So, remember, as you plan your family's financial future: Now is an excellent time to be wealthy.
Of course, $1 million isn't what it used to be. It used to mean idle days by the sea aboard mahogany launches in the company of girls named Bunny. Today, many millionaires have to schlep to the office like the rest of us. Call them, with as much sympathy as you can muster, the working rich.
Catering to these workaday plutocrats, German carmakers offer a select class of luxury starships whose emotional center of gravity resides in the back seat: The BMW 760Li, the Mercedes-Benz S600, the Volkswagen Phaeton W12 (the bastard prince of Ingolstadt) and our test car for the week, with a compounded name worthy of the Hapsburgs, the Audi A8 L W12 (more on this nomenclature later).
These are all 12-cylinder cars with six-figure prices and 10-foot wheelbases. Each has a cavernous aft cabin where leg room is measured in nautical miles and the quiet is so rich that groundlings falling under the tires register only a distant, muffled squish. Each boasts 400-plus horsepower (the Audi W12 puts out 450 hp), a sordid indifference to fuel economy (15 city/21 highway for the Audi) and more computers than the Marshall Space Flight Center.
For all practical purposes these are cars and a half.
Built in the hundreds rather than thousands, these vehicles are just as likely to be driven by a chauffeur as an owner, and in an odd way they might be the only autos on the market that actually pay for themselves. If you are a $5,000-per-hour lawyer (calling them weasels is very hurtful and causes their pelts to thin) and your daily commute takes an hour, the $126,320 Audi could pay for itself and the chauffeur in less than two months, as you work in back and leave the driving to ... um, what was his name? Doesn't matter.
As a group, these cars have a slightly overindulged, moneyed quality to them, as if the seats were stuffed with bearer bonds. Unlike the imperious Rolls-Royce Phantom, they don't feel as lordly as they do ministerial. These seem like good cars in which to slip past protesters at the G8 summit.
Last year, I had a chance to drive, back to back, V8-powered versions of the Audi, Mercedes, BMW and VW on a test track, and I concluded that the Audi was superior on handling. I can't imagine my opinion changing on account of the V12s. The Mercedes S600 has a 5.5-liter twin-turbo monster under the hood, putting 493 hp and 590 pound-feet of torque through a five-speed automatic and rear wheel drive -- abandon hope, all tires that enter here.
The Audi 6.0-liter W12 motor produces a not inconsiderable 450 hp and 428 pound-feet of twist through a six-speed automatic, with Tiptronic switches on the steering wheel. If your executive racket club happens to have a drag strip, you'll find the Audi bolts from nothing to 60 mph in 5 seconds and turns a stately 14-second quarter-mile.
Given its advantage in power to weight, the uber-Benz, I reckon, is quite a bit faster than the Audi in straight line. But the Audi's all-wheel drive powertrain, with a Torsen limited-slip differential in the center and four mega-meat 19-inch tires churning away at the corners, is so relentlessly adhesive, so effortlessly fast and easy to drive that it seems to weigh half a ton less than the Mercedes.
Likewise, the Audi surrenders nothing to the big BMW in terms of drivability. Both defy their mass with a keen bite at the asphalt when they turn into a corner. Both seem unfazed when sliding -- the BMW likes a quick breath on the throttle and a little counter steer to rotate the rear end, while the Audi prefers to grind away on a steady throttle. The Audi demands less and delivers more.
While I feel obliged to throw these big cars into long drifting arcs around freeway ramps and otherwise ring their thick necks in the interests of a full evaluation, that's not what they are about. These are stratocruisers, designed for effortless, oneiric nap-of-the-Earth flying. That's why they have 12 cylinders, instead of the more-than-adequate eight. A 12-cylinder engine offers, just at the margins, more waft and more serenity at high speeds -- and besides, the chauffeur gets the ticket.
The Audi shares its engine design with the VW Phaeton, a W12 that is arranged like two V6s with the center cylinders interlaced, a layout that makes the engine very compact and, I'll wager, a nightmare to work on. The Audi motor has a variety of performance mods, including dry sump oiling (to keep the engine lubricated in high-G maneuvering), that add up to an additional 30 horsepower over the 420 hp VW motor.
The Audi and the VW partake of VW Group's ride-height-adjustable air suspension with continuous damping. The standard ride and roll stiffness is softer than prewar intelligence. The car pours oil on the troubled waters of L.A.'s freeways. Set the dial to "dynamic" and the ride firms up. The texture of the road becomes more vivid in the steering wheel, the shocks from the road become more tympanic, the body motions lose amplitude and the car lowers into its stance.
The Audi A8 L is an aluminum-bodied car -- itself something of a minor technical miracle -- and yet it's quite stiff. But who cares? You're not driving -- whatshisname is.
The car I drove/rode in was a four-seat model. A gorgeous burled-wood console pours between the front seats, separating the rear seating area into two bucket seats, each with slide-recline controls, seat heaters, climate controls, individual LCD screens in the front headrests and motorized sunscreens on the rear windows and back glass. A three-position rear seat is a no-cost option on the Audi.
And don't worry about whatshisname. With front seats that are heated and ventilated and have a massage function with more adjustments than a veteran chiropractor, he's doing all right.
The A8 introduced Audi's new corporate face -- the tall, chrome hoop around the radiator. I think it looks great, and the polished metal accents around the car are perfect ligaments of light that help define a body shape that is otherwise a kind of lava-lamp formation.
A word about nomenclature: Introduced in 2003, the car was called the A8 L, suggesting a long-wheelbase variant of a standard car. Actually, it came only in a long wheelbase. However, this year, Audi is offering a "normal wheelbase" version of the A8, sans L, that shaves about 6 inches off the wheelbase and overall length. No plans, as yet, to name the other car the "abnormal wheelbase" A8.
A list of equipment on this car would run the classified ads out of the newspaper. A few of the cooler ones include an optional solar sunroof that uses photovoltaic cells to run cabin fans for a temperate interior ($650), and 12-speaker Bose surround sound with optional XM Satellite radio ($550). The DVD entertainment system with six-disc changer is standard.
If the Rolls-Royce Phantom is the czar's summer palace, these cars are the presidential suite at an Ian Schrager hotel. Conspicuously high tech and New World, they are less grand in the Rolls-Royce cast than just great, terrific automobiles sold to a lucky few hundred. If I absolutely have to ride in back, I like the Audi best.
Of course, I'd really rather have the Rolls-Royce, for a mere $200,000 more. I'll send whatshisname around to pick it up.
2005 Audi A8 L W12
Base price: $117,400
Price, as tested: $126,320 (including $1,700 gas guzzler tax and $720 destination)
Powertrain: 6.0-liter naturally aspirated W12 engine, four valves per cylinder, variable-valve timing; six-speed automatic adaptive-shift programming with Tiptronic manual shifting
Horsepower: 450 at 6,200 rpm
Torque: 428 pound-feet at 4,000 to 4,700 rpm
Curb weight: 4,729 pounds
0-60 mph: 5 seconds
Wheelbase: 121.0 inches
Overall length: 204.4 inches
EPA fuel economy: 15 miles per gallon city, 21 mpg highway
Final thoughts: Welcome, nobles
Contact automotive critic Dan Neil at firstname.lastname@example.org.