The third generation of Audi's aluminum-spaceframe flagship, the A8, has now been unveiled. The standard-wheelbase model, seen here, and the long-wheelbase variant (set to debut in a few months time) will both arrive at North American Audi dealers this fall, for the 2011 model year. An enhanced powertrain, an innovative new electronics interface, and an evolved design are highlights of the new car.
Our preview drive was confined to the standard-wheelbase variant, which historically is only ten percent of U.S. A8 sales. It may be the smaller of the two A8 models, but it is no small car. Lengthwise, the new A8 sits halfway between the current standard- and extended-wheelbase models; the A8 also has grown in width, to become the widest car in its class. Despite the size increase, Audi claims that the new car has maintained its weight (although the company is not yet publishing final figures for the U.S.-spec model); if so, then the A8, tipping the scales at some 4400 pounds, will keep its position as the trimmest entry in the all-wheel-drive, ultra-luxe sedan class.
That's a good thing, considering that even the newly enhanced version of Audi's 4.2-liter V-8 has less power and torque than its major competitors. Now with 372 hp and 328 pound-feet of torque (versus 350 hp and 325 pound-feet previously), the direct-injection V-8 is newly mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. The combination makes the A8 a very responsive car -- Audi claims a 0-to-62 mph time of 5.7 seconds -- it's just not quite as quick as the eight-cylinder BMW 7-series, Mercedes-Benz S-class, or Lexus LS460. The eight-speed gearbox helps improve fuel economy by some 13 percent; when EPA testing is complete, that increase should give the A8 mpg figures approaching those of the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid.
Buyers craving more power -- or better mileage -- eventually will have those choices. A twelve-cylinder variant is an inevitability (probably in 2011) as is a sporty S8 (following after); while a hybrid variant or, potentially, a 3.0-liter V-6 TDI, could appeal to those who prize fuel economy.
Appealing to a broad range of drivers is the reason for Audi's Drive Select program, which has appeared on other Audis and is standard here. Comfort, Dynamic (sport), Automatic, and Custom settings allow one to tailor steering effort, air suspension firmness, and drivetrain responsiveness to their liking. On our drive through the tourist villages of the southern Spanish coast, and on the hilly, winding roads just inland, we found the comfort or automatic modes to be the most satisfying. Even with the electronics at their most relaxed, the A8 chassis is tight and its steering is pleasantly firm. In dynamic mode, though, the steering effort is not only high but artificial-feeling. We were pleased to find that, unlike lesser Audis, there's no jarring variance in boost levels between low and high speeds. The A8's ride is very controlled whatever the setting, but the roads here were too smooth to discern any suspension harshness. In any mode, the A8 rolls into the throttle in true luxury-car style, yet transmission kick-down is satisfyingly snappy.
In any gadget-intensive machine such as this, the man-machine interface is elevated in importance. Thus, a major innovation with this model -- and in fact a first on the market -- is its touch pad interface, which supplements Audi's turn-and-push knob controller for its Multimedia Interface (MMI).
The touch pad at first sounds like a gimmicky sap to iPhone fetishists, but in fact it is rather useful. Located within a finger's reach from the gear selector -- itself redesigned to be evocative of a power boat's throttle -- it allows the driver resting his hand on the shift lever to draw letters, or numbers, on the pad rather than twisting the controller knob to the correct letter/number and then pushing to select it. The advantage is that one can finger-write a letter without looking at the pad (the system repeats it aloud when it is recognized), whereas as the turn-knob-and-push method (which is still available, by the way) requires a glance at the screen. Audi claims that the touch pad reduces eyes-off-the-road time by 50 percent for actions such as entering a navigation destination, looking up a name from a phone list, or manually entering a phone number. At other times, the pad doubles as a six-button key pad for radio presets, so these are more readily accessible.
If the touch pad is the new hardware most likely to enthrall tech geeks, the navigation system's Google function will be their favorite piece of software. Activated by a button on the nav screen, you can Google search, say, "restaurant," either near your current location or your destination, and see results in a list (with additional info available) or on the map. Oh, and the map itself can be a Google earth image. The Google search functionality requires a subscription to an internet data plan through a wireless carrier; Audi will pick up the tab for an initial time period after which you can expect to pay between twenty-five and thirty dollars a month. (A warning to early adopters: the Google function will be not available at start of production, but is coming within the first year.)
Considering the essential nature of the main screen -- which is used for navigation, audio, as well as many climate control and seat adjustment functions -- it's strange that Audi elected to go with a pop-up unit rather than one that's integrated into the dash. But that is absolutely the only discordant note in the predictably lush interior, where the attention to finish detail borders on obsessive.
Outside, though, Audi's usually forward-reaching design aesthetic seems stuck in neutral. The new A8 looks like nothing so much as a larger version of the A6 or even the A4. Audi makes a big deal of the car's all-LED front lights -- an industry first -- but their shape mimics the LED daytime running lights that have characterized Audis for a while now, so there's no dramatic new appearance. But while this latest A8 may not look radically new, it packs enough leading edge technology to render it a worthy step forward for Audi's range-topping sedan.
2011 Audi A8
On sale: Fall 2010
Base price (estimated): $78,000
4.2-liter direct-injection V-8
372 hp @ 6800 rpm
328 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm
4400 lbs (estimated)
Length x width x height:
202.0 x 76.7 x 57.5 in.
Performance (manufacturer's figures):
0-62 mph: 5.7 seconds
top speed: 155 mph (electronically limited)
Fuel economy (preliminary estimates):
18/26 mpg city/highway