All-new generation of Audi’s flagship limousine finally nails the plush-riding brief, supported by unexpected agility and some production-first tech.
WHAT IS IT?
The latest generation of the Audi A8, wearing a D5 model code to indicates it’s the fifth generation of Ingolstadt’s contemporary limousine, originating in the 1990 Audi V8 quattro. While the new Audi A8’s MLB platform may be familiar, this is all-new with some intriguing, cutting-edge tech.
WHY WE’RE TESTING IT
Audi’s last few efforts – namely the excellent A4 range and the ultra-refined Q7 SUV – have shown that the boffins at Ingolstadt have finally nailed how to make a car drive as good as it looks. Thing is, what will the world think of the way the new-gen A8 looks? Inoffensively proportioned limo with an imposing visage or a clownish, slightly frumpy sedan whose only elegance is in the details?
THE WHEELS VERDICT
Here’s a limousine emblazoned with Audi’s four-ringed logo that isn’t relying solely on static presence to sell itself. In fact, it could be argued that the D5-generation Audi A8 works best from inside its cabin, or behind its cool four-spoke steering wheel, because its slightly frumpy exterior doesn’t quite sell the steak. With some excellent technology, an agile chassis and deeply impressive refinement, the A8 does pretty much everything you’d expect from a range-topping limousine. We just wish it looked a bit more athletic. Maybe next year’s red-blooded S8 version can save it.
PLUS: Refinement; ride quality; high-speed excellence; agility benefits of all-wheel steering; strong turbo-petrol V6; slick tech; classy interior
MINUS: Styling lacks elegance; standard front seats lack under-thigh support; needless rear-legroom benefits of LWB version
THE WHEELS REVIEW
THERE’S something deeply alluring about a super-luxury range-topper from a premium brand like Audi. It’s the way each successive limousine generation encapsulates the pinnacle of a brand’s essence at the time, and ramps that up to eleven. It’s what these mega-buck sedans do best, and have done since forever.
But where Audi always plays its trump card is inside the cabin. And this all-new D5-generation A8 is no different. Cue Audi’s now-default Virtual Cockpit instrument pack, but challenging this wondrous piece of technology is a pair of completely flush, smartphone-style centre touchscreens that enable you to swipe through layers like a tablet, with haptic feedback (and even a faint ‘click’ sound) when you select something. It makes the old MMI set-up (which we used to rave about) seem clunky and completely outdated.
Select ‘search’ in either navigation or phone functions and the lower climate-control screen turns into your own digital etch-a-sketch. Draw a great big letter or number, the upper screen goes straight to what you’ve scrawled, and it’s just all incredibly simple and lovely from there. Technophobes never fear – this is beautiful, seamless technology at its most intuitive.
There are plenty of other details to delight your visual senses. The four-spoke steering wheel, with a trigger-grip-style spoke arrangement, looks futuristic and feels great, and there’s leather covering every surface bar the sill caps and front kick panels. The ventilation outlets also do a Jag XF-style barrel roll when you switch the climate control on, but it’s a pity they aren’t so conspicuous when passing crisp air. And while there’s acres of room inside – even the base A8 rides on a 2998mm wheelbase – the front seats don’t offer quite enough under thigh support, even with the cushions tilted to max height.
Outside is where the new-gen A8’s cutting-edge persona begins to unravel slightly. Sure, its structure is 24 percent stiffer, aluminium now makes up 58 percent of the total weight of the car (1920kg in ‘base’ trim), and there are some delightful design flourishes. The way the bonnet shutline twists its way into becoming the upper shoulder line is quite special, and so is the lower swage line, which subtly ‘blisters’ over each wheelarch. The rear light display is a cracker, too, with a Knight Rider-style heartbeat pulse from the upper red LED bar before it encircles the whole rear end. But the overall form is perhaps a bit too subtle … until you spot the grille.
It’s at the front where this generation of A8 somehow lacks the elegance of its forebears. That oversized grille is almost clownish in its vastness, while the A8’s relatively short dash-to-axle ratio continues to convey the impression that this mega-luxe Audi may in fact be front-wheel drive. It’s not – all A8s are quattro – but the DNA of the expanded MLB platform underneath certainly is. Think next-gen A6 on growth hormones.
On the road, however, the D5 A8 casts those aspersions aside. Fitted with adaptive air suspension and optional all-wheel steering, the test A8s performed a stupendous job in shrinking the car around its driver.
On some seriously sinuous (if perfectly hotmix-smooth) surfaces in the hills outside Valencia in Spain, even the A8 L (a 5302mm-long car riding on a 3128mm wheelbase) felt agile and wieldy. There may be little true steering feel being fed through the A8’s funky four-spoke wheel, but there’s certainly the accuracy, the turn-in and the poise a big car like this needs when all four wheels are turning – especially at big speeds on snaking freeways.
The all-wheel steering chops more than a metre from the turning circle (down to a trim 11.4m) and half a turn out of the steering ratio (to a brisk 2.2 turns lock-to-lock), all of which promises a solid base for next year’s forthcoming S8 version. And the new air-sprung A8 rides too, or at least seems to on the not-so-challenging surfaces we tested it on. Unlike the often brittle and inconsistent demeanour of A8’s past, this generation feels like it can truly look the S-Class and 7 Series directly in the eye, without fear.
And once the optional AI Active Suspension option comes on line – where electric motors at each corner can raise the A8 by up to 80mm, in response to an upper-screen camera capturing 80 frames-per-second of the road surface up to 20m ahead (at speeds approaching 80km/h) – the A8’s ride-quality absorbency should be truly unquestioned.
Drivetrain wise, Australia will follow Europe in offering a pair of launch engines – a 3.0-litre turbo-petrol V6 (producing 250kW/500Nm) and a 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6 (with 210kW/600Nm). The TDI version slices nearly two litres per 100km from the petrol A8’s combined economy figure, but the petrol is far more in keeping with the A8’s hushed refinement.
Tied to an excellent eight-speed auto, the single-turbo 3.0-litre sounds so much nicer in the pampering A8 than it does in the somewhat grainy S4 and S5. Its almost velvety induction acoustics, its greater rev range and its far more suitable gearing for twisty roads definitely puts the so-so diesel in the shade. Hire-car operators may prefer the oiler but for the rest of us, it’s petrol V6 all the way. Or punchy 338kW/660Nm twin-turbo V8 if you live in the Middle East.
Drive impressions aside, it’s the A8’s ‘Level 3’ conditional automation that should garner the biggest headlines. This is the first series-production vehicle in the world to offer such tech, but not all of it will be available from launch.
The winner is Traffic Jam Pilot, which can handle nose-to-tail driving in gridlocked traffic (at speeds up to 60km/h) all by itself. All you have to do is sit back and chill, though not sleep apparently because a sensor can detect if your eyes are closed. Thing is, Traffic Jam Pilot is currently only legislated for ‘testing’ in Germany and a few US states, though Audi expects approval some time in 2018.
The other two are remote Garage Pilot and remote Park Pilot. The first (again, not available from launch) allows you to park your car via an app on your smartphone into a garage, even when turning is involved (though only if it’s moving forward). The Park version is for parallel parking, mimicking what you’d do if the A8 auto-parked while you’re in the hot seat, but without anyone on board.
For now, none of the new A8’s ‘AI’ kit will be coming to Australia – certainly not in time for its mid-2018 launch. But the AI Active Suspension option will definitely be on the cards, and judging by our first taste of this technology, it represents a big step forward for the Ingolstadt brand’s luxury reputation.
Perhaps the new A8’s conservative buyer profile won’t mind its slightly frumpy proportion ahead of the A-pillars, or the oversized mawkishness of its massive chrome grille. Certainly the saviour is its rear three-quarter proportion, which is actually quite pretty, but there’s always the prospect of a dark-hued S8 on black 21s with all that chrome nonsense blacked out to save the day.
Bring on the S8, I say.
Model: Audi A8 55 TFSI
Engine: 2995cc V6 (90˚), dohc, 24v, turbo
Max power: 250kW @ 5000-6400rpm
Max torque: 500Nm @ 1370-4500rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 5.6sec (claimed)
Economy: 7.7L/100km (EU)
Price: $220,000 (estimated)
On sale: Q2 2018