CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.
The 2008 Audi A8 L W12 rests in a premier echelon of cars that combine extreme luxury with exceptional driving performance, cars that make it difficult to decide whether you'd rather be reclining in the back seat while a chauffeur drives or up there where the action is, with your hands on the wheel. The back seats tempt with a DVD entertainment system, power adjustment, and a refrigerator. The driver's seat offers control over the 6-liter 12-cylinder engine and superb all-wheel-drive handling for such a large car. All seats get treated to stellar sound from the Bang & Olufsen audio system.
But there are a few clouds over Audi's rolling oasis. An engine this size is thirsty, and limits the car's range. And while the car features some new and impressive tech from Audi, the navigation system is the same as in the company's lesser models, still DVD-based where many companies are going to hard-drive-based systems. When faced with such stiff competition as the Mercedes-Benz S63 and the Lexus LS 600h, you need to be perfect on all fronts.
Test the tech: audio cruise with the MP3 department
With a base price of $120,100, most of the tech gadgets in the Audi A8 L are standard. But one option stands out: the Bang & Olufsen custom sound system, at $6,300. This stereo uses 14 speakers, each with its own amplifier, getting over 1,000 watts. There is a microphone mounted in the center console that constantly measures cabin noise and causes the stereo's digital signal processing to compensate. Two tweeters, what Bang & Olufsen calls Zink lenses, rise up from either side of the dashboard when the car is turned on. A subwoofer is mounted on the rear deck with full-range drivers on either side, and a center fill sits in the dashboard. The result is overwhelmingly impressive audio.
Donald and Jasmine get ready to assess the A8 L's Bang & Olufsen audio system.
To test it, we lured the editors from CNET's MP3 reviews department, Jasmine France and Donald Bell, into the back seats by telling them there was wine in the refrigerator. As they poked around, we blasted the big A8 out of the parking lot and proceeded to subject them to a variety of music, played through the Audi Music Interface from an iPod and USB drive. Three of the albums we used were encoded in lossless format, much better quality than MP3. Jasmine picked up on the difference between the two formats, saying, "Lossless audio only need apply. The system is obviously top quality and as a result picks up everything--and that includes the subpar quality of files encoded as MP3. Notably, there was a rattle from the subwoofer for the bass-heavy MP3 tracks. The lossless files, however, sounded phenomenal. Shimmery, warm, encompassing, thumping."
Donald offered strong praise for the system, saying, "The Audi A8 offers one of the best backseat listening experiences I've heard in a sedan. The sound quality in a sedan often skews heavily towards treble or bass, but the Audi A8 has terrific balance that lacked only in the lower midrange frequencies of cellos and rock guitar. When the playlist turned to the dance-pop of the Gorillaz, the A8 offered an overwhelming amount of bass in the backseat, courtesy of the subwoofer behind my head. The spacey rock of the Magnetic Fields filled the Audi A8 cabin with a rich, immersive sound quality I'm only used to hearing from home theater systems."
These tweeters, or Zink lenses, pop up from the dashboard when you turn on the car.
This system really does make every note stand out, which can be a problem with MP3 files encoded at lower bit rates. We were also disturbed by the speaker rattle, which we noticed on multiple occasions. Even though most buyers of this car probably aren't going to be playing deep bass tracks, rattle is still unacceptable for a system of otherwise outstanding quality.
In the cabin
The remains of various formerly living things cover a good portion of the 2008 Audi A8 L's interior. Of course, the seats get leather, but this extends to the console and the upper and lower portions of the dashboard, with black stitched leather on top and cream-colored leather below. Wood trim fits into the dashboard and the console. The wood also conceals the LCD, which pops up from the center of the dashboard when you turn on the car, similar to the Bang & Olufsen tweeters, which rise from the top of the dashboard.
Amongst all this luxury we found some familiar controls. The A8 L uses the same Audi Multimedia Interface (MMI) found in the company's other models, with a click knob on the console surrounded by four buttons. This interface works fairly well, although it has some limitations. For example, you can only browse the navigation system's map on the X and Y axis. Letter input also uses a somewhat tedious rotary dial. The system is complemented by a pretty good voice-command system, which works particularly well in the A8 due to the cabin's isolation from exterior noise.
Although the navigation system's maps look good, it lacks advanced features, such as traffic information or a hard drive.
The navigation system in the A8 L is standard Audi fare, with high-resolution maps, but lacking any really advanced features. It will get you where you need to go, but doesn't offer traffic information or multidestination input. The one feature we like about it is that it shows route guidance information on the colorful LCD set into the instrument cluster, as well as on the main LCD. The Bluetooth cell phone system is also standard. This is a first-rate system that can import the contact list from any paired phone, letting you browse names on the main LCD using the MMI knob.
We discussed the stellar quality of the Bang & Olufsen audio system above. Audi makes plenty of music sources available through its Audi Music Interface, which offers full integration for iPods and USB drives, along with a standard auxiliary input for other audio devices. The iPod integration works very well, letting you choose music by artist, album, genre, and playlist. With a USB drive in, you merely browse through whatever folders it contains. As we pointed out above, though, the audio system reproduces music so well that 128Kbps MP3 files just sound bad. To take full advantage of this stereo, get a 160 gigabyte iPod and encode all of your music in lossless format. Or you can just play standard CDs in the car's six-disc changer, which is mounted in the glove compartment. That changer will also read MP3 CDs, but again, listening quality will be a problem. Sirius satellite radio is also built into the receiver.
This A8 L is the long wheelbase version, as denoted by the L in the model name. That means the rear passengers get extra legroom. They also get full climate control, seat heating and cooling, and power adjustment. The refrigerator between the rear seats is an option. It comes with two glasses in the upper rack and a lower rack designed to fit two bottles. The rear-seat DVD system comes standard. It includes LCDs in the headrests, along with headphones and a remote. Our only complaint about this system is that the six-disc DVD player is mounted behind a panel in the trunk. It uses a cartridge, which is difficult to remove as the trunk panel gets in the way. Fortunately, only your chauffeur will have to deal with this inconvenience.
LEDs on the side mirror mount light up when a car is in the lane next to the A8 L.
But, your chauffeur will also get to use the A8 L's cool driving assistance gadgets, making it a good idea to give him or her the day off occasionally so you can take the wheel. The A8 L gets Audi's blind-spot detection system, which turns on orange LEDs in the side view mirror mounts if a car is in the lane to either side. The lights will flash if you use the turn signal. This system works well when it is active, but it only works above about 40 mph. We prefer the Volvo BLIS system we recently saw in the Volvo S80, which works at all speeds.
The A8 L also has a lane-departure warning system. Although we've seen these systems in other cars, such as the Volvo S80 and the Infiniti M45X, Audi's is unique in that it warns the driver by buzzing the steering wheel. But like the blind spot system, it only works above certain speeds. We also found that it didn't do a very good job of recognizing faded lane markings.
And finally, the A8 L has adaptive cruise control as an option. You set your speed as normal with cruise control, and the car uses forward-looking radar to determine the speed of any cars ahead, matching your speed with theirs if they are going slower. You can set four following distances. We found Audi's version of this system to be as capable as we've seen in other cars. Our only niggle is that the controls are on the standard cruise control stalk, placed behind the wheel on the lower left, making it difficult to quickly see what you are doing.
Under the hood
The W12 engine in the 2008 Audi A8 L is kind of like two six cylinder engines set side-by-side and then mashed together. Each of the 12 cylinders gets 4 valves, making 48 valves in all. This is a complex piece of work. Each of those cylinders also displaces half a liter, making the engine six liters in all. The result is a very powerful but smooth engine. Fitting the car's luxury status, the engine operates quietly and with minimal vibration. But you feel it when you step on the gas, as the A8's W12 engine puts out 450 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 428 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Audi claims 5 seconds to 60 mph.
The W12 engine is a complex machine, using 48 valves for its 12 cylinders.
That power is all fed through a six-speed automatic with sport and manual shift modes. There are even small paddles attached to the wheel. Similar to the engine, the transmission shifts quietly, maintaining that luxury feeling within the car. Although the big A8 L doesn't seem like a car you want to be flogging around the corners, we gave it a try anyway and found that the transmission in sport mode downshifted quickly when we braked before entering a corner, maintaining the lower gear as we came out.
The standard Quattro all-wheel-drive system helps out the surprisingly good handling, keeping all four wheels gripping. Even more surprising was how flat it stayed in the corners. The A8 comes with an air suspension that can be set to dynamic or comfort modes, or you can leave it on automatic and let the car figure out what sort of driving you are doing. This suspension plays a key factor in counteracting lean and sway, which would be a big factor on a car of this size and weight. When we had it in the corners, it did feel like a big car, yet we also felt it pivot nicely when the pressure was really on.
You can set the air suspension for comfort, sport driving, or an automatic mode, which adjusts for your driving style.
During normal cruising, the kind of thing you would generally expect to do in the A8 L, the air suspension delivered an exceptionally smooth ride. We could hear when the car went over various road imperfections, but it transmitted little of the actual jolt into the cabin.
As we would expect, fuel economy is very poor in the A8 L. The EPA rates the car at 13 mpg in the city and 19 mpg on the highway, subjecting it to the gas guzzler tax. During our time with the car, we had an average of 15.3 mpg, with the trip computer reporting averages of up to 18.5 mpg during freeway driving.
But our city averages were very low, with numbers around 10 mpg showing up as we dealt with stop lights and general traffic in the city. The A8 L has a 23.8 gallon tank, but even with that much fuel we couldn't expect to go much over 300 miles. For emissions, the A8 L only meets the California Air Resources Board minimum LEV II rating.
The base price of a 2008 Audi A8 L W12 is $120,100, putting it in seriously high-end territory. The Palace Blue paint job on our test car came in at $2,500. We also had $6,300 for the Bang & Olufsen audio system, $3,200 for the car's 20-inch alloys, $2,100 for the adaptive cruise control system, $1,400 for lane departure and blind spot warning, $1,500 for the rear seat refrigerator, $200 for the heated steering wheel, and $790 for a sun roof embedded with solar panels, which can add juice to a battery drained by all the car's electronics. The total, taking into account the $1,700 gas guzzler tax and $775 destination charge, comes out to $140,565. Two serious competitors that come in a little cheaper are the Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG and the Lexus LS 600h, although neither boasts quite as nice of a stereo system.
For our rating of the Audi A8 L, it earns an excellent score for its performance tech. We were impressed by the transmission's sport-shifting characteristics, how such a big car can handle so well, and the smooth ride. We just have to ding it for its generally poor fuel economy. In the area of cabin tech, the A8 L brings in some high-end features, such as blind spot warning and adaptive cruise control. The audio quality just blew us away and we like how we can use a number of different audio sources. The refrigerator and rear seat DVD are nice bonuses. But the navigation system lets it down a bit by not offering any advanced features. And we found a few niggles with some of the other cabin features, such as the trunk-mounted DVD changer. For design, the exterior is nice and refined, while the man/machine interface (MMI) makes infotainment functions easily accessible, helped along by voice command.