Audi Driver's Day: My Second Visit (2007 S8 and 2007 TT 3.2Q DSG)
Do you ever wonder about the difference between driving an Audi Space Frame (ASF) car and driving a traditional body-chassis car? I do. Thanks to the Audi Driver's Day Program at Ingolstadt, my brother - Leo, and I have secured the Daytona Grey Pearl Effect 5.2 V10 S8 and "der neu" Light Silver Metallic 3.2Q DSG TT for 5 days.
Some say that first love can only be experienced once. I proof them wrong! This is my second time joining the Audi Driver's Day Program and I do still have the butterfly feeling in my stomach. My first one was in the winter. I visited the paint shop and the Museum Mobile in Ingolstadt, and drove the RS4 in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. This program enables Audi enthusiasts from all over the world to experience the history, the brand, the culture, the technologies, and the top-of-the-line Audis in their birth place and then some. Elevation change, switchback, hairpin, zig-zag, and of course beautiful scenery are requirements for the driving sites.
Additionally, we would like to drive the cars on long stretches of Autobahn to satiate our need for speed. With these requirements in mind and the fact that we will be visiting the Neckarsulm factory to learn about the Audi leading-edge aluminum weight-saving program, we have selected two driving sites and many long stretches of Autobahn in between.
The first site is the mountain range south of Baden-Baden, which is in the southwest direction of Neckarsulm. The second site is, of course, the breathtaking Bavarian and Austrian Alps that span from Garmisch-Partenkirchen in south Germany to Salzburg in middle Austria.
Baden-Baden and "Der Neu" TT
Baden-Baden is a quaint small town in Baden-Württemberg, on the western foothills of the Black Forest, on the banks of the Oos river, in the region of Karlsruhe. Cobblestone streets, German Gothic middle century architectures, intricate stone carvings and statues, narrow alleys, hills, restaurants and cafes with outdoor terraces, lunch crowds, pedestrians, boutique stores, and occasional car traffic are mingling together in the most atmospheric and tranquil ambiance.
The colors of the buildings are mustard yellow, sugar brown, and pepper grey accentuated by purple bougainvilleas, red and yellow roses, and white carnations on the balconies, windows, and terraces. We sip coffee and tea at one of the cafe terrace watching the afternoon life at the enchanting Leopoldsplatz. It is a perfect place where we loose our minds in the moment soaking the beauty of the place and the people. We almost forget that we have an exhilarating drive planned after this caffeine-shot short break.
As I position myself in the cockpit of the S8, I radio Leo in the TT to configure his GPS for the mountain passes in the near vicinity. I can't find this naughty and brilliant feature in the S8 navigation system. Someone in the product development of "der neu" TT had some sense of fun and humor! I vote for the feature to be made available to all (R)S and S-line cars.
Driving around in "der neu" TT continually attracts onlookers as this car has both sexy and menacing appearance and it was just released to customers in Germany in early September. When we get to the bowel of the Baden-Baden mountain range, the immense green mountains and stupendous lush valleys fold over each others. Leo radio his excitement seeing the road serpenting the flank of the mountain in front of us. The higher we ascend the mountain range the farther away we get from the civilization. The perfect place to experience and enjoy the ASF and Quattro technologies.
Leo describes "der neu" TT to be like an all-wheel drive, well-balanced go-kart with airbags. From behind, I can see how easily and swiftly he devours the hairpins and switchbacks with 18% grade incline. "No body flex...firm...solid...confidence...agile...fast...furious" are the words I am able to make out over the static filled two-way radio. The TT has the dynamic sport suspension mode that firms up the already precise and comfortable default driving-around-town suspension mode. Pressing this button transforms the car from a comfortable and confident ride into a 24-hours-Le Mans ride. The combination of the new magnetic ride damper system and the ASF provides amazing cornering agility in hairpins and decreasing radius turns. The TT just glides effortlessly in a rhythmic pattern going in and out of apexes as if it is on an invisible track that serpents this region. This car seems to have no logical limit, bending the law of physics and reality. Did we take the blue pill before we drive today?
With the 69 percent of the superstructure is made of aluminum, the steel components making up the remaining 31 percent are to be found at the rear end to achieve as close as possible the 50/50 weight distribution. The car drives very neutrally and no understeer is felt during our drive. The 60/40 rear/front Quattro torque distribution makes the driving dynamic even more enjoyable. It is very easy to drift the rear end with the ESP turned off. The TT can go through a corner with power being continually applied to all wheels, and then it can accelerate very quickly once the apex is reached with no oversteering.
The Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) technology is like having the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) technology graduated from a Ninja training. In the 'S' mode, when the accelerator is pressed against the metal, the DSG automatically up shift swiftly to maintain the maximum rate of acceleration. The tachometer needle deeps slightly by a few hundred RPM before the next gear engages. A faint hissing hydraulic sound can be heard as the automatic hydraulic dual clutches perform the precise task synchronizing two gears in a way that no human can master at the speed and accuracy of the DSG.
We reach the highest vista point of Hornisgrinde mountain and decide to switch cars so that each of us can experience the different handling and characteristics of the S8 and the TT. Over the breathtaking view of the thick dark forest and the roads snaking the sides of the mountains below us, we chat about the difference between driving an ASF car and driving a non-ASF car. The ASF enables direct connection between the driver and the road. We feel the surface of the terrain, we feel the friction and the centrifugal forces, we feel the power being applied to the four corners. The car speaks to us without any loss in translation. All the necessary stimuli needed so our minds can make the proper calculations and fast decisions are transferred to us precisely by the ASF. We become one with the car.
The F-1 steering wheel coupled with 245/45 R 17 Z tires provides a very precise steering and sharp turning angle. The 3.2 250 hp and 236 lbs/ft torque delivers more than ample power to this very light car. In the 'S' mode, the drive-by-wire accelerator is very sensitive giving you the impression that the electric signal from the pedal to the engine arrives first before my brain finishes the instruction to my right foot to press pedal. That's what I like about "der neu" TT, the car understands you, it anticipates you. This car does whatever it is told in the precise manner without any hesitation nor drama. Thus, it is very easy to choreograph a ballet with this car.
When I taste a delicious meal, I appreciate it even more if I know the amount of effort, creativity, ingenuity, and passion that go into the preparation and the making of the food. We both feel the heightened appreciation of these two ASF cars in our first day in the mountain range because we attended the half day aluminum weight-saving program at the Neckarsulm factory yesterday.
Neckarsulm site covers 2 miles from the south to the north occupying 168 acres. Historically, this was the original NSU factory. NSU was one of the brand the four brands that made up the Auto Union. Aluminum construction is not new to Audi. Horsch created the first aluminum engine in 1899 in Koln! This site builds A6s, A8s, and the highly anticipated R8s. 850 A6s are built in 24 hours in 3 shifts and 180 A8s are built in 24 hours in 2 shift. About 25 R8s will be built in 24 hours here in building B14. This factory consumes 500 tons of steel and 60 tons of aluminum daily.
Quattro Gmbh is located here as well. All the (R)S and the S-line cars are customized and finished here. For the S6s and the S8s, the cars don't have to travel far since they are constructed at this same site. But for the S3s and (R)S4, the cars are transported from Ingolstadt. The 4, 6, and 8-cylinder engines are built in Gjor, Hungry, and are shipped to Neckarsulm and Ingolstadt for the mating rituals. Only the W12 engine is built at the Volkswagen factory in Salzgitter. The racing engines for the DTM and Le Mans are built in Neckarsulm and Ingolstadt.
We were impressed by the cleanness and the neatness of the humongous factory floors. This place is cleaner and neater than the Silicon Valley start up offices! The engineers and the technicians wears jumpsuits or white lab coats depending on the tasks they perform. Due to 95% of automation at this site, this factory requires only 6 persons for every 618 robots! These robots work in pods. There are three robots in each pod completing a certain section - door assembly, side panel, trunk assembly, hood assembly, front, middle, and rear frames, and more - of a car. This ingenious way prevent the problem that haunt the robots in serial assembly line. When one of the robots malfunction in the assembly line, the whole production line has to stop. In the pod model, the disruption can be minimized since there are multiple pods working on the same task.
Additionally, a robot can have different tool heads to perform a complex task. Peter Schilling, our senior factory tour guide who had worked in the factory floor for many years, showed us the pod with such robot. First, the robot used a gripper to move a door frame into a holding table. Second, it switched the gripper with a riveting tool that fastens the door shell onto the frame. Third, it replaced the riveting tool with the roll-bending tool to fold the sharp perimeter door shell edge onto the frame. Finally, it used the gripper once more to replace the completed door with the unfinished one; the cycle continued.
What's unique about the Neckarsulm factory compared to any car factories in the world is the advanced steel-aluminum and aluminum bonding technologies. Full Drilling Screw (FDS), Riveting with epoxy glue, Metal Inert Gas (M16), and laser welding are a few examples of aluminum bonding technologies that are mastered and perfected at this advanced manufacturing site since the first all aluminum A8 car rolled out of this factory in 1988.
Unlike the traditional car where a body shell is mated to a chassis, an ASF car is constructed with three major sections: the front frame that houses the engine, the middle frame that houses the driver and the occupants, and the rear frame that houses the fuel cell and the trunk space. These sections are put together with die cast joints. Then the aluminum panels are installed on the frame using the various state-of-the-art bonding techniques.
The A8 complete ASF skeleton weigh only 215 kg. With the aluminum sheets, doors, hood, and trunk lid, it becomes a whopping 280 kg! The similar A6 structure that is not fully aluminum weigh 440 kg. If Audi were to build an A8 with steel, it would weigh 200 kg more. So by using aluminum, the car is 40% lighter, and, furthermore, the ASF construction makes the car stiffer. The side panel that will be riveted and glued to the ASF weigh only 6.2 kg! My brother and took turns carrying this large panel around the room. The other benefit of the combination of aluminum and ASF is that it absorbs impact much better and more gracefully than the traditional car structure. It is so much better that the German insurance companies establish a special safety rating for the A8!
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) intelligence boxes are placed at different major parts of the car to indicate which customer has ordered which options. An intelligence box can contain information about the exterior color, the interior leather color combination, wood or carbon fiber insert, steering wheel option, wheel and tire options, and many other customization information. The intelligence box enables the required parts to be brought to different workstations in the assembly line in just-in-time fashion reducing the the time the various parts need to sit on the inventory floors to within minutes!
Quality is paramount in all Audi car construction. There are eight checkpoints in the whole life cycle of a car birth. The life cycle starts from the aluminum sheet cutting and stamping and ends in weather proofing and test driving. Laser eyed robots are used at different checkpoints as the car is taking shape to ensure that the gaps and angles between jointed parts are within tolerance in micron. No human eyes can do this task!
A visit to Neckarsulm would not be complete without stopping by at the Quattro Studio. Those who have hired boutique interior design firms in SOMA San Francisco or SOHO New York to decorate their homes with fine fabrics from Persia, antique furniture from Italy, stained glass windows from Venice, Buddhist statues from India, and wooden carvings from Bali will fill at home at the Quattro Studio. Famous movie stars, musicians, sport super stars, and successful entrepreneurs have come to this place to customize their Audi beyond any one's wildest dream.
Thousands of paint sample strips fill up a wall of this studio providing the largest array of color shades to pick. One customer had asked for a mat camouflage color for his A8. And Quattro Studio satisfied his request. Hundreds of leather and fabric combination options - color, texture, and even fragrance - are available to the customers who want to create their own interior ambient color design. Many kinds of seats from super comfort to Recaro racing bucket seat are available. Even the choice for the steering wheel is abundant; a steering wheel with paddle shifter, a steering wheel with multimedia control, a steering wheel made of processed wood, a steering wheel with baseball stitches, and...you get the idea. In short, we were stumped by the customization options offered by Quattro Studio. Oh yes, you will get your personal senior designer to work with you in designing your dream car.
Austrian and Bavarian Alps and the S8
Traffic near Salzburg is relatively slow due to many road constructions. We mostly travel at around 70 km/h. I am having trouble taming the 5.2 V10 450 hp beast under the hood. It just wants to be unleashed. I have to resort to a device that is taboo among the spirited driver; the cruise control. This one is a radar equipped cruise control.
I set the cruise control at 130 km/h, the maximum speed in Austrian Autobahn even though the current traffic will not allow me to go faster that 70 km/h. The brain of the S8 performs a delicate calculation based on the speed of the car in front. Very quickly the S8 matches its speed with the flow of traffic and establishes the three second space from the car in front. When a car cuts into the space in between, the S8 brakes gently and re-establishes the three second space buffer zone. Finally the traffic eases up and the S8 accelerates to the preset 130 km/h in no time. If the "Knight Rider" David Hasselhoff drove this car, he would be re-living his Hollywood past life with the "kid."
The Alps have mesmerizing views of jagged bare mountain tops. The lushes green pine trees carpet the lower three quarter of the mountains. At the bottom of the valley, we are surrounded by these magnificent rocks. A small town, Muhlbach am Hockkonig - a ski resort in the winter - populated by Alpine houses with vibrant color flower boxes on the balconies adds to the already uplifting and serene atmosphere. Thin cotton clouds sprinkle the bright blue morning sky. The air is fresh and crisp. Flowers fragrance the air. A herd of cows are grazing the side of a hill in front of a majestic mountain backdrop. A couple riding bicycles with their groceries from the farmer's market at the town center take notice of the five Audi cars parked in a row; the two of them are the cars we are driving, the others are red Audi 90, green metallic Audi 100, and charcoal grey Audi A4 B6. People in this town love their Audis.
Going into hairpins, switchbacks, decreasing radius turns, and zig-zags, I feel the car interior shrinking around me. Hair pins with 22% grade incline means nothing to this 450 hp 400 lbs/ft engineering marvel. The car just goes without any hesitation and inhibition. It makes the Alps as flat as Arizona dessert. Going through the Alps in this car is something that any spirited Audi driver must experience in his lifetime.
Last night, we were driving towards Bischofshofen, a town south of Salzburg, on route 166 from Hallstatt, a charming lake side small traditional Austrian town. The road has many narrow sections with salivating bends, hairpins, zig-zags, and blind curves as the road bores into the thick pine forest of the Tennengebirge mountain range. As I was coming out of a blind turn, the halogen turning light of the S8 and the directional Xenon HID headlights illuminate the forest on the side I was turning into. I caught a shadowy glimpse of a bambi in my peripheral vision just about 20 meters in front of me to the left.
I quickly got off the accelerator and slammed the brake. The ceramic brake, the ABS, and the 265/35 20 Z four tire patches brought the S8 to a crawling speed within seconds, giving just enough time for the bambi to jump into the middle of the street, inches from the front grill, and to leap to the other side of the road.
In addition to its ability to stop the car very fast, the ceramic brake makes a faint but audible sound when it is applied, like the muted version of the sound procuded by the Blue Angel F-16 air brake and its reverse thruster just when the pilot was about to make a 6-G bank over the San Francisco Marina. Now, I know what made this pleasing sound when the R8 LP1 car was entering a sharp turn in Laguna Seca during the American Le Mans race. I thanked the product manager team that specified the halogen turning lights, the directional headlights, and ceramic brakes in this car's functional specifications.
A red Ferrari F430 passes me while I am doing 200 km/h on the sixth gear on the Autobahn heading towards Munich from Garmisch-Partenkirchen. I unleash the reserved raw power of the V10 and I see the needle passing 220, 240, 260 effortlessly. At 270 km/h, I comfortably keep a constant safe distance from the Ferrari. This surprises me a bit since the car documentation says that the S8 top speed is electornically limited to 250 km/h. Did they remove the limiter on this car? Maybe, I have the car that they used for demonstration around the race track.
The road curves and occasional traffic prevent us from going faster than this extraordinary speed. At this speed, the S8 feels very solid and confident. The aerodynamics of the car generates plenty of down force at this speed that I feel completely in control. I follow the Ferrari at a constant distance for 40 minutes or so till the driver slows down and turns his turning signal on heading for an exit. He waves at me and smile. I give him the same respecting gesture as I blast by him. This car awes me. A family sedan is able to keep up, at least on the Autobahn, with the legendary Ferrari that costs 3 to 4 times more and carries less passengers and luggages.
The S8 may look like a Wallstreet executive limo. Surely, the size and the interior make the car look like one. But when unleashed, the soronous burbly almighty V10, the magnetic active suspension, and the "vorsprung dur technik" ASF transform this car into a menacing spirited Le Mans R8 LP1 inspired race car. The glamour, the beautiful skin, the ergonomic luxurios interior, and the race-car performance are found in one package; this begs belief!
Audi Driver's Day Program
Good thing I am single, otherwise my wife would think I was having an affair in Germany when she saw me with a lasting ear-to-ear smile on my face. Not only I enjoy the rides and experiences in the top of the line S8 and "der neu" TT with the latest innovations in sporty driving dynamics, but I also get to know the record-breaking racing histories, the driven people, the strive-for-excellence culture, the perfected manufacturing processes, and the leading-edge aluminium weight-saving technologies that produce these engineering marvels that we often take for granted.
Audi Driver's Day program shows me how the Soul of an Audi is born!
For those who are interested, please visit www.audi.com/driver microsite. This Audi Forum site provides the details about the program and how to participate. You will love it.