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Shed Buying Guide | Audi A8

Piech ploughed $700 million into developing the first A8. You only need two grand to bag one...

By Tony Middlehurst / Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Even when Sheds of the Week were £1,000 or less, first-generation Audi A8s used to pop up quite regularly on Shed's radar. Combining style, quality and revolutionary-for-the-time construction with a nice balance of performance and economy, they always seemed like great buys.

Durable, too. Shed can't update you on the fate of the 2.8 or '97 4.2 quattro he wrote about in 2013 because the reg numbers have since been transferred to more expensive motors, but a green 2.8 from 2000 that he featured in September 2016 is still going strong today, with no MOT advisories - and that was being sold for just 600-odd quid.

The number of gen-one A8s on British roads is still going down, which tells us that there is little or no restoration interest at the moment. That situation is keeping values low, which is good. It's also making decent ones increasingly hard to find, which is not so good. Mark Shed's words, though, at some point the restorers will start taking an interest in the solid cars that are left. These rescued A8s will transition from risky old barges to sought-after risky old classics and the prices will rise.

Why? Because the A8 was a landmark car. Ferdinand Piech's plan to take on Mercedes in the battle to produce the world's finest luxury saloon was as simple as it was daunting. The way Piech intended to do it was by shedding weight, a totally normal procedure today, but quite the shock in 1994's luxury car market. The 'adding lightness' philosophy so brilliantly executed by Colin Chapman on the F1 tracks of the 1960s was about as far from Benz's heavy-metal mobile bank vault approach as it was possible to get.

In 1994, 12 years and 700 million dollars after Piech had signed a deal for a hell of a lot of aluminium, the 'Audi Space Frame' A8 appeared at the Geneva Show. That first-series A8 was around 200kg lighter than the equivalent W140 Merc, so goal number one was achieved, but the gamble to usurp that 'best of the best' crown didn't quite work as Mercedes had rather unkindly upped their own S-Class's game in 1991 with the Gulliverian, but still incredible, W140.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't doff our hats to the bravery of Piech (who passed away only last month), or doubt the shedability, waftability and even the investability potential of that first-generation A8. Let's do it before the price/availability line bottoms out and the days of buying one for under SOTW's top limit of £1,500 dissolve into a fond memory. First, let's set out the stall of the Mk 1, D2-platform A8. The base model was a 172hp 2.8-litre V6 that was upgraded to a 30-valve unit (look for '5V' on the engine cover) with 190hp. There was also a 3.7-litre 32-valve V8 petrol with 227hp, but they're not common now. These two models were the only A8 D2s that could be had in front-wheel drive guise: the 300hp 4.2 V8 only came with a Torsen-based quattro transmission, and was available in either normal or 5-inch longer LWB versions.

In 1997 the 4WD quattro version became the first all-wheel-drive production car with electronic stability control. Along with the A6, it was also the first car to come with front and rear side airbags. The FWD 3.7 was dropped in the 1999 facelift. There were a couple of 2.5 TDI V6 diesels that didn't go on sale in the UK. Later on these turned into a 650Nm 4.0 diesel, and of course there was also a 414hp 6.0 W12 version, but we're ignoring them because we're talking about Shed-priced cars here.

We can argue about what the 'best' engine is, but even the lower-powered 2.8 won't be that disappointing in normal everyday use, scraping into nine-sec 0-60mph territory with a favourable wind, offering a 140-plus top speed and sounding pretty nifty if you chuck an open air filter on it. The 3.7 dropped the 0-60 time to the mid-eights, while the 4.2 took it into the high sixes with an electronically-limited top end of 155mph.

Good early 2.8s are quite thin on the ground now, especially the non-quattro front-wheel drive models. Maybe, like Shed, the owners think they might be worth something in the future and so are refusing to part ways.

Bodywork & Interior

The aluminium used in an A8's body can't rust, but it can and does corrode in its own special way. Check the door mirror bases, the area around the rear numberplate and the sills by the plastic trim pieces.

Bodywork repairs will be more expensive than on a steel-bodied car. Dents can be rectified, but creases are very difficult to eradicate, so you may find yourself driving very circumspectly down single-track Cornish roads. The plus point though is that A8s actually 'feel' light to drive, even compared to the smaller but steel-built A6.Electrical maladies can occur in every old-ish car, and the A8 is no different, but its high-end nature plus the passage of a couple of decades means there's a fair bit more to go wrong. Sometimes the electrification extended to places where you wish it wasn't, for example the boot latch mechanism (which is now a weak point), the electrically adjustable headrests (the price you pay for being lazy), and the heated steering wheel. At least a heated wheel isn't quite as much of an inconvenience when it fails, and a pair of Thinsulate gloves from the garage is an easy fix.

The factory satnav looks and feels very dated now. Cars with the analogue telly function won't work since we've gone digital. The gears that drive the MMI information screens fail, preventing the screen from popping up on ignition as it's meant to. You can pay a dealer a hefty sum to sort that or, if you're methodical and patient, you can mend it at home by following one of the many online guides. The screen itself can lose its pixels. Dead speedos and odometers may be traceable to a disconnected or missing speed sensor on the nearside front stub axle housing.

Warning like the check engine or water level lights can come on intermittently. Indicators are meant to be intermittent, but sometimes they're a bit too intermittent if you see what we mean. Hazard lights can go the other way, coming on and then not going off, requiring a quick battery disconnect. Headlight levelling sensors fritz out.The graphite impeller blades of the central locking pumps can break, resulting in highly conductive graphite powder infecting the boot-mounted control box that runs not only the central locking but also other convenience functions like the puddle/footwell lights or the aforementioned boot latch.

Graphite powder aside, many of the A8's electrical woes stem from dampness. Drainage, or the lack of it, will play havoc with under-carpet ECUs. Before rubber seals were fitted to 2001 and later cars, the foam seals between the fresh air blower and the cabin were not good at preventing water ingress, especially after heavy rain. The aircon evaporator drain lines that conduct water from the drain pan to the road or your driveway can get clogged. Same goes for the engine compartment drains that collect rainwater running down the windscreen. The only place for the various liquids to go when clogging has occurred is the carpet, or potentially the top of your head when a blocked sunroof drain has dumped enough water into the front headlining.

Seats are leather as standard. They look nice but don't offer much lateral support. The Recaros in Sport models are grippier and altogether rather more fab. Most execs buying their A8s from new will have specced 'em up with the memory function for the seats and steering column.

Engine & Transmission

Idle speed control issues are usually to do with the idle speed control valve (duh). Quite often it's just a case of cleaning out the muck that can accumulate inside the unit. A wash through with brake or carb cleaner will usually sort it out.

Hunting or a reluctance to downshift on kickdown is very likely down to the throttle position sensor on the back of the throttle body becoming worn in the most-used 'light throttle' position.

Fuel pumps conk out. When they're working, a 4.2 will give you fuel consumption figures into the 30s on a gentle run. 2.8s are actually not that different, returning mpgs in the mid-20s in town. Oil leaks from 2.8 cam covers are often from the stepper motor housings on the cam ends. Leaks from the back one will drop straight onto the exhaust. This is not an A8-only thing, it happens on 2.4 A4s too. Cambelt replacement is on a 74,000-mile basis.

Transmissions. Hmm. Many owners of Shedly A8s with six-figure mileages will put their fingers into their ears whenever the phrase 'A8 gearbox service' is mentioned but it's excellent counsel to change the automatic transmission fluid every 40k miles at least. These ZF torque converter units can get hot and then the structure of the oil degrades. Thumping into gear or whining from the 'box are signs of impending bother. Sometimes an oil (and, importantly, filter) change will catch it before lasting damage is done. Others reckon that if an A8 has gone beyond 100k it's probably best to leave the gearbox as it is as fiddling with them at that stage can bring on problems.

If the gear selector lights light up redly after a bout of shifting between D and R, the 'box may have gone into limp mode. If you're lucky a £150 switch will rectify it.

Suspension & Steering

Despite all the adding lightness stuff, A8s were still big cars, and like any big car they are susceptible to suspension problems over time.

On the steering side, Servotronic (varying the assistance according to speed) was a rare-ish option. There was a recall in '99 for steering link components. Steering angle sensors fail, turning off the ABS in the process just for spite. And beware the failed power steering pump. Wander into an Audi dealership for a quote on one of these babies and your next request may be for some artificial respiration equipment as figures of up to £6,500 have been given by sniggering operatives. Luckily there is a strong support group for A8 owners. Some light internet work will turn up a recon unit for as little as £50.

Wheels, Tyres & Brakes

You might have the odd ABS glitch, but generally speaking A8 braking systems are reliable, though again with them being large cars you do have to expect accelerated wear on consumables. You really need to replace all four tyres at once on quattro cars if you don't want to imperil the transmission.

Conclusion

25 years on from its first appearance, the A8 is still part of the Audi range. The two-tonne-plus fourth-gen 335hp 3.0-litre turbo V6 of 2019 is a good bit heavier than the early 1,750kg, 300hp 4.2-litre V8 quattro or the 1,540kg 2.8 D2. And despite a quarter of a century of development, which is an absolute age in motoring terms, the modern car's 0-60 time of 5.7 seconds is still only a second or so shorter than the old one's. The difference in price is somewhat more significant. A new A8 will be around £70k, an old one as little as £1k.

In the D2 A8 context, 'poverty spec' just means slightly less luxurious. There were only two regular D2 A8 specs - SE and Sport. The Sport had bigger alloy wheels that hardened up the ride and those different front seats mentioned earlier.

A8s of any age are lovely to drive, with bags or road presence and that feeling that you're in something special. Generally speaking D2 build quality inside and out is excellent. The urban myth is that Audi 'did a Lexus' on it, losing money on each car to gain a foothold in the luxo-market. 300,000-mile cars can sometimes be hard to distinguish from cars with half that mileage.

They are a gift that keeps on giving, too. Break an A8 quattro and you could comfortably rake in £3,000 for bits like the drivetrain (engine/gearbox/transfer box), exhaust and cats, ECUs, lights, seats, trim pieces and instruments. And then weigh in what's left at your local scrappers for at least £200. Result.


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