WHAT IS IT?
This is the fifth generation of big, plush Audi sedan; a lineage that began 30 years ago with the Audi V8 of 1988. It arrives in Australia laden with technology that buyers of more accessible Audis will get in future generations. For those with the means right now, this advanced limo promises to pose its strongest challenge yet to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series.
WHY WE’RE TESTING IT
At its unveiling, this generation of A8 was billed as the first production car capable of Level 3 autonomy. We already know that for locally delivered cars that’s not quite the case, but some production-first tech means this car is a big deal physically and figuratively.
Mercedes-Benz S450 L, BMW 740i, Lexus LS500 Sport Luxury, Jaguar XJ, Maserati Quattroporte, Porsche Panamera
THE WHEELS VERDICT
Audi’s best full-size limousine yet. Though some of the A8’s most advanced safety and assistance features are either not yet available or not yet legal in Australia, this car is already an intriguing display of what Audi can do. It’s the highway crushing long-distance weapon one would expect, with a bonus appetite for back roads.
PLUS: Ride quality, interior elegance, long haul effortlessness, agility
MINUS: Falls short of Level 3 billing, relatively conservative styling
THE WHEELS REVIEW
AUDI’S all-new flagship has arrived in Australia. Two groups of people will be interested in that news; the lucky few who actually have $200,000 to blow on a full-size limo, and the rest of us with a curious bent who appreciate the crystal ball quality of the A8. Like those before it, the fourth-gen (fifth if you include its predecessor, the Audi V8) previews the future of Audi’s more accessible models, and the technological leap is a big one.
Here are the basics first up. Local showrooms will offer a two-tier A8 line-up, offering a choice of turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 engines; a 210kW/600Nm diesel and a 250kW/500Nm petrol. Both are coupled to an eight-speed auto, and both benefit from a 48v mild hybrid system with a belt-driven starter/generator that assists low-end performance and fuel economy. Pricing starts at $192,000 for the oiler and $195,000 for the petrol.
The two engines are distinguished by Audi’s new nomenclature, in this case 50 TDI and 55 TFSI, which now denotes performance rather than displacement. Both are available in regular or long wheelbase formats, the latter adding 130mm between the axles and $15,000 to the price. That fleshes the range out to four until the inevitable short-wheelbase-only S8 makes it five.
Elsewhere the car is longer, taller and narrower than the old one. It’s also significantly stiffer, with torsional rigidity increased by up to 24 percent. Most of that is down to 19 layers of carbonfibre that are sandwiched into one big board behind the rear seatback. Audi’s Space Frame is now a multi-material meld of hot-shaped and cast steels, aluminium and composite ingredients. Weight varies from 1920kg to 2000kg depending on spec.
Externally, the A8’s sheet metal is detailed, and in the grille’s case exaggerated, if not especially stirring. Subtly blistered guards and bonnet shut-lines that become the body’s upper shoulder are two understated highlights. It compensates for its conservatism with distinctive lighting signatures including animated OLED taillights and incredible laser headlights, both of which are bundled into an option pack ($13,200). The HD Matrix LED headlights with laser projectors radiate light up to 600m ahead, double the range of conventional high beams.
The A8 has often been ground zero for Audi’s technological invention and, in this case, reinvention. The brand’s familiar MMI rotary controller that was introduced by the second-gen A8 in 2002 is no more, replaced by a secondary touchscreen mounted low on the centre console within easy reach of the driver’s hand. In total the A8 boasts four separate screens; a pair mounted centrally, a large head-up display and a gorgeous high-resolution Virtual Cockpit instrument cluster now with detailed satellite maps.
Ditching the old interface is bold. The average age of an A8 buyer is between 45 and 60, and while their tech proficiency is likely to be high, asking serial buyers to adapt to a totally new user protocol is a relatively big deal. The old way of doing things has become intuitive and easy to control without looking away from the road, whereas the new system needs more attention given to it at first, even with its haptic feedback and audible clicks. Improved voice control and handwriting recognition should make the transition easier.
The major new frontier here is autonomy. According to the headlines at its reveal this A8 was to be the world’s first Level 3 capable production car. The reality isn’t quite as billed. The D5 A8 has been developed with future Level 3 capability factored in, but the models coming to Australia now are not ready. Local legislation isn’t ready either. There’s some time before we get there, but there are short-term benefits from the advanced hardware that’s already fitted. This A8 has 40 separate safety and driver assistance systems, and includes a first-of-its-kind laser scanner that can ‘see’ the contours of objects further ahead than radar and trigger less abrupt interventions.
On spec alone the A8 should compel potential 7 Series and S-Class buyers to take a closer look. It undercuts its immediate rivals by around $20K, even with the requisite Premium Plus option package ($11,000) factored in, which brings 20-inch wheels, extended leather, privacy glass, digital TV, seat ventilation and massage functions, and more.
The A8’s beautiful, minimalist interior is finished with Ingolstadt’s utmost level of care. Central air vents flip behind a timber insert when not in use, and there’s a flush-mounted, smartphone-inspired seamlessness to the form and function of everything else. Storage space is limited, but spaciousness and comfort for passengers both front and back is no issue, even in regular wheelbase variants. The extended L-badged versions are practically unnecessary unless you happen to have a driver on staff.
Even if that’s the case, it would be a shame to hand the reins over as this A8 is genuinely pleasing to drive. The strong petrol V6 – closely related to that in the S4 – is the pick. It’s able to reach 100km/h from rest in 5.6 seconds, but is also well isolated and tuned to cruise with enough torque below 3000rpm that calling upon its more vocal (albeit velvety) band of revs is rare. Claimed fuel consumption is 8.3L/100km.
The ride on standard adaptive air suspension is effortless, and nails the A8’s mile-munching brief, while Dynamic brings an expertly judged balance between tautness and compliance. No A8 before could boast the same. The gearbox calibration draws only a minor complaint from its reluctance to kick down, but a nudge from the wheel-mounted paddle shifter helps with overtaking.
Highway performance is an obvious A8 strong suit, but that’s not all it has going for it. There’s an unexpected agility that few cars with a three metre wheelbase can deliver. Optional rear-wheel steering ($4500) brings further stability at speed and manoeuvrability around town, effectively shortening the distance between the axles and shrinking the turning circle by more than a metre. That functionality is bundled with a variable ratio rack and, though the four-spoke wheel isn’t especially communicative, its variable assistance is well-weighted.
What we don’t yet have available is the A8’s pothole detecting AI Active Suspension, which can pre-emptively react to road surface defects to lessen their impact on the cabin. That’s still up to a year away, but it has the potential to be enough of a game-changer that potential A8 buyers might want to wait. There’s also a V8 available in other markets that’s missing from the local launch line-up, and which some Aussies might miss.
But even knowing what's to come, not least of which is that Level 3 capability, this car is a significant advance for the A8’s stock. It’s the most impressive big Audi ever, and finally stands toe-to-toe with its core rivals.
Model: Audi A8 55 TFSI
Engine: 2995cc V6 (90⁰), dohc, 24v, turbo
Max power: 250kW @ 5000-6000rpm
Max torque: 500Nm @ 1370-4500rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 5.6sec (claimed)
Fuel economy: 8.3L/100km (claimed)
On sale: Now