First Drive: 2011 Audi A8

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.

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