A8 is ringing the changes in the luxury market
Audi closer to lifting its A8 high enough to tackle the mighty S-Class Mercedes, says Michael Taylor
Groundbreaking Level 3 self-driving technology isn’t here yet, but a whole lot of other technology is, and it turns Audi’s most luxurious car into one of the world’s safest.
It might not be as opulent or overtly luxurious as an S-Class, but the A8 has its own charming combination of class, timelessness and technology. It even rides and handles properly.
This is my third encounter with the all-new A8. It’s also the first encounter with an A8 without the AI (Audi Intelligence) button for its Level 3 self-driving system. That’s possibly a good thing, preventing the car-is-in-control debate from overshadowing the rest of what Audi has done. And it has done a lot to help the A8 to bridge the canyon in sales to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and probably beyond the BMW 7 Series.
Not that you’d notice at a glance, which seems to stamp it as a moderate evolution of the old A8, albeit with a grille so wide that it seems to occupy 95% of the A8’s face.
It must have been a brutal challenge for its production engineers. It’s only 6mm longer in the wheelbase. At 5,172mm it’s 37mm longer than the old car. But the devil is in the detail. The edges of the bonnet, for example, begin life flanked by horizontal shutlines before they twist to become vertical shutlines, which become the edged tornado line that stretches the length of the car and ends inside the tail light.
There are slight haunches over the wheel arches that plant the car to highlight its all-wheel-drive layout, while the bonnet creases are so sharp they could have been made by Gillette.
The tail lights provide theatre across the width of the car, and come with four OLED slivers per side. LED lights are standard up front. There is an optional Matrix LED setup and the range-topping laser system, which takes lessons learned from the R8 Plus and moves the whole laser game on.
But lights and crisp design aren’t going to sell a limousine in the richest sliver of the car market where anything other than an S-Class is seen as a brave choice.
The interior of the A8 has always gone its own way with a combination of dignified, technical luxury, as opposed to the Mercedes’ more opulent cabin. That theme has been carried over, with higher tech levels, airtight fit and finish, rich materials and space forever.
The cabin atmosphere starts up front, where the experience is dominated by digital screens. The old car’s scroller has gone and so has the touchpad that sat on top of it.
That’s now in the lowest of the three screens, the 8.6-inch unit that usually governs the climate control system. It works well and figures out most illegible gibberish. The multimedia screen is 10.1 inches diagonally and it seems to be the most intuitive user-interface anybody has come up with. It absorbs smartphone ideas, like pinching to zoom out, pushing to zoom in or swiping left or right to move through options.
The Virtual Cockpit digital screen is right in front of the driver, and there is a high-resolution, full-colour head-up display as well.
The driving position is pretty much perfect, with a huge range of adjustment. There is an array of massage functions, so it goes well beyond heating and ventilation, and the driver’s seat is terrifically supportive and comfortable, though it doesn’t have the S-Class’s immediate, in-your-face softness.
While the long wheelbase version is well endowed for legroom, the standard one is pretty good, too, and there are matt-screened tablets that click in behind the front headrests. They can also be removed to play them outside the car, while the centre console has another removable tablet to remotely control the rear seats’ functions.
There’s an upgrade of the active antiroll bar, it will be the first Audi with inductive charging for its hybrid versions, electronically controlled active suspension that predicts and manages bump strikes and quattro all-wheel drive is standard across the board.
All this technology has come at a price, with the A8s up to 95kg heavier than their predecessors, largely because of mild-hybrid systems that render the extra mass emissions-neutral. They also work seamlessly, allowing the car to regenerate 10Ah of energy via a belt-driven starter generator, so it can coast, even on cruise control, between 55 and 160km/h, with the engine switched off and the electricity doing the driving.
We tested the V6 petrol and V6 turbodiesel; there will also be a 4.0l petrol V8 twin-turbo and a W12 twin turbo. Both powertrains we tested were impressive, with the petrol V6 adding a layer of sophistication and smoothness the diesel can’t quite match.
One of the key steps forward has been the eradication of noise, vibration and harshness from the cabin. The powertrain improvements are just a small part of this and so is the mild-hybrid system.
It’s so quiet that at a constant 100km/h you start to be annoyed by the soft hiss of wind emerging from the dash vents. My smartphone’s decibel meter has never seen a lower number at cruising speeds. It’s not just chassis and powertrain engineering, because there is also a noise-cancelling system.
On the V8 and W12 models, plus the clunkier 3.0l TDI V6, there are active engine mounts that wipe away the top layer of the vibrations, as well as helping the handling by minimising weight transfer in corners.
The ride is firmer than you’ll find in an S-Class, with Audi trying to make the A8 both limousine and quasi grand tourer. The active suspension systems and the rear-wheel steering combine to make it feel small on winding roads, while absorbing bump strikes. The ride quality never has the cosseting qualities of the S-Class, but the body control is better, it sits flatter in corners and it carries more cornering speed, with more stability.
The steering is the weak link in the handling package, offering well-weighted blandness. But the rest of the handling package is flawless and sparkling for a car this size.
It’s a car that does so much well, some that no other car maker has done, yet its standard suspension falls short on ride comfort over vertical bumps compared to the S-Class. The active suspension has no such shortcomings and it’s the thing to have.