In his 1953 short story Sally, Isaac Asimov envisions a world in future where only cars with “positronic brains” are allowed on the road. Essentially, autonomous cars that do not require a human behind the wheel. While Asimov’s story was set in 2057, it seems his vision is set to become reality much earlier than he had imagined. A good 39 years before the story’s setting, we have artificial intelligence taking over pretty much everything in the world, including automobiles. Cars with Level 2 autonomy are already passé, and fully autonomous vehicles are poised to be in lawful operation on public roads as early as 2021. In fact, it’s just regulators, legislators and safety campaigners that stand in the way of Audi’s latest A8 saloon from achieving this already.

Ingolstadt’s flagship is the world’s first production car with Level 3 self-driving credentials, and with the mere press of a button on the centre console, you can hand control over to artificial intelligence, which will take care of everything from acceleration and steering to braking and starting again from a dead-stop. While the idea of handing over control of a 5,200-metre vehicle to microchips could induce the same sense of disquiet that you are left with after reading Sally, the fact remains this is a car that can handle the task better than any other in production today, once positive legislation is in place.

 

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Photos: Stefan Lindeque

But it’s not just autonomy that is special about the new Audi. The German carmaker has succeeded in injecting a fair amount of verve into the A8’s design while keeping it characteristically understated. In fact, in the dull silver hue that our test car came, it’s a bit too low-key if you like your nearly half-a-million investment to attract some attention to you. However, if being inconspicuous and minimalist is your thing, then the A8 offers just that, with the hexagonal Singleframe grille, optional laser headlights and OLED rear lights offering some eye-catching abilities to an extent.

The same applies to the cabin. Like most other Audis, it’s perceptibly built to outlive humanity, but the aesthetics fall short of the allure that the Mercedes-Benz S-Class holds. Again, if all you care for is bulletproof build quality and top notch materials in a discreet layout, then the A8’s cabin is where you would want to be. Most of the buttons, knobs and switches from the previous generation have been ditched in favour of touchscreen technology that extends to the better part of the centre console. Haptic feedback is excellent, although it’s a good idea to keep a microfiber cloth handy to wipe off those bothersome smudges.

 

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Photos: Stefan Lindeque

At 5,172mm long and 1,473mm tall, the A8 is 37mm longer and 13mm higher than its predecessor, although the 1,945mm width is smaller by a miniscule 4 millimetres. The wheelbase is also longer at 2,998mm in the regular variant, with the L version getting an 130mm. All these translate into more headroom, shoulder room and leg room, and a capacious 505 litres of cargo space. The relaxation seat package that offers customised contour seats with ventilation and massage, electrically height-adjustable headrests, a long center console, four-zone automatic air conditioning, a rear seat entertainment system consisting of two Audi tablets and the rear seat remote. Like in the S-Class, the new A8 also offers an optional ionizer and a fragrancer with adjustable intensity to customise air quality in the cabin.

Under the bonnet, the sole engine option at launch is a 3.0-litre TFSI that’s good for 340 horsepower and 500Nm of torque. Mated to the newly developed eight-speed tiptronic, gear shifts are swift and smooth, and the torque is available from as low in the band as 1,370rpm. The new chassis comes with optional AI active suspension, which employs an electric motor at each corner to raise or lower the respective wheel via a torsion bar linked to the suspension. Body control is impressive while road imperfections and speed bumps are absorbed as well as a flagship luxury car should. The Drive Select system offers three driving modes; Auto, Comfort, and Dynamic, which can be toggled between to suit your driving style and the road conditions.

Body control is impressive while road imperfections and speed bumps are absorbed as well as a flagship luxury car should.

While adaptive air suspension, LED lights front and back, high beam assist, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, self-parking system, autonomous braking system etc are offered as standard equipment, our test car comes equipped with optional extras like Bang & Olufsen Premium Sound System with 3D sound, chrome exterior package, DVD changer and player in rear, HD Matrix LED headlights, headliner in black fabric, head-up display, Matrix LED reading lights, Rear Seat Entertainment and Rear Seat Remote among others, taking the cost up to Dh411,600 from the A8 L’s base price of Dh380,100. It’s still a reasonable price tag in the world of ultra-luxury saloons. And the regular wheelbase version starts at an even more sensible Dh357,000.

The new A8 is by far Audi’s best shot at posing a genuine threat to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the BMW 7 Series. This is the car that can elevate it from being an also-ran in the global luxury saloon market, and be at the top of a potential buyer’s list. Autonomy or not.