The new A8 is the sweetest, most sophisticated executive sedan Audi has ever produced. Audi is also calling it the sportiest A8 yet. At a glance, this may seem a little difficult to digest. It’s hard to equate two-ton curb weights (specifically, 4436 pounds) with sporty—but that’s one of the many pleasant surprises about this thoroughly cultivated conveyance.
Basics: This is the fourth generation of Audi’s premium sedan. Like the other established players in this profitable game—BMW 7-series, Jaguar XJ, Lexus LS460, Mercedes S-class—the latest big Audi has grown bigger. At 117.8 inches, the wheelbase has stretched 1.9 inches, overall length has increased 2.9 (to 202.2), width has expanded 2.1 (to 76.7), and the roofline sits at 57.5, a 0.6-inch increase. If you’re inclined to wear a Panama hat, don’t worry about headroom. Or any other kind of room, for that matter—though we’d hate to spend time perched on the center rear seat, normally covered by a fold-down armrest equipped with cup holders and climate controls.
Audi’s extensive use of aluminum helps keep weight somewhat in check despite the standard all-wheel-drive system. And a slick new ZF eight-speed automatic transmission—plus the addition of 22 ponies to the 4.2-liter, direct-injection V-8—makes the A8 livelier than its curb weight suggests.
The engine’s basic specifications haven’t changed; the gains were achieved by adding Audi’s variable intake-valve-lift system and reducing internal friction. What this produced was a surprising 0-to-60-mph sprint in 5.1 seconds and an equally vigorous quarter-mile in 13.7 at 104 mph. That 0-to-60 time is quicker than even the previous-gen S8’s. That would be the 450-hp, V-10–powered S8.
Equally remarkable, Audi’s powertrain troops have simultaneously achieved an increase in fuel-economy expectations. Standard A8 or long-wheelbase A8L, the EPA ratings are 17 mpg city and 27 highway (21 combined). This compares with 16 and 23, respectively, for the outgoing car and tops the highway ratings of all the big luxosedan offerings from BMW, Jaguar, Lexus, and Mercedes—including hybrids. Only the Mercedes S400 hybrid and the Lexus LS600h come close to the A8’s overall ratings by matching its 21-mpg combined figure.
As usual, in our zeal for exploring every erg of horsepower, our observed economy—17 mpg—was less impressive, falling right on top of the city projection.
Other elements also stand out. Skidpad grip came in at 0.89 g, thanks to a set of Goodyear 265/40 Eagle F1 Asymmetrics on optional 20-inch alloy wheels. From 70 mph, the A8 stopped in a very respectable 160 feet; its top speed—164 mph—is certainly enough to get you into trouble; and its interior noise levels are low.
As an aside, we must note that the subdued interior decibel level isn’t an entirely good thing. There’s very little V-8 reverb to satisfy your inner outlaw, and, more importantly, the A8 is so smooth that it never seems to be going as fast as it is. (We tried to explain this to a Michigan cop one evening. He said, “Uh-huh, this won’t take long.”)
Anyway, good numbers, but the subjective stuff is even better. The variable-ratio steering, for example. At low speeds, it’s quick—just 2.1 turns lock-to-lock in a parking lot. But as speeds climb toward flat-out, where quick might be too quick, it slows down. Steering weight is just right; accuracy is surgical.
However, where the A8 really justifies Audi’s “sportiest” claim is in its composure on lumpy back roads when the g-loads are coming from odd angles and the pace is brisk. BMW wrote the manual on this—a benchmark blend of compliance and agility. Still, Audi’s adaptive air suspension may have added a new chapter. With its combination of forward-weight bias and all-wheel drive, understeer is still the basic dynamic trait. But the push is mild, the threshold of stability-control intervention is high, and the predictability factor is exceptional. The faster you go, the more level the car’s cornering attitude becomes as it hunkers down and attacks the apexes—all this and supple ride quality, too.
Inside, the new A8 is what we’ve come to expect from Audi—tasteful, elegant, and adjustable to just about any personal dimensions you bring to the supportive leather seats. Even Quasimodo could find a comfortable driving position here, particularly with the optional, 22-way-adjustable seats in our test car. In addition to the endless alterations possible, these heavenly cathedras have five different massaging functions from which to choose. It’s the best automotive rubdown we’ve ever experienced and positively shames the functionality in the vastly more expensive Bentley Flying Spur and Rolls-Royce Ghost found elsewhere in this issue.
As you’d demand of a car in this class, the A8 is packed with all sorts of electronic goodies, including a touch-pad update to Audi’s MMI (Multi Media Interface), allowing the operator to make nav-system entries by scrawling them on the pad with a finger, one letter at a time. The system seems able to recognize cryptic handwriting, and the pad can also be used to activate six radio presets.
About the only thing we found to dislike is the new shift system, which seemed a little balky. However, this is one of those elements, like Jaguar’s dial-a-gear, that becomes a nonissue to owners.
As a piece of rolling sculpture, the new A8 isn’t vastly different from the old one. This is not a bad thing. Despite all that engine protruding beyond the front axle, the proportions are attractive, and the new front end, with its bright horizontal grille bars and festival of LED lights, makes an unmistakable identity statement, one that becomes deliciously sinister after dark. Indeed, the A8 looks best in noir, a fact that’s amplified by the U.S. color palette: It includes nine choices, and three of them are variations of black.
Audi of America was still working out pricing as of this writing—the A8 and A8L won’t appear in showrooms until November—but we’ll chance a base prediction of $80,000 (destination fees included).
This will represent a substantial hike over the current A8—by about $5000. With the various options in our test car, you’re looking at about $95,000. Still, the A8 figures to be competitive versus its German rivals. A 2011 BMW 750i starts at $83,875; the long-wheelbase-only 2010 Mercedes S550 starts at $92,475. And even just shy of $100 large, the A8’s worth it.