The Audi A8 is an impressive blend of performance, technology and luxury. Its 372-horsepower 4.2-liter V8 is capable of propelling this big sedan from 0 to 60 miles per hour in just 5.7 seconds or cruise for hours on end at 100 mph. Quattro all-wheel drive makes it feel like it's riding on rails. The A8's cabin is luxurious and equipped with the latest in technology.
The A8 was redesigned for the 2011 model year, making it the newest and most advanced of the big German luxury sedans. The BMW 7 Series was redesigned for 2009, while the current-generation Mercedes-Benz S-Class has been with us since the 2007 model year.
There are only minor changes to the 2012 Audi A8 lineup. Among them: Audi connect integrates Google Earth into the navigation system, providing realistic panoramic views and high-resolution 3D satellite and aerial imagery in place of the road-map look of less sophisticated systems. A Camera Zoom feature allows closer views. Real-time traffic information is available through the SiriusXM Traffic service. WiFi connectivity is available inside the cabin for up to eight devices.
The 2012 Audi A8 comes in standard-length and long-wheelbase A8L versions.
The Audi A8L features an extra-roomy back seat that can be decked out with reclining seats, a powered footrest, and a built-in refrigerator. The long-wheelbase variant is offered with either the 4.2-liter V8 or a 6.3-liter W12 that delivers 500 horsepower and 463 pound-feet of torque. All A8 models come with the 8-speed Tiptronic transmission.
The A8 is a true luxury car with high-quality furnishings and great attention to detail. A superb Bang & Olufsen surround system with 19 speakers and a 1400-watt amplifier is available, along with ventilated and massaging seats, rearview camera, sports suspension, and a heated steering wheel. The A8L offers a rear seat entertainment center with a pair of 10-inch LCD screens and individual audio controls.
Freshly redesigned, the A8 features a giant trapezoidal grille that has become an Audi trademark. Taillights are LED, the light-emitting diode technology that is becoming a hallmark of upscale cars. If the option box is checked, the high beams, low beams, turn indicators and side marker and running lights are all LED as well, and we've found the carefully arrayed LEDs produce an even, wide pattern of very white light with no hot spots.
In spite of its size and weight, the A8 provides sporty performance and handling, responding quickly to changes in direction. When pushed hard, there is little understeer or oversteer, benefits of the balanced chassis and Audi quattro all-wheel drive. At the same time, directional stability on long straight stretches of road inspires confidence. The A8 is among the world's best high-speed cruisers.
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.
The most eye-catching feature of the Audi A8 is the optional LED headlight system. Every function, including 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 A8 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 on the A8, which benefits from 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: Beginning with the 2011 models, Audi eliminated 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 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.
The W12 model adds subtle but distinctive touches, including bright accents in the grille and on the exterior mirrors; and trapezoidal chrome tailpipes integrated into the rear bumper.
The Audi A8 cabin is luxuriously appointed and trimmed and comes loaded with technology. Where there's wood trim, it's real. The standard leather upholstery and trim have an expensive look and feel.
The seats give good support without being overly firm or too soft. The driver's seat offers 22 adjustments, more than enough for us to find a comfortable and proper driving position. Front-seat headroom in the A8 trails that of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class by half an inch and the BMW 7 Series by more than three inches. In front-seat legroom, the A8 splits the difference between the BMW and the Mercedes. Visibility is good except the wide C-pillar (the rearmost body panel supporting the car's roof) creates a blind spot, although the blind spot warning system can help address that problem.
Rear-seat accommodations in the A8 felt average, and the numbers are close to BMW's: The 7 Series sedans have a quarter-inch more legroom and a half-inch more headroom, while the S-Class has half an inch more headroom and more than three inches more legroom. The A8L betters the S-Class in rear-seat legroom by a half inch. The long-wheelbase BMW 7 Series, including the 740Li, tops the A8L in rear-seat legroom by about 1.5 inches.
The A8 has the least trunk space of the three, holding about one less foot-square box than the BMW 7 Series and three cubic feet less than the S-Class.
The Audi A8 is loaded with technology and, as with the BMW and Mercedes, there is a learning curve. Like computer users, some drivers will use all the features and personalize all the settings, while others will focus on driving and not plumb the depths of the technology. Some of the technology works very well, some not as much.
We do not love the shifter, for example. 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 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. If you were James Bond and the bad guys were chasing you, you'd want an older car that could quickly be thrown into Reverse by feel. Modern luxury cars are slow to get going because drivers must look and carefully select Reverse or Drive. By the time Bond found Reverse on the A8, he'd be looking at the business end of a pistol.
The automatic climate control works very well and it easily kept the cabin cool during Central California's hottest days of the year. Ventilated seats mean occupants will be comfortable within moments of climbing into a hot, parked car. When temperatures dropped to the low 40s, we found the A8 warm and cozy, and we're confident there would be few sedans better for the iciest winter weather.
Figuring out how to operate Audi's navigation and audio systems borders on overwhelming, however. Audi stresses that its goal was to maximize features while minimizing distraction. Hence the touch pad and voice recognition interfaces. But we wonder whether the front seat of a high performance luxury sedan is the right place to display a full-color, Rolodex-like graphic of album covers of CDs and DVDs. The system includes a 20-gigabyte hard disk drive.
Audi connect integrates Google Earth into the navigation system. Instead of the usual road-map background, the system overlays the traffic grid on top of high-resolution 3D satellite and aerial images. A Camera Zoom feature allows closer views of surroundings or destinations. Google Voice Local Search allows destination searches to be accomplished by voice command. Once the driver knows how to operate this feature it can reduce driver distraction: Instead of trying to scroll through a seemingly endless list of points of interest while simultaneously trying to watch the road, the driver can simply press a button and say, “Vail Mountain Lodge.”
Audi connect also offers real-time traffic and weather, fuel price updates, and streaming news feeds (available to view when the car is at a stop). But perhaps the coolest feature of all is that Audi connect also makes your A8 a WiFi hot spot, providing connectivity for up to eight mobile devices. Your email can be downloading while you drive and you can stop and check it whenever it's convenient.
Essential controls follow Audi's established patterns, with legibly marked buttons and knobs ergonomically arranged on the center console forward of the shift lever. A touch of class is the tidy analog clock with round face and sweeping hour and minute hands centered in the dash.
The 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system is superb, 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.
The Audi A8 excels at driving dynamics. This is a car owners will look forward to climbing into, whether it's for the daily commute or the out of state vacation.
We found the A8 rode better and responded to steering inputs with more certainty than did the 2011 BMW 740i or the 2011 Mercedes-Benz S400 we also 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 in the A8.
The refined but audibly muscular V8 delivers its power through the 8-speed automatic cleanly and in a linear fashion, with no bumps or surges from camshaft mode transitions.
The W12 arranges its 12 cylinders in four rows of three, instead of the two rows of six cylinders used by a V12. The Audi W12 arrangement results in a more compact package better suited for the quattro all-wheel drive system. The A8L W12 displaces 6.3 liters and produces 500 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 463 pound-feet of torque at 4750. For the 2012 A8L, Audi claims a 0 to 60 mph sprint in 4.4 seconds, and a top speed electronically limited to 130 mph.
Fuel economy for the A8 4.2 is an EPA-rated 18/28 mpg City/Highway with a Combined rating of 21 mpg. Those estimates better or equal the BMW 740i's 17/25 mpg and the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid's 19/25 mpg. Also worth noting is that the A8's V8 delivers more power than either the 740i (315 hp) or the S400's combined gas-electric net (295 hp). Flooring the accelerator will reduce fuel economy, of course. During a week of hard driving, our fuel economy ranged from 13.6 to just over 18 mpg, the latter achieved during extended freeway driving.
The W12 rates 14/21 mpg City/Highway, or 16 mpg Combined, in the EPA test. That's slightly better than that of the V12-powered BMW 760 Li 13/19 mpg, or 15 mpg Combined, and the Mercedes-Benz S600 at 12/19 mpg, or 14 mpg Combined. But the BMW and Benz V12s edge the Audi W12 for horsepower, at 535 hp, 510, and 500, respectively.
The brakes performed consistently and evenly on the A8, never showing the slightest hint of fade. The brakes are always at the ready, aided by a programmed function that primes the hydraulic system any time the driver abruptly lifts off the gas pedal. 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 A8 is not a lightweight, tipping the scales at 4,409 pounds. The A8L weighs in at 4,453 pounds with the V8, 4,773 pounds with the W12. Both Audi V8 models are marginally heavier than the BMW 740i and 740Li, respectively, and this despite Audi's pound-shaving all-aluminum space frame. Compared to the 5,000-pound, V12-powered BMW 760Li, however, the A8 W12 looks very lean indeed.
The Audi A8 combines high performance and high technology in a luxury sedan that's almost as entertaining to ride in as it is fun to drive. It can cruise at high speeds all day while allowing email to download to the driver's laptop. This latest-generation A8 compares favorably with the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Sacramento, California.