The full-size luxury-car segment is a ship constantly steered by a new captain. Indeed, whenever one of the usual suspects—Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, or Audi—releases a new model, it seems the current favorite then drops to second place. The BMW 7-series recently pulled off this feat, topping the previous gold standard, the Mercedes-Benz S550, in a comparison test. The Porsche Panamera then swooped in to knock off the Bimmer. (Granted, the Panamera is a bit of an outlier, given that its five-door body doesn’t fit the traditions of the segment.) Now, the 2011 Audi A8 looks like a strong contender to be the next to sit in the captain’s chair.
One Engine Now, Others Coming
The 2011 A8 goes on sale this fall at a starting price of around $90,000. The A8 will be available here with just one engine when it launches: the long-lived, direct-injection 4.2-liter DOHC V-8. As installed in this third-generation A8, the V-8 gains 22 hp and 4 lb-ft of torque over its previous iteration, with output now totaling 372 hp and 328 lb-ft. The horsepower figure is just enough to make it the least powerful in the segment, ceding eight ponies to the Lexus LS460 and 10 to the S550. Audi says the A8 returns 13-percent-better fuel economy than does its predecessor, which translates roughly to 18 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway for the new car.
Have no fear, power brokers; there will be other engines available in the coming years. Audi has confirmed there will be a W-12 model as well as a new S8, although the Lamborghini-derived V-10 that powers the last S8 will be replaced by a smaller and lighter engine equipped with forced induction. It’s rumored that a new 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 will get the job.
Another possible engine in the A8’s future is the 3.0-liter V-6 turbo-diesel that’s available at launch in Europe. We had a chance to sample it in southern Spain, and if you don’t think the diesel’s 250 hp is enough to power the 4400-pound luxury sedan, allow us to point out its 406 lb-ft of torque. If that’s not enough to keep you from scoffing, perhaps highway mileage in the 30-mpg range will help. The diesel feels peppy thanks to the smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission, which is perfectly calibrated to keep the engine in the juicy part of the torque plateau. It isn’t as quick as the gasoline V-8, but the smaller diesel would be more than enough for most.
Unmistakably an Audi, the A8 is Light on Its Feet
From the outside, the new A8 is clearly cut from four-ringed cloth. The tail almost completely mimics the rear of the latest A4, and the corporate grille is in full effect, even if it has grown from a goatee into more of a mini beard. All four corners share a similar squared-off element and the front quarters, if analyzed closely, hint at the upcoming Bentley Mulsanne (some inter-office cribbing, maybe?). The LED headlamps are distinctive, and can vary the depth of their beams based on the proximity of oncoming traffic. Wheel sizes range from 17 inches up to 20.
All A8 models get that ZF-supplied eight-speed automatic transmission, which really breathes new life into the old 4.2, and all have manumatic shifting and paddles on the steering wheel. We estimate the A8 will scoot to 60 mph in the mid-five-second range—middle of the pack in terms of acceleration. But what it lacks in outright speed, the A8 makes up for in sporting demeanor.
That demeanor comes in part from the fitment of the high-tech bits that are optional on lesser models as part of Audi Drive Select packages. Standard on the A8 are adjustable shocks, variable-rate air springs, variable-ratio steering, and, most notably, the torque-vectoring rear differential found in the S4 and S5. (Options packaging for the U.S. hasn’t been completely finalized. A “more dynamic” adjustable air suspension is part of a Sport package on the current car, but given the new car’s standard chassis hardware, we expect that if such a pack were to be offered, it would encompass only wheels and aesthetic tweaks.)
The trick diff helps curb the effects of that longtime bane of Audi dynamics, weight distribution. Audi engines have traditionally been bolted well ahead of the front axle, a front-heavy setup that contributes to predominant, if predictable, understeer. The engine location is no different on the new A8, but the sport differential eliminates the push and turns the car into a neutral road carver.
Like the latest 7-series, the A8 drives smaller than its length (202.2 inches) suggests, and the variable-rate steering transmits a good amount of information from the tires. Our largest dynamic complaint concerns the brake pedal, which is mushy in its first couple of inches of travel. That could be attributed to the early production models we drove, and so we’ll wait until we test one to see if things are tightened up.
Mobile Office Redefined
But dynamics, no matter how impressive, aren’t the reason most hedge-fund managers buy these cars, but rather the interior. And the one inside this car is fantastic, with not one texture or material taking a tactile wrong turn. Elegant wood, leather, and, if so desired, aluminum lines everything, with a lip that runs the width of the dash and continues into the doors serving as a sort of aesthetic calling card. The cabin is more attractive than the 7-series’, cheerier than that of the S-class, and there are fewer buttons than inside the Panamera. A traditional shift lever gobbles up center-console real estate—it looks like a sheathed putter peeking out of a golf bag—but operating it is far more intuitive than using BMW’s quirky joystick-style selector.
Luxury barges tend to make operating power seats a pain, often using arcane and electronics-intensive ways to make sure you have no idea how to slide the seat forward, much less turn off the massage function. Audi has found a seemingly simple answer for this A8, leaving the traditional functions (fore/aft movement, seatback angle, seat height) on the side of the front seats, as they are in basically every other car. The best part, though, is that there’s no longer a different toggle switch for all the auxiliary seat functions, which come as part of an optional seating package. Thigh support, shoulder articulation, four-way lumbar, and bolster adjustments are controlled by a simple dial next to the main seat controls; it’s way more logical than the Comand-based setup in the Mercedes S-class. Start twisting with the dial and a pop-up menu appears on the infotainment screen letting the driver and passenger know what they are adjusting.
Touch Pad and Google What?
Speaking of infotainment, the Audi MMI interface has undergone a sizable revamp for its appearance here. There is still a spinning knob surrounded by four buttons that vary in command depending on what screen is displayed, and the few fixed buttons to jump to navigation or radio screens survive, too. But there’s now a touch pad located directly to the knob’s left, and it’s why the new system is now known as MMI Touch. The touch pad is mainly for entering addresses or points of interest into the navigation system, by writing naturally with your fingertip. It also acts as the map’s scrolling device and can control six preset buttons when the screen is showing the radio. The shifter acts as a wrist rest while you “write.” It works surprisingly well. Bad handwriting or folks using their non-dominant hand don’t mess it up—it still understands the desired letter or number. Pro tip: If the system ends up reading a “2” when you wanted to enter a “Z,” just spin the control knob for the correct character.
A Google search function and Google Earth overlay for the navigation map adds extra cutting-edge spice. The search engine is supremely handy. Let’s say you’re in Dayton, Ohio, and want to visit the Wright-Patterson Air Force museum; finding it in a preloaded navigation menu can be difficult. We’ve tried doing just that in other cars, and you wouldn’t believe how many buildings are listed on the Wright-Patterson base. Besides, the official name is the “National Museum of the U.S. Air Force”; like we’re supposed to know that. But pepper the Google search with whatever stuff you do know, and, just like when performing a search on your PC, the desired destination will likely be in the results. Powering the search will be a 3G data connection, and the car will come with six to 12 months of prepaid service from a yet-to-be-determined cellular carrier. After that, the owner will have to pay a monthly fee. As a bonus, having the data plan turns the car into a rolling WiFi hotspot, so passengers can surf the web on their phone, netbook, or whatever.
The high-tech hullabaloo doesn’t stop at the main info screen. The Audi pre-sense system, part of a $3000 technology package, can sense an imminent collision and lower impact speeds by as much as 25 mph, according to the company. The car uses the radar-based cruise control and lane-departure warning systems, both included in the tech package, to predict possible collisions. If the system thinks a collision is coming from the rear, the seatbelts tighten up and the headrests are raised to mitigate possible whiplash. If the system predicts a frontal collision, the seatbelts again tighten up and full braking is applied automatically. A user-friendlier version of automatic cruise control, one of our least-favorite pieces of tech, comes along with the package. The system can “see” cars approximately 660 feet away in front, and 260 to the rear. If the car is set to cruise at 75 mph and is approaching a car doing 65, it will not slow down to maintain the preset minimum distance if the system knows the A8 can safely change lanes. We’re still not big fans of these systems, but this one looks like it will at least keep aggravation to a minimum.
An available thermal-based night-vision camera is conspicuously hidden in the right-most ring of the grille’s four-ring badge, and includes pedestrian detection. When activated, the night-vision display shows up between the speedometer and tachometer.
Alloy All the Time
Since the first A8 was launched in 1994, the model has used an all-aluminum space frame and aluminum body panels. The newest space frame incorporates 13 different alloys; older versions used three to five. The B-pillars are now made of steel for better side-impact protection. The 509-pound structure is made up of extrusions, stampings, and castings held together by glue and self-tapping screws in place of previous versions’ rivets. The space frame is predictably pricey to produce and costly to repair (check out the long-term wrap of our Audi S8 for more details on the repair part), but it makes the A8 the lightest four-wheel-drive car in the class, while also being lighter than even some rear-drive competitors. The new A8 has grown in every dimension, yet curb weight will remain about the same as that of the outgoing car, about 4400 pounds.
The back seats are, of course, roomy and as luxurious as the fronts, qualities sure to be even more abundant in the forthcoming long-wheelbase A8L. Of note is the fact that the long-wheelbase car will no longer be just an A8 with more rear-seat space; it will have some unique sheetmetal, although Audi didn’t reveal much beyond saying that the C-pillar will be different. Chinese dignitaries and titans of industry, who love to be chauffeured, are sure to flock to Audi dealerships in Shanghai and Beijing. The A8L will arrive in the U.S. at basically the same time as the regular-length car.
Expect a comparison test involving the 2011 A8 just as soon as we can arrange it. After all, we have to find out which captain is steering the ship, right?