Comfort mode also builds some slack into steering and throttle response, but the A8 never seems loose or sluggish. The direct-injection V-8, with 4.2-liters of displacement, cranks out 372 horsepower and 328 pound-feet of torque (that former number up by 22 horsepower over the previous generation A8). The car gets to 62 mph in 5.7 seconds, according to Audi.
We have few criticisms about the A8, but sacrificing a little horsepower in favor of torque would make it move a little more adroitly in low-speed city maneuvering. As it was, the A8 is more likely to leap from a stop than roll forward in stately luxury.
Ticking along at 75 mph on the freeway, the A8 felt in its element. Exterior noise was slight, and can be lessened further with a double-pane window option. While enjoying the exceedingly well-mannered drive, we noticed the tachometer needle hovering just under 2,000rpm. Tapping the paddle shifters attached to the steering wheel spokes, we quickly figured out how the A8 could maintain such a low-engine speed while cruising close to 80 mph. The new A8 gets an eight-speed transmission.
With this extreme overdrive, the A8 earns an EPA rating of 27 mpg on the highway, a very impressive number for a car with this size and horsepower, and indicative of Audi's general strategy to maximize fuel economy. This is similar to what we saw on the . Of course, city mileage is not nearly as good, at 17 mpg. During our own driving we observed only 16.8 mpg, but we spent a lot of time driving the car enthusiastically.
While eating up the freeway miles, we gave one of our favorite features in the A8 a try, the 1,400-watt 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system. As in the previous-generation car, Bang & Olufsen's acoustic lenses rise up from the dashboard when the stereo is turned on, and door speakers use aluminum grilles to match the interior styling.
This system is a pro at music reproduction, bringing up every detail and track in the recordings we played. And the audio is incredibly well-balanced, with the treble avoiding shrill qualities and the bass never getting too boomy. We could have used just a little more brightness from the system, as some high-frequency trills never really achieved the kind of shimmering quality we've heard in other systems. Bang & Olufsen seems to strive toward neutrality, with fine reproduction but no added warmth.
Lower bit-rate MP3 recordings don't sound good in the A8, as the Bang & Olufsen system exposes all that missing data that gets hidden by the muting and crushing effects of lesser audio systems. We kept our source material to at least a variable bit rate of 320 kbps, and mostly preferred uncompressed music. Particularly low-frequency bass from some tracks, such as music by The XX, also exposed a slight rattle.
The A8 gave us many options to play compressed audio tracks, either through its iPod port, USB port, MP3-compatible CD player, Bluetooth streaming audio, or the SD card slots that Audi continues to put in its cars. And, as the maps are stored on a hard drive, Audi makes space for about 3,000 tracks ripped through the car's CD player.
Along with the Bluetooth streaming audio, the A8 also has a Bluetooth phone system. As with other Audi models, this system does an excellent job of downloading a phone's contact list and making it available through the car's interface. But new for Audi is the option to use voice command to dial by name. We tried it with an iPhone and found its voice recognition capabilities worked perfectly, which can somewhat be attributed to the low noise in the cabin.
Sports car handling
The biggest surprise with the A8 is how well it handles hard driving over winding roads. We set Drive Select to Dynamic, and the car instantly showed more throttle response and felt tauter in the steering and suspension. If we could have closed our eyes, it would have felt like we were driving a car much smaller than this near-17 foot luxury sedan.
Using what Audi engineers call the "yacht lever," a handle in place of a conventional stick, we shifted the car from Drive to Sport, making the transmission match the rest of the car's settings. Now the car was willing to let its tachometer needle run up toward the 7,000rpm mark, hitting its peak horsepower number.
The A8 proved downright nimble as we thrust it into the turns, dancing neatly around as its suspension kept the chassis level. We found that the A8 could take corner after corner at high speed, with minimal drama. Quattro all-wheel drive, which defaults to 40 percent front and 60 percent rear torque, shifted power from front to back as needed, and also between right- and left-rear wheels.
In Sport mode, the car did not fully exploit its power band unless we really stepped on the gas, instead keeping engine speed between 3,000 and 4,000rpm. Making use of the manual mode by tapping the paddle shifters, we held the car in third gear, which let us comfortably run the car from 30 mph to 75 mph.
The automatic transmission reacted quickly to our manual shifts, but Audi left out a real manual mode in the A8. We were able to manually shift by tapping the paddles, but if we left the paddles alone for a couple of minutes, the car would go back into its previous automatic mode, either Sport or Drive.
During an afternoon barreling the car around tight corners, we relied on third gear heavily, but if we left it in third for any length of time, it would automatically go back into Sport mode. At the next turn we would have to tap the paddle back down from fifth gear.
The 2011 Audi A8 is truly a remarkable car, and a serious technical achievement. Although some of its driver assistance features can be found in competitors' cars, Audi offers an unparalleled richness in its 3D maps. The collaboration with Google next year should prove very useful. The Bang & Olufsen audio system is in the top tier, and the massage seats enhance comfort.
We were astounded by the handling, given the size of the car, and its 27 mpg highway rating. Audi takes advantage of a number of technologies, including the latest version of its all-wheel-drive system, to make it slip neatly through the curves at speed. The eight-gear transmission helps keep engine speed down on the freeway, saving considerable fuel.
The look of the new A8 is a nice progression from the previous version, as it keeps much of the same style but adds a modern veneer. The LED headlights are also nicely shaped, and hold true to Audi's established design. The touch-pad interface is pure genius, and we like the ellipsoid menus on the LCD.
|Model||2011 Audi A8|
|Power train||Direct injection 4.2-liter V-8, 8 speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||17 mpg city/27 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||16.8 mpg|
|Navigation||Hard drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||Single CD/DVD player|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Onboard hard drive, Bluetooth audio streaming, USB drive, SD card, auxiliary audio input|
|Audio system||Bang & Olufsen 1,400-watt 19-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Night vision, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection, lane drift warning, backup camera|
|Base price||Not available|
|Price as tested||Not available|