The all-new 2011 Audi A8 is an impressive combination of high performance and high technology. High performance in the form of a luxury sedan powered by a 372-horsepower V8 that's capable of hitting 60 miles per hour from a dead stop in just 5.5 seconds or comfortably cruising for hours on end at speeds well in excess of 100 mph. High technology in the forms of onboard navigation and sound systems managed either by voice commands or by a laptop computer-like touch pad embedded in the center console next to a shift lever modeled after the throttle control for high-end yachts. All for a starting price below $79,000.
A new, limousine-like A8L is available as well, featuring an extra-roomy back seat that can be decked out with reclining seats, a powered footrest, and a built-in refrigerator. The basics, in other words.
A true luxury car, the 2011 A8 comes standard with real leather trim and upholstery, all the requisite power-assisted features, Bose surround sound and a voice-recognition navigation system. Standard running gear comprises the aforementioned V8, a slick 8-speed automatic with available column-mounted paddle shifters, Audi's trademark quattro all-wheel drive and low-profile tires on alloy wheels.
Among the more noteworthy options available either in packages or individually are a Bang & Olufsen surround system with 19 speakers and a 1400-watt amplifier, ventilated and massaging seats, rearview camera, sports suspension, heated steering wheel and, for the A8L, a rear seat entertainment center with a pair of 10-inch LCD screens and individual audio controls.
Looks-wise, the new A8 carries on with Audi's easily recognized trapezoidal grille and LED taillights. New for 2011 (and what Audi claims is a first for passenger cars) is the application of that LED technology to the A8's headlamps. Available only as a stand-alone option, these lamp assemblies use LEDs and only LEDs for all lighting functions, as in, high beam, low beam, turn indicators and side marker and running lights. The carefully arrayed LEDs produce an even, wide pattern of very white light with no hot spots.
Audi didn't neglect the driving experience, as the new 2011 A8 is both a superbly capable luxury cruiser, as would be expected given the market and the price point, and, when properly optioned, a refreshingly fun to drive sports sedan.
The quattro system effectively and invisibly neutralizes any tendency on the car's part to understeer (where it wants to go straight when the driver wants it to turn) or to oversteer (when it tends to turn more sharply than the driver wants), making the car quicker to respond to changes in direction while remaining drama free. Likewise, directional stability on long straight stretches of road inspires confidence.
Audi's MMI multi-media interface employs a touchpad embedded in the center console to control the navigation and sound systems. The pad is multi-talented, offering functions ranging from back lighted number displays for audio presets or owner-programmed functions to scrolling through displayed menus to handwriting recognition (printed block letters and numbers) for keying in navigational requests, like addresses or city names.
While some of the electronics gee-whizardry may be a bit overdone (really, a touch pad?) the new 2011 A8 is an impressive achievement.
The most eye-catching feature of the new, 2011 Audi A8 is the optional headlamp system. Every function, including for the first time the headlight high and low beams, consists of an assemblage of light emitting diodes. There is no single bulb serving any single purpose. Viewed head on, it's like a string of monochromatic Christmas tree lights reclining on a contrasting colored light rope bed. Audi says its LED system consumes 40 watts against 50 watts to 60 watts for most headlight high beams and as much as 80 watts for some xenon HID lamps. Even with the lower wattage, Audi still fits each headlight assembly with a small fan that keeps air circulating around the LEDs any time the lights are on. Whatever, there's no mistaking the new A8s in the rearview mirror or oncoming, especially at night.
The other, equally important but less noticeable feature is a modestly bulbous hood. This is something that'll increasingly be appearing on European-brand cars as they're re-styled to meet the continent's recently adopted pedestrian safety standards. Those that are done well, as is the '11 A8's, which benefits from a complementary grille geometry, will be largely invisible. Others, like on the new BMW 7 Series, may look a bit awkward until our eyes adjust to the new contours.
The other noticeable feature on the A8's face is one that's no longer there: the black bar crossing the grille at bumper height. The grille now looks of a single piece, a large but not ungraceful trapezoid sporting the trademark four interlocking rings.
Viewed from the side, the new A8 quite frankly could be any one of the continent's large luxury sedans. Subdued character lines paralleling each other trace rearward from the top and bottom of the front wheelwell to the top of the boot and the center of the rear bumper; the lower line, of course, breaks where it leap frogs the rear wheelwell. The overall image is boxier and less wedge-like than the styling cues that prevail in the brand's smaller sedans. Door handles pop out of otherwise clean flanks just below the upper character line. The low profile tires neatly fill circular, gently blistered wheelwells.
Audi carries the LED theme into the taillights, enclosing the brake light units in a loop of running lights that wrap around the corner of the rear fender to double as side marker lights. The trailing edge of the trunk lid arcs across the car between the taillights, curving around the rear fender to link up with the upper character line creasing the A8's flanks. Properly placed dual exhaust tips peak out through the lower portion of the rear bumper, itself graced with a slender strip of bright work running the width of the car. A cutline bisecting the vertical plane of the trunk lid below the interlocking rings logo and between the taillights hides the lighting for the rear license plate and the pressure button for opening the trunk.
There's almost too much going on inside the new A8s. Not to say the panoply of new devices, interfaces and comforts are overly distracting, but they do require a major effort to acclimate to all the sensory inputs, functional capabilities and optional settings. And the question remains just how much of it buyers really want or will ever use.
Taking the essentials first, seats all around give good support without being overly firm or too soft. We didn't find that we needed all 22 adjustments offered on the test A8 to get comfortable, but some might. The automatic climate control easily handled Central California's hottest days of the year and the first cold snap of winter, which reached the low 40s.
Where there's wood trim, it's real. The standard leather upholstery and trim had that expensive look and feel, although on those hot days the test A8's ventilation system was much appreciated by way of keeping driver and passengers' backsides cool and dry. The only complaint about visibility is with the wide C-pillar (the rearmost body panel supporting the car's roof), although no doubt Audi would argue that the blind spot warning system minimizes that problem.
As for roominess, the A8's front seats trail only the BMW 740i in headroom, but by more than three inches. In legroom, the A8 splits the difference between the BMW and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedans.
Rear-seat accommodations in the A8 felt about average, and our impressions were largely supported by the numbers; the 740i has a tenth of an inch less legroom but two tenths of an inch more headroom, while the S-Class has half an inch more headroom and more than three inches more legroom. Even the A8L trails the S-Class in rear-seat legroom, supposedly its long suit (pun intended), by almost one and a half inches. The long-wheelbase BMW, the 740Li, tops the A8L in rear-seat legroom, by almost one and one half inches.
The A8 has the least trunk space of the three, holding about one less foot-square box than the 740i and 740Li and three cubic feet less than the S-Class.
Figuring out how to operate Audi's navigation and audio systems borders on overwhelming. Audi stresses that its goal was to maximize features while minimizing distraction. Hence the touch pad and voice recognition interfaces. But the front seat of a high performance luxury sedan might not be the place to display a full-color, Rolodex-like graphic of the album covers of the CDs and DVDs stored on the 20 gigabytes of the navigation system's hard disk drive dedicated to personalized recordings. And while a seemingly endless list of points of interest can be helpful at times, and using the touch pad to scroll through them is certainly high tech, the driver still has to look at the screen to pick the point that's most interesting. Of course, that can be said, and no doubt it has been, of any graphical POI feature, but given that, other systems relying on voice recognition alone have fared quite well in the marketplace of public acceptance without adding the burden of learning how to finger paint numbers and letters while not looking at the electronic pen and pad.
Otherwise, essential controls follow Audi's established patterns, with legibly marked buttons and knobs ergonomically arranged on the center console forward of the shift lever (about which more later). A touch of class is the tidy analog clock (round face with sweeping hour and minute hands) centered in the dash.
Classy, too, are the superb surround sounds delivered by the 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system on the test car, with the crispest of highs floating out of twin, acoustically tuned, mini-tower speakers that pop up out of the ends of the dash top and the deepest of basses pumped up by the 1400-watt amplifier but without rattling windows or threatening occupants' heart health.
Where the 2011 Audi A8 excels is in its driving dynamics, also known more plainly as its fun to drive characteristics. In every respect, save one, this is a car that owners will look forward to climbing into, whether it's for the daily commute or the out of state vacation.
The new, 2011 A8 is not a lightweight, tipping the scales at 4,409 pounds; the A8L weighs in at 4,435 pounds. Both models are heavier than the BMW 740i and 740Li, respectively, and this despite Audi's pound-shaving all-aluminum space frame. Even so, our test A8 rode better and responded to steering inputs with more certainty than the 2011 BMW 740i or the 2011 Mercedes-Benz S400 we drove. Our A8 tracked through curves taken at elevated speeds more confidently than the BMW and Mercedes did, the quattro all-wheel drive system invisibly willing the back end to trace the arc marked by the front tires.
Road and wind noise were nicely muted, perchance in part thanks to the filtering provided by the sounds from the Bang & Olufsen system, which managed to make even the sports-addicted ranters on satellite radio's Mad Dog Radio sound eloquent.
The refined but audibly muscular V8 delivered its power through the 8-speed automatic cleanly and in a linear fashion, with no bumps or surges from camshaft mode transitions.
Fuel economy for the A8 is an EPA-rated 17/27 mpg City/Highway with a Combined rating of 21 mpg. Those estimates better or equal the BMW 740i's 17/25/20 City/Highway/Combined and Mercedes-Benz's S400 Hybrid's comparable 19/26/21 mpg. Also worth noting is that the A8's V8 delivers more power than either the 740i (315 hp) or the S400's gasoline engine (275 hp). Our weeks with the test A8s, during which the cars admittedly were driven with gusto and little regard to the price of gas, delivered figures quite a bit shy of those estimates, with an overall average of 13.6 mpg and a best just over 18 mpg achieved in extended freeway driving.
At the opposite end of the acceleration curve, the brakes performed consistently and evenly, never showing the slightest hint of fade and always at the ready. This latter is aided by a programmed function that primes the brakes' hydraulics any time the driver abruptly lifts off the gas pedal as if in preparation for a sudden stop. But it doesn't overdo things, as evidenced by the lack of drama when the brake pedal was touched in the midst of a freeway off ramp entered too fast, delivering only a well-controlled damping of the rate of travel and a calming stop at the intersection at the foot of the ramp.
The single reservation with the A8's driving ergonomics is with the shift lever. Audi describes it as styled like a yacht's throttle lever with the intent of serving as a wrist rest to facilitate the driver's use of the nearby touch pad. This sounds good in theory, and it certainly looks trick, but in practice not once during our weeks with the A8s did we manage to shift directly from Park into Reverse, the shift lever relentlessly and stubbornly slipping directly to Drive or occasionally only to Neutral irrespective of how gently we eased it out of Park.
The new, 2011 Audi A8 combines high performance and high tech in a luxury sedan that's almost as entertaining to ride in as it is fun to drive. Whether all of the high tech elements are necessary is still open to debate, but clearly, Audi has raised that bar to new heights.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Sacramento, California.