the three exhausts. Producing over 505 bhp at 2200 rpm, the Railton went on to set land speed records – some 47 of them, before war broke out. Jay Leno in fact has tried something similar – a dragster with a 1947 Patton tank 12-cylinder Chrysler engine and twin turbos to produce 1800 horsepower. Both cars are currently up and running – the Railton on special occasions. That says a lot, unlike the original 1991 Audi W12 concept – the Avus – that just had a wooden mock up for an engine. You have to begin somewhere, after all.