In the 50 or so years since the resurrection of the Audi name, following Volkswagen’s acquisition of the rump Auto Union empire in the mid-1960s, the brand has grown to become one of the world’s leading manufacturers of premium automobiles. Its product portfolio covers just about every conceivable market segment (and a few that frankly aren’t), from superminis to executive limousines and from baby SUVs to supercars, crucially with the price point of each model line set a little higher than the median so as to burnish further the four-ring logo’s cachet.
Yet just as Audi churns out vast quantities of posh and aspirational automobiles, so too do its fiercest competitors, Benz and BMW, with each company aggressively chasing global leadership; in reality, though, global sales have tended to be divvied up more-or-less equally between them. Where a dominance has been established, however, is at the pinnacle of the product pyramid, and it’s there that Mercedes-Benz’s luxo-barge, the S-Class, stands supreme, outselling its Audi A8 rival by a ratio of roughly 3:1 (it also crushes BMW’s contender, the 7-Series, just as comprehensively).
Objectively speaking, the Audi flagship has lacked nothing that accounts for this disparity. The car’s first generation, for example, pioneered the use of an aluminium space frame, which, as any engineer will tell you, is strong, rigid and light. Equally groundbreaking was Audi’s early adoption of permanent all-wheel drive, which was introduced on the A8’s predecessor, the V8 quattro, as long ago as 1988.
The A8’s engine offerings over the years have been similarly impressive, ranging from V6s, through four-cylinder hybrids and V8s, to the magnificent 6-litre W12 that’s currently shared with Bentley, while Audi has long been in the vanguard of developing artificial intelligence (AI)-based driver-assistance technologies. As for luxury and comfort, the company’s interiors are a byword for ergonomic design and aesthetics, not to mention superb build quality. All these being the case, one can only surmise that the only area in which the Audi has been found wanting is that of perception – and that’s where the fourth-generation 2018 A8 comes in.
Audi’s new luxury saloon, which goes on sale in Asia within the next few weeks, gives the brand the opportunity to remedy this state of affairs. And to facilitate that objective, the company has built a car that’s entirely new from the wheels up, packing it with an exhaustive list of new technologies that not only radically up the ante against the competition, but can also be expected to trickle down through the range over the next few years.
The new A8 is built on a heavily re-engineered, aluminium-rich, all-wheel-drive platform and features crisp new styling that appears sleeker, longer, lower and wider than the outgoing car’s, yet reimagines the brand’s design language to nudge it in a more contemporary direction. And while it in no way marks a totally clean break from the past stylistically, there’s no doubt that this new, 5.2-metre-long Audi is sufficiently large, assertive and confident to make exactly the right kind of statement about its occupants that a luxury saloon should.
A similar evolution of the house style can be found in the airy and unostentatiously luxurious cabin where, upfront, the wraparound fascia and console bristle with virtual dials, and haptic infotainment screens and touch-panels, all of which seem to function as perfectly as they look suitably futuristic. Passengers in the rear, meanwhile, are pampered with reclining chairs that warm and massage butts and torsos (a foot massage device can even be built into the back of the nearside front seat), and with individual climate controls and infinitely variable LED lighting, as well as an exquisite assemblage of fittings, fixtures and materials. So thoughtfully appointed and beautifully executed is the A8’s cabin, in fact, that you’d need to climb into Rollers or the aforementioned Bentleys to find interiors meaningfully better than this.
Then there’s the chassis, which, thanks to the new 48-volt electrics, features camera-assisted, electromechanical active air suspension as well as rear-wheel steering, the latter enhancing both low-speed manoeuvrability and, when travelling more rapidly, cornering stability. Beneath its bonnet lies a revised line-up of engines, all mildly hybridised to permit engine-off coasting and modest brake-energy regeneration, though for the moment your only choice is between petrol and diesel versions of a turbocharged 3-litre V6. Whichever power unit you choose, though, will be mated to an eight-speed, manually shiftable torque-converter gearbox, which feeds power to the wheels via the standard-equipment quattro system.
The big noise, however, concerns the suite of driver-assistance and safety systems, which are so comprehensive in scope (all told, there are more than 40 of them) that Audi can reasonably claim its new A8 to be the most advanced car on the road today. They’re led by what’s called Traffic Jam Pilot, which uses sensors, cameras and all manner of high-tech gubbins to facilitate what’s known as Level 3 autonomy – in other words, in specific circumstances the A8 can drive itself, unassisted by human intervention, at speeds of up to 60km/h. Unfortunately, however, as the whole issue of autonomous driving is fraught with legal and regulatory issues – and in spite of all the politicians’ blather to the contrary – almost no jurisdiction on the planet has yet approved its use.
So what are you allowed to do then? Well, if you’re fortunate enough not to live in Hong Kong (where the mere thought of autonomous capabilities causes an outbreak of pants-wetting among timorous local bureaucrats), you can leap out of your A8 and park it remotely, using either the Parking or Garage Pilot. Given the increasing dimensional disconnect between vehicles and spaces both on streets and in multi-stories, these are a huge boon – and, having tried them several times, I can attest that they really do work. I can say much the same, too, for the AI-active suspension, which, after scanning the road ahead, extends the ground clearance electronically to iron out surface irregularities – and I can also offer similar testimony for the Pre Sense Side-impact function, which tilts the body up and away from an impending 90-degree crash.
You can, of course, drive the A8 just like a normal – though rather large – motorcar, which curiously is when I feel most happy with this new, big Audi. I’m at the wheel of a 335bhp, petrol-powered A8 55 TFSI (the middle numerics have no obvious correlation with either engine size or horsepower), whose 500Nm from as low as 1,370rpm is as easily capable of shifting the car’s 1.92 tonnes along motorways as it is of tackling demanding back roads. Indeed, the 3-litre V6 whisks the A8 along at a fair old clip, with 100km/h appearing in just 5.6 seconds from a standing start, so I wonder why anyone would need the extra grunt provided by the 4-litre, V8 model – badged “60”, just to confuse matters further – which goes on sale later this year.
In motion the test car offers smoothness, comfort and silence that, at the very least, are all the equal of its rivals’. Its active air suspension floats over undulations and the cabin, which is insulated almost totally from engine and exterior noise, is serenity personified.
Grip, composure and body control are all impressive on the twisty stuff, and the helm is admirably precise, doubtless aided by the steerable rear wheels. Sadly, though, there’s precious little feedback from the electromechanical steering even when the Drive Select programme is set to Dynamic.
Nonetheless, the A8 delivers surprising satisfaction to its driver, whether that’s from the flexibility of its willing engine or, once you’ve worked out the optimum combination of drive settings from the bewildering range of options, in the way this big automobile can be hustled along seemingly inappropriate stretches of tarmac. Plus, you’ll never tire of its marvellous cabin, while the sheer ingenuity and scope of its multifarious systems is something to marvel at.
Whether all this gives the A8 the edge to take on its rivals from Mercedes and BMW and win – well, that still remains to be seen. After a few hours in the company of the new über-Audi, however, I’m in no doubt that this time around it has everything required to do just that.