2011 Audi A8
Base price: $80,000 (estimated)
MPG: 17 city/27 highway
- Cutting edge performance, technology and comfort
- The new leader in luxury class sedans
- Loaded with goodies, exceptional driving experience
- Very expensive
- Frustrating controls
- Wait for the longer version
By Jim Prueter
Redesigned A8 is New Class-Leading Luxury Sedan
Audi’s fourth-generation premium luxury flagship A8 sedan, available in November, boasts a new sporty flair, innovative technology, greater horsepower — yet improved fuel economy — and exceptional comfort. It has grown two inches in wheelbase, 3 inches longer, 2 inches wider and a bit higher.
The redesign was necessary to battle other newly redesigned luxury sedans like the BMW 7 Series, Jaguar XJ and the new Porsche Panamera. Other competitors in this class include the Lexus LS 460 and Mercedes-Benz S Class.
True to the first-generation 1994 A8, the body remains lightweight yet ultra-strong aluminum and the new model keeps the same all-wheel drive that Audi calls Quattro. Still much on the new A8 from the full LED headlights, Bang & Olufsen audio system and Multi Media Interface (MMI) control system has been updated.
Visually, the exterior styling hasn’t been dramatically changed. In our opinion, Audi played it safe — perhaps too safe, especially out back where the rear mimics its smaller sibling the A4 sedan. The grille features a noticeable addition of bright horizontal bars, but retains its corporate signature trapezoidal design.
Audi also incorporates its distinctive white LED daytime running lights in the shape of checkmarks below the headlights that change to amber color when the directional signals are engaged. We first saw this lighting treatment with Audi’s R8 sports car, followed by the A5, A6 and A4 models.
Audi makes all its lights available as LED, including low and high beams, markers and cornering lights. During our testing, we found the low beams insufficient for night driving and were forced to primarily use the high beams. This is something we hope Audi will address. One cool feature relative to lighting is cornering lights will activate in anticipation of turns when the navigation system is in use and the corner imminent.
Our test car interior came finished with rich wood, supple leather seats and accents, real brushed aluminum and pencil-thin lighting on the dash, headliner and doors. In a word, the interior is simply gorgeous.
The A8 seats five, but I wouldn’t want to be the one to occupy the middle of the rear seat. It best serves as an armrest when the center console — containing controls for the optional rear entertainment system and another set for Audi’s MMI system — is dropped down. Rear seat passengers can even access the navigation system to select and program a driving route. The console can be paired with the optional controls for the two power-adjustable and heated individual seats, which include ventilation and massage functions, and other features such as a folding table and a cool box.
Rear seat legroom wasn’t generous when tall drivers needed to fully extend the front seat. We expect this won’t be a problem when the A8L “long” model debuts later this fall.
Our front seats where comprised of the optional custom leather with massage, heat and ventilation functions. While the traditional fore, aft, seatback angle and seat height controls are on the side of the front seats, thigh support, shoulder articulation, lumbar and side bolster adjustment are controlled by a dial adjacent to the seat controls. From here it gets a bit complicated. Twisting the dial activates a pop-up menu on the center MMI infotainment screen with a picture of the seat, highlighting the area you desire to adjust. Five separate options appear for selection and twisting the MMI dial highlights the choice.
A word about the Audi MMI. Audi has revamped the MMI for 2011 to make it more user friendly. It still has the round knob with four buttons that vary the command dependingon what’s displayed on the screen. There are permanent buttons for the navigation or audio system screen, but Audi has added a touch pad directly to the left of the MMI knob, which is why Audi now calls it the MMI Touch system. The touch pad is used primarily for entering addresses, map scrolling and selecting between six preset buttons when the audio system is displayed. Rather than scroll and select street numbers and letters, you can just “write” the letter on the pad and the system will recognize and enter it as a choice.
Of course, you can still program a destination manually with the MMI knob and push it down to select a letter or number. We found the navigation system difficult to use and a constant source of technological frustration. We were unable to prevent the system from defaulting back to a pre-programmed destination in Sterling Heights, Michigan and the owner’s manual was no help whatsoever. We finally gave up and aborted our attempt to program the navigation route. In time, we would have learned how to use it, but there are dozens of controls to learn with no shortage of different screens to drive you deeper into the configuration and programs, along with buttons and switches on the center panel and ceiling above it.
There is also an overlay to the navigation map for a Google search function and a Google Earth feature. We are told the feature is extremely functional and handy, however, we were unable to give it a go.
Other high-tech capabilities include the Audi pre-sense system that is part of an optional technology package that can sense an imminent collision and lower impact speeds by as much as 25 mph, according to Audi.
The car uses radar-based cruise control and lane-departure warning systems to predict potential collisions. If the system senses a rear collision is imminent, the seatbelts tighten and the headrests are raised to mitigate possible whiplash from the impact.
Should the system predict a frontal collision, again the seatbelts tighten and full braking is applied automatically. Other optional tech equipment includes a thermal-based night-vision camera that, when activated, displays on the dash between the speedometer and tachometer.
Our test A8 was powered by a 4.2-liter V8, which produces 372 horsepower, 22 over the previous generation. Initially, it will be the only engine offered. It’s teamed with a slick new ZF eight-speed automatic transmission. The transmission features a Sport setting and a Manual mode with paddle shifters. Audi also has what’s called a Drive Select feature with four settings – Comfort, Auto, Dynamic and Individual for varying the throttle response, shift points, steering feel and suspension stiffness. We recorded a zero-to-60 mph time of just a tick over 5 seconds, surprisingly quick for a car that weighs over 4,400 pounds. No wonder Audi is calling it the sportiest A8 yet. We agree.
Equally impressive is that Audi engineers have been able to increase the fuel-economy to 17 mpg city and 27 highway (21 combined) up from 16 and 23, respectively, for the outgoing A8.
We spent the majority of our weeklong test on the roads in Michigan and northern Indiana. We thought the A8 drove smaller than its size suggested, with exceptional handling, agility and ride quality. The more we pushed it, the better it handled. We attribute it to Audi’s new adaptive air suspension with a combination of all-wheel drive and forward-weight balance. Braking was smooth, firm and aligned. Simply perfect.
This is a big car and we were surprised by the throttle response, given most cars in this segment are 400hp plus. It brilliantly handled everything we threw at it without complaint.
So what might you not like about the new A8?
While pricing hasn’t been announced, we are expecting a substantial price hike over the current A8 and predict a starting price of about $80-$84,000. Our test car, though well equipped, certainly did not include every option and we are still guessing it will run about $95,000 - $100,000. It’s affordable for a chosen few and for the rest of us, a fantasy.
We thought the technology was close to being over-the-top. There’s definitely a learning curve here, but learn it all and one should be able to get four to six college credits.
We didn’t like the gearshift both in appearance (looked like a golf putter sticking up through the center console) and function with the operation by wire difficult to get into the correct gear.
Slam, slam and slam again doors. It was the exception to get the doors completely closed with just one attempt. If ever a car could use the “suck shut” feature that Jaguar uses, this is the one.
Bottom line, if you like the looks of the new body style and price doesn’t matter, we think the new A8 jumps to the head of the executive sedan class, overtaking BMW, Mercedes-Benz and others. Or if you need more rear seat legroom, the “L” version will be out shortly and worth the wait.