It’s baffling, standing there with one hand in your pocket and the other on the phone, backing your car out of the garage. Or sitting in the sidewalk cafe while parallel parking the car. The new fourth-generation Audi A8 does it, drives itself, crawls with traffic, obeys speed limits and road signs. Level 3 stuff.
That’s the one where you can turn your attention away to something else legally, and let the car drive. The new A8 is the first Level 3 production car out there, and all it takes is a push of a metal button that says ‘Audi AI’. You could be booked on some red eye flight and you catch a half hour nap on the way to the airport while Bosch and Intel do the rest. For that alone autonomy can’t come soon enough.
Audi can do it, now, with five radars, 360-degree cameras, ultrasound sensors, and indeed friggin’ lasers, detecting traffic front and rear, minding pedestrians, obstacles, walls and signs, seeing the road up ahead hundreds of metres, communicating with other Audis already on the road and using swarm intelligence to stay one step ahead of surprises. And Audi can do it better than you, but all you get is a blank switch.
For your Dh390,000 instead of the button that says Audi AI, the production cars will reach their customers with a blank switch because no regulators on the planet have passed laws allowing a Will & Grace marathon behind the wheel. And so the most relevant things about the new A8 are irrelevant — it’s a pity, because artificial intelligence would love this thing. It’s a bit, formal. You know? It’s the guy who shows up in a cashmere jumper for some catch at the park.
And in a bland colour choice with anything but the biggest 21in wheels on offer the all-new Audi flagship is not the most exciting thing to look at, particularly with acres of overhang at the front. The classic saloon proportions are too front-wheel-drive-ish on this, and it must be said the fourth-gen A8 isn’t based on the same MSB VW Group platform as the latest Porsche Panamera, but rather the MLB like the Q7, Cayenne, and Bentley Bentayga. With the 21s and, say, in Navarra Blue, it’s quite an elegant, understated car that’s happy to be inoffensive rather than exhilarating.
That doesn’t detract from the fact that the new A8 is still a landmark car, and the point of reference for all other top end cars to follow.
Audi used the opportunity to evolve the brand’s design language with the A8 too, and in Valencia at the launch the men in pointy shoes talked at length about muscularity and dynamism in the car’s lines. I struggled to see it myself but then I looked down and my shoes were rounded, so what do I know.
I think Audi never matched the timeless look of the first-generation A8, although this latest one is certainly unfussy and clean, with all the drama round the back despite the new XXL hexagonal grille vying for everyone’s attention. Around Spain, where you might catch a Cayenne and that’s about it as far as exotic car spotting goes, no one gave us a second glance.
The rear light bar runs the width of the car and features 135 LEDs in each taillight — as you approach the car and unlock it with the remote key you get a light show, which continues inside when you open the door. You even get a little jingle, like in an elevator.
If the exterior doesn’t show it, once you’re seated inside the new A8 the interior lets you know where your money went — it’s nice in there, and the roominess doesn’t go unnoticed, especially if you’ve recently been in a big Jag or Maserati. The seats are wide and supportive, and your elbows rest on even levels, which seems like a triviality until you live with a car where the door armrest is an inch higher than the central armrest. Legroom, shoulder room and headroom is massive front and rear, and the horizontal lines of the cabin open up the space visually even more. You definitely don’t feel claustrophobic. The dash is nice and upright, low and shallow, so the windscreen isn’t miles away. This makes it easy to see out and place the car where you want it, which is especially handy up narrow mountain roads and in parking lots. Adaptive steering, with a very light, consistent feel, is great for maneuvering around congested cities because the steering ratio varies from 9.5:1 to about 17:1 — what’s more, with the new all-wheel steering system that turns the rear wheels by up to five degrees, the car has a turning circle of a compact so you can get around tight U-turns with one turn. It wasn’t much different with the long-wheelbase model.
That easy, mellow feeling in the Audi must be subconsciously motivated by the lack of clutter inside. There are few distractions, and fewer buttons. Everything has been incorporated into two big screens in the dash, and the big ol’ gear lever sticking out like some artifact, some archaic remnant of a primitive age (back in the Middle Ages they say people used to have to change gear themselves) seems kinda out of place. With all the grey it does come across a bit, corporate. The top 10.1in screen blends into the gloss-black dash, and you can add a touch of individuality with a decorative aluminium bar running its width, in grey, or if you’re feeling naughty, you can have it in slate-grey. Anyway, no doubt it’s a quality interior, quiet and insulating.
The second 8.6in display is directly below, and it doesn’t come across at all cluttered like when Honda had a go at trying a multi screen dash. It all looks very cohesive, and the smaller touchscreen emits tactile and acoustic feedback when you interact with it. It’s the first time in one of these latest models that I’ve played around with the minimalist controls and thought this whole digitalisation thing could work out sooner than I thought. I didn’t miss any of the familiar, physical switchgear in the new A8.
The dash is nice and upright, low and shallow, so the windscreen isn’t miles away. This makes it easy to see out and place the car where you want it
Besides improved handwriting recognition, you can use voice control without putting on any fancy accents in the hopes of being understood — the lady behind the screen understands phrases, like, “I’m too hot” and “Please find a nearby Chinese restaurant.”
The big tricks happen unseen, made possible by the new 48-volt electrical system. The fourth-generation A8 isn’t the first Audi to have it (the Audi SQ7 premiered with 48V) but it puts it to full use, with a small lithium-ion battery in the boot making this essentially a mild hybrid. On the move, if you lift off the A8 coasts at speeds of up to 160kph with the engine completely shut off for up to 40 seconds, which seems like an age if you’re on the highway and makes a genuine contribution to saving fuel, as does the standard stop-start which can activate from 22kph before you come to a full halt. Audi claims an improvement of 0.7-litres compared to the predecessor.
The 48-volt update also makes it possible for Audi to run fully-adaptive suspension which is incredibly clever and uses electromechanical actuators on all four corners to continuously regulate body motion and keep roll to a minimum. Worked a treat on the Panamera I tried.
Our tester didn’t have the stuff fitted though because it’ll only be available post-launch, and on its standard suspension the A8 does dive under braking and squat under acceleration, which is amplified by the hesitancy of the V6 engine and transmission to pick up and go.
I didn’t get to try the V8 or the W12, as they aren’t coming to our region until later in 2018 so I focused on the 3.0-litre V6 55 TFSI model for its launch relevancy, and, well, it’s the entry-level car for sure. Some of my fellow journos did praise the V8, especially its smoothness and power.
Coming back to the V6, you plant it, and the A8 bucks a bit too heartily for a limousine and gets a bit too excited, without actually getting anywhere because the powertrain is tuned to soothe rather than scintillate. What happens is, the more aggressive and lumpy you are with the throttle pedal, the more the A8 55 TFSI seems to delay full power so as not to upset the occupants too much. It’s exceedingly polite — even if you want to drive like a moron, you can’t.
The eight-speed transmission doesn’t help, as it seems to have quite long gearing and you find yourself often just under the point of full turbo boost which comes across as lag. Put the ‘box in Sport mode and things are a bit better, but with the chassis in Dynamic the body motions aren’t that much curbed at all. It’s a secure, predictable drive, but it’s far from exciting.
It really does come across as a demonstrator, the new A8, a tech demonstrator, a showcase of Audi’s abilities and the 40-odd driver assistance systems (when they’re all legal and regulated) on board do move the game on hugely. More than in any preceding A8 in the four generations so far, the latest car puts precedence on rear seat comfort, and that tells you a lot of the story — it’s not meant to be a driver’s car because you’re meant to be driven in it.
It really does come across as a demonstrator, the new A8, a tech demonstrator, a showcase of Audi’s abilities
Despite an advanced multi-material structure made of aluminium, steel, and reinforced with magnesium and carbon fibre components, the new car actually weighs more than the outgoing model, by up to 100kg, and makes this heavier than its rivals from Munich and Stuttgart. That’s the price of advancement. The added weight affords you luxuries such as all the gizmos we’ve gone through, but you sacrifice dynamics and performance.
For many it’s not a sacrifice at all because they will want the latest and greatest, and that’s the new A8.