Ask any car-guy on the street about Audi and the R8 will likely be the first thing out of his mouth. Cool as that car is, however, it’s not the most significant model in Ingolstadt’s lineup. That title belongs to the A8, the brand’s aspirational big sedan. While it won’t deliver huge numbers on monthly sales charts or boil the blood like its mid-engine super-sibling, the A8 leads the way for the rest of Audi’s range in terms of technology, luxury and design; it’s what cars like the A4 want to be when they grow up. The all-new fourth-generation A8 upholds this role, as we recently discovered around the Mediterranean resort town of Estepona, Spain.
Audi’s first foray into the D-class (Euro-speak for “executive sedan”) segment came in 1988 with the advent of the model known simply as the V8. Styling was a virtual clone of Audi’s C-segment 200 model. The drivetrain included not only the namesake V8 engine, but also standard quattro all-wheel drive. Combined with the most luxurious accoutrements yet seen on an Audi road car in the post war era, the V8 helped the company earn a foothold in the D segment, which to that point had been thoroughly owned by Mercedes-Benz. By the time the second generation arrived in 1994, the Audi range-topper shed the generic V8 name, adopting the A8 moniker that’s still used today. The real breakthrough, however, was the transition from a common steel body to one made entirely of aluminum, introducing the revolutionary Audi Space Frame (ASF) technology that would come to define the company as an innovative and progressive engineering powerhouse. The more luxurious, dynamically inspired third-generation A8 debuted in 2003 with an even more rigid ASF structure. This time it was the revolutionary Man-Machine Interface (MMI) system, an all-inclusive multi-function infotainment concept, that raised the bar with regards to the model’s technological appeal. While BMW had just released its controversial first-generation iDrive system, Audi’s MMI trumped it with more intuitive functionality and a smart one-button “return” feature.
Now the fourth generation of Audi’s D-sedan has arrived, and Ingolstadt has elevated the luxury car paradigm yet again. This time around there is no singular technology that changes the game; rather, Audi’s engineers have hit hard on a number of levels by pushing the envelopes of technology, safety, driving dynamics, luxury and the increasingly important field of infotainment. Like many modern Audis, the design of the new A8 is simple in its overall form but complex in the details, with core lines that define the family heritage. At the same time it has a shape that photographs better from certain angles than others; seeing it in person gives observers a new appreciation that simply can’t be discovered in most photos. Since its reveal last fall at Design Miami, the A8’s new look has caused plenty of conversation; one dig that carries some weight is that it too closely resembles the current A4, though that is a bit of an oversimplification. The design certainly uses numerous cues revealed on the most recent A4, but it also clearly escalates that statement with a more substantial looking chrome-accented grille and unique lighting assemblies complete with more LEDs than we’ve seen before on any production car. Visually, as well, the car seems more substantial than its predecessor – larger and heavier and more in line with its German competition. That new Audi grille bestows the car with an even wider appearance, while a near-vertical crease on the front fascia continues down from the headlight’s outermost edge and around into the lower intakes, a detail that reflects that of the edgier R8’s. Audi’s signature “Tornado” line stretches from the headlight to the tail.
For now the only engine coming to America is the 4.2-liter V8, denoted on the car simply as ‘FSI’. The displacement may sound familiar but this is a new generation of the stalwart Audi motor, and it is up 22 horsepower to 372 and gains three lb-ft of torque, taking it to 328. Audi claims 0 to 60 in about 5.5 and 13 percent better fuel economy than its predecessor.
While new design, hardware and efficiency are all very important, the A8 will likely be judged by its lavish cabin. Audi is an industry benchmark for interiors and the A8 remains at the leading edge in this department. The subtle yacht theme that began in the previous model continues to inspire this latest Audi flagship. A continuous wraparound arch spanning from dashboard to rear parcel shelf defines the cabin space, accented by a great nautical-look shifter that is also quite ergonomically-friendly. The rest of the cabin is a harmonic chorus of stitched leather, fine wood, and modern alloy. Elements such as a new-for-Audi analog clock are classical, while aluminum coated buttons with precision-cut backlit letters and two large-panel screens – one in the instrument cluster as well as the traditional center stage pop-up position – endow the car with a decidedly richer and more modern feel.
The new front seats are clearly the most comfortable thrones in the Audi fleet, adjusting twelve ways and including not just heating and cooling, but also massage functions. Diamond-stitched sport seats will be an option at launch in Europe, though they’re still being evaluated for America – perhaps they’ll be approved by the time the inevitable S8 model is launched here. A smaller-diameter steering wheel feels sportier than the last model, while double-stitched trim on the airbag lends a richer, more bespoke feel. Peering through the spokes, the large multi-function screen in the center of the instrument cluster easily catches the driver’s attention. No conventional rectangular LCD, this high-resolution display and all its associated content float seamlessly between the rounded speedometer and tachometer. Graphics have evolved considerably since the last version, with great looking CGIs of the A8 where functions require them, and a feed from the optional night vision display piped in for easy viewing. The usual audio, telephone, navigation and vehicle functions all display here as well, their presentations also more refined than before.
Whereas the previous A8 introduced Audi’s MMI system, this latest generation evolves the all-inclusive infotainment system, increasing its functionality while at the same time improving the simplicity of the most basic tasks. The rotary dial, back button and four-corner hot buttons on each menu remain, though critical new elements have also been added. A menu button will now take you ‘home’ within the system if you wish to easily return to the beginning. Other basic functions such as track selection, HVAC controls and radio presets now get their own dedicated buttons making it unnecessary to use MMI for those functions if that is what is desired.
Most revolutionary is an iPod-like touchpad referred to by Audi as “MMI touch” located to the left of the rotary control. Searching your telephone directory or points of interest within the integrated Google Maps address data is performed easily by writing desired letters with your fingertip, allowing the driver to keep his eyes on the road while searching. Emphasizing the info side of infotainment, Audi has partnered with Google to deliver Google Maps for point-of-interest and directory data. Certain news will also be available via MMI as well, while a 3G WiFi network will be available for passengers. Audi of America is currently in discussions with mobile wireless providers and the actual hardware utilized in American-bound A8s will likely be mounted in the dashboard where mobile phone SIM cards are integrated for Europe, within a slot in the dash that also houses a DVD/CD player and memory card slots for digital music storage.
For the new A8, Audi has also now networked an optional rear MMI system complete with a large screen mounted on each front seatback and controls mounted within the rear seat armrest. Audio content is sent to wireless headphones and, much like flying International Business Class on Lufthansa, passengers can choose from a range of audio and video options or simply follow the on-board navigation to monitor travel progress.
One traditionally popular option that has been carried over and improved upon is the Bang & Olufsen audio system, only this time the system’s integration was planned at the very beginning of A8 development. In previous cars, it was an afterthought added late in the product cycle. Five more speakers have been added, totaling 19, including a three-way speaker system in each door and two-way speaker configuration on the parcel shelf. This is all combined with redesigned motorized sound lenses at the front for even better sound delivery. Aluminum speaker grilles for the midrange and woofers throughout the cabin have also been redesigned to flow more naturally with the look of the Audi’s interior, while improved speaker cabinets minimize vibrations and help keep hands-free telephone audio from emanating outside the car, thus ensuring privacy. Within the MMI system there is also a new ‘Movie’ setting for optimized audio associated with movie playback that works with the optional rear seat presentation or as one hell of a delivery system at a drive-in theatre. We sampled the B&O system at length and came away in awe of its sound.
Numerous new safety technologies have made their way into the new A8. An accident pre-sense system, using the ESP system, allows the car to prepare itself for an imminent collision by activating the hazard lights, closing windows and sunroof, and tensioning the seatbelt. A second level of pre-sense interprets data from the adaptive cruise control and side assist hardware to help make an even more accurate assessment of the situation, pre-tensioning the brakes and eventually even stopping the car at the last possible moment to minimize impact. Night vision has been added to the A8’s list of tech, sensed from a camera mounted behind the A8’s leftmost silver ring within the grille, imagery with pedestrian marking can be streamed to the information screen within the instrument cluster.
Out on the road, the A8 is surprisingly quick and agile. Stats like a more powerful V8 and lighter weight would seem to make this obvious, but the more substantive design heft prepares you for a heavier driving experience. Numbers win out over subjective impression though, and the A8 is more athletic winding down the Spanish seaside roads. As with all of the latest Audis using the company’s modular “MLB” chassis architecture, the A8 benefits from physical placement of the engine slightly further back in the structure for better balance, while other hardware upgrades like Audi Drive Select and the awesome Sport Differential add to dynamic excitement. This is the first time we’ve seen Audi Drive Select applied to an air suspension and the pairing works well. The suspension itself offers the same level of height adjustment as before, but it changes more rapidly from sport to luxury settings, and the handling seems more natural than the air suspension on the car’s predecessor. Shifts from the eight-speed automatic are decidedly quick, and a single pull on the shift lever is all it takes to drop the car into Sport mode.
Returning the car to our little hotel overlooking the Mediterranean, we take a parting glance at Audi’s newest big sedan. Its design is elegant, if perhaps a bit too evolutionary, affirming critiques that it’s not so aggressively styled when viewed alongside more avant-garde sedans like the new Jaguar XJ or the Maserati Quattroporte. With the more coupe-like A7 coming into the Audi range to compete with those cars, A8 designers had the freedom to challenge more substantive sedans like the Mercedes-Benz S-class and BMW 7-series. Regardless of what direction its competitors may go, when it arrives in Audi showrooms later this year, the 2011 A8 will uphold its position as the definitive Audi sedan.