Audi claims the new A8, its flagship sedan, is the most technologically advanced car in its class. That’s a big boast for a crowded segment that includes the Tesla Model S, BMW 7-series, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Jaguar XJ, the Lexus LS, and up-level versions of the surprisingly competent Cadillac CT6. But from its lights to its camera to its cockpit, it makes a compelling argument for best-in-class tech.
The new A8 is more sophisticated than its boxy predecessor, but its technological prowess isn’t obvious in its low-risk exterior design. On initial contact, my eyes were invariably drawn to the massive front grille, which is wider than ever. (We didn’t think it was possible.) The rear, on the other hand, sports a horizontal light bar that looks similar to the Lincoln Continental.
But what the Lincoln doesn’t have, for instance, is the lighting technology of the A8. Press the key to unlock the new A8, and you get a first hint of what it has in store: An arc of light spreads from the center to the outer segments of the LED strip, then wraps back to illuminate four ultra-thin OLED wafers. Audi engineer Stephan Berlitz says the design team used the image of an orchestra conductor. Lock the car, and the performance is reversed, finishing with a light blip, that flashes like a TV set. (There is also a standard LED taillight system without the visual drama.)
The A8′s headlights are equally fascinating: the uplevel LED Matrix headlight system — which is not yet legal in the US — keeps the brights on, but spares traffic ahead and oncoming cars. Opt for the most expensive system, and you get an additional long-distance light created by laser beams. You don’t see the actual laser beams (which could be harmful to your eyes), but within the enclosed headlamp system they create an ultra-bright beam. US regulation severely caps the intensity of headlights, so instead of the focused beam of the Euro version, US-bound A8s will emit a wide and bright carpet of light ahead of the car.
The light show continues as you enter the new A8: there is a flow of light greeting you and touching each place sequentially, and the start of the engine is accompanied by an artificial, futuristic sound. It’s an otherwise silent affair, thanks to a belt-driven starter generator that replaces the conventional starter (and its unwelcome noise).
Look ahead, and you see what I think is the most forward-looking cockpit in the industry. There is a TFT screen ahead of the driver, seen before on other Audi models, but now much faster and smoother in operation. The simulated analogue instruments enter the display’s corners by the touch of a button, leaving room for audio or vehicle information, or a large navigation map. I have one gripe: I wish that there was a display mode with bar graphs instead of the simulated gray-on-black analogue gauges. For future inspiration, Audi might want to take a look at the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and its “Progressive” cluster.
There is an optional heads-up system that is much better integrated than on the A6 and A7, but the real stunner is the centrally mounted glass screen and the additional glass screen on the lower part of the center console. Both are touch-sensitive and offer a plethora of options to operate the telematics, infotainment, and assistance systems. Our test cars were stuffed with gadgets to the max: a stereo system that automatically switches between bands, a television function, heated and ventilated seats with various massage functions. The stellar Bang & Olufsen speakers were an added bonus.
The infotainment system uses an NVIDIA K1 processor and LTE Advanced data transfer; no wonder it is 50 times faster than Audi’s former infotainment platform. And it allows for a much-improved voice command system that is highly likely to understand your freely spoken questions and commands. Oh, and you can also start your car by smartphone.
The new A8 will be as close to a self-driving car as you can get, at least when its Level 3 autonomous driving functions can be legally enabled. Right now, you can use Level 2, which requires you to keep your eyes on the road. Audi, like the other traditional carmakers, is far more conservative than Tesla: Executive told me they would never get away with an imperfect system that lets the driver take his or her eyes off the road for so long, and they are not willing to risk potentially catastrophic accidents.
Within the Volkswagen Group, Audi is taking the lead, says Stephanie Edler, who worked on Driver Assistance Systems. She had a lot on her plate: A fully loaded Audi A8 features in excess of 40 assistance systems. They include novelties like a remote self-parking function that can actually turn the car into a parking spot, and a curb warning system that will save your expensive wheels from being scratched during a clumsy maneuver (of which, this writer had more than enough).
Audi will offer a system that scans the road ahead in order to pre-configure the suspension: You won’t even feel that bump or pothole ahead. What’s more, if the cameras and sensors detect an imminent side crash, the A8 is lifted so the other car will hit the ultra-solid sills, instead of softer parts of the door. What’s new: The connectivity and the computing power allow the chassis systems to act in unison, rather than in a reactive cadence.
An optional rear-wheel steering system makes the car more stable during high-speed lane changes, when the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the front wheels, though ever so slightly. At low speeds, they turn in the opposite direction, thus reducing the turning circle to the level of an A4 (which is a car that sits two classes below).
On the road, it all works really well: From behind the steering wheel, the A8 feels agile and nimble despite its size; the steering is slightly overboosted, and while gearheads might object to the relative lack of road feel, I suspect that some may even see it as a bonus.
If you let someone else do the driving, you will be more than satisfied: You are virtually isolated from noise and road conditions. A five-seat configuration is standard; with the four-seat interior, the A8 includes a massive center console with a vast array of functions, some of which can be operated by a removable device that looks and feel like a premium smartphone. The cars I drove were entirely free of squeaks and rattles, and unless the engines are squeezed out, you travel in almost absolute silence and serenity.
Squeezing out the engines, by the way, is probably a bad idea unless you are traveling on the Audi A8′s home turf, specifically, the unlimited Autobahn. The entry-level Audi A8 50 TFSI comes with an entirely sufficient 340-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6 and is easily capable of reaching a governed 155 mph, while the uplevel Audi A8 60 TFSI is fitted with a 460-horsepower 4.0-liter V-8 that delivers almost supercar-like performance. We doubt that Audi will bring the V6 TDI turbodiesel to the US, which is a shame: It feels almost as powerful as the V-8, but it is so efficient that it can attain a range of over 900 miles on a single tank of fuel.
If you fancy a fuel-sipping Audi A8, you will have another choice: Audi is readying a plug-in hybrid, called A8 60 e-tron and rated at 449 horsepower. It will go up to 31 miles on pure electricity, it offers the flexibility of a gasoline engine, and it can be recharged on an inductive plate.
Down the road, Audi will add more powerful versions: A W-12 engine with 585 horsepower as a prestige model, and S8 models which could exceed 600 horsepower. And while this may seem like an old-fashioned power trip, all models (except for the plug-in hybrid with its high-voltage system) will be fitted with a 48-volt system that includes “mild hybrid” functions, including vigorous energy recuperation from braking, and even from chassis movements.
The Audi A8 is expected to reach US shores by mid-2018 as a 2019 model, with an entry-level price significantly below the $100K mark, pushing the competition forward on the race to make luxury cars that take cues from smartphones and eventually drive themselves.
Photography by Jens Meiners for the Verge.