At first glance, it's a big, luxurious and very pricey Audi. And while it's handsome in a moneyed way, we wish that the new A8 had the lithe beauty of the superseded model and that there was some hint of the car's lightweight structure.
Ever since the first A8 graced the world's roads in 1994, the range-topping Audi's body has been made from lighter, but more expensive, aluminium rather than steel. With a 4.2-litre V8 sitting under the bonnet the A8 weighs 1835kg. This isn't svelte in an absolute sense, but is a significant amount lighter than the BMW 750i at 1945kg and Mercedes-Benz S500 at 1955kg. Bear in mind, though, that the Audi's competitors are rear-wheel drive, while the Audi comes equipped with a four-wheel drive system that adds a good 100 or so kilograms to the car's mass.
Audi isn't big on bling, but the big chrome grille, and LED driving lights and turn indicators make the A8 instantly recognisable, especially at night. LEDs also grace the tail-light and folding wing mirrors. The car's standard xenon headlights can be replaced by a set of (AU$2700) LED lights that can switch automatically between standard and high beam. Neither headlight option swivels with the steering wheel to help illuminate turns, although the adaptive headlight system does adjust beam range and automatically engages cornering lights as required.
All four doors and the boot softly pull themselves shut when they're left slightly ajar. So you'll never drive off with the car softly chiming away. It goes without saying that keyless entry and start are standard, but hold down the appropriate button on the key fob and the A8 will open or close all its windows and the sunroof too.
Even in an A8 that's not quite as specced up as ours was, it's hard not to feel pampered and well taken care of, with rich detailing all around the cabin. The instrument cluster has an uncanny resemblance to the one in the R8 supercar and given the sheer quantity of ashtrays it's probably wise to assume that the big end of town likes puffing on nicotine sticks.
Almost every conceivable surface is covered in wonderfully tactile materials, whether it be the brushed aluminium strips that run the length of dashboard and doors, leather clad seats and dashboard, velour door insets or, even, the wood trim. At night, thin LED tube lights in the headliner, door panels and foot wells provide mood lighting that can customised for intensity and colour.
Measuring some 5.1m long and 1.95m wide, the A8 naturally provides plenty of seating space for its five occupants. The front two seats can be electrically adjusted in 22 ways -- everything from seat length, tightness of the bolsters, lumbar angle and shoulder tilt -- with two memory settings available.
Say, for example, you've configured your seat to grip you tightly. When you switch the car off and alight, the steering wheel will move away and the seat unfurl itself like a flower to the morning sun, enabling an easier egress. And then when you plant your butt and insert the key fob into a dashboard cubby, the seat goes from flat to a warm embrace in a matter of seconds.
During our first day with the A8, the temperature outside ventured on the wrong side of 30 degrees Centigrade and humidity peaked at 1000 per cent. So, with a long freeway jaunt back home, we were glad our review car came fitted with the optional (AU$5500) massaging seats with heating and cooling elements. Similar seats can fitted for the benefit of those in the back -- not only will they set you back a further AU$9440, but they also reduce seating capacity from five to four.
Storage is decent, if not outstanding. The boot swallows up some 500 litres of gear, but space can't be extended as there's no ski port and the rear seats don't fold down. There are, however, lidded boxes in each door armrest. Each of the four outboard passengers is catered for by his/her own climate control region.
Like any sedan that's priced from AU$225,904, the A8 comes packed with enough goodies to sink the Ile de France. Although some of cutting-edge items available in Europe, such as the Wi-Fi hotspot feature and navigation system that utilises Google Earth mapping, aren't available, even as options, in Australia.
On the safety front there's a healthy complement of airbags, stability control and Pre Sense Basic that tightens the seat belts, and closes the window and sunroof if an accident is imminent. The radar-guided cruise control (AU$5395) system made highway driving a snap as it was able to not only maintain a set speed, and maintain safe and configurable distance to the car in front, but also brake the car as we headed downhill and also bring the car to a complete stop. Not only that, but the systems works well in stop-start city traffic too. Lane assistance lights mounted on the wing mirrors is a further AU$3685 on top of the cost of the smart cruise control system.
To help drivers avoid unseen pedestrians, black and white images from the night vision camera (AU$5400), hidden in the grille, are displayed in the instrument cluster. Especially in partially lit suburban settings, people tend to blend into hotspots, so the system highlights humans with the prominent yellow rectangle.
Given its not inconsiderable dimensions, parking is easy thanks to the included reversing camera and parking sensors, although there's no self parking facility. If you're ferrying passengers who are photosensitive or would rather see than be seen, there's an optional set electric blinds (AU$2670) for the rear and side windows. A tilt-and-slide sunroof, and automatic headlights and windscreen wipers are standard.
Entertainment and navigation
We can't speak for the V8's standard 14-speaker 600W Bose sound system, but the (AU$14,430) Bang & Olufsen unit is fantastic -- our editorial policy prohibits us from filling the sentence with "bloody" and a large variety of expletives.
The 14-speaker set-up, with tweeters that rise theatrically out of the dashboard, has excellent bass, treble and mid-range reproduction, and handled with aplomb every type of music we threw at it. At times it we had to remind ourselves that we were piloting a large dangerous vehicle and not lounging around in a concert hall.
The pop-up screen in dashboard is capable of playing back DVD video, as well as DivX. Music and video can be loaded via two SD card slots, a CD/DVD drive or an iPod connector. A 60GB hard disk stores the nav system's maps, but has 20GB set aside for music and movies copied over from SD card. A rear seat entertainment package featuring two screens mounted on the back on the front seats is a AU$9845 optional extra.
Hands-free calling via the Bluetooth system works well inside the A8's quiet confines. There's Bluetooth music streaming as well, but this can lead to a disturbing lack of music if one's iPhone has Bluetooth switched on and is connected via the wired adaptor; it's best to disable Bluetooth music streaming in this case.
Controlling the vast array of entertainment options, not to mention car configuration choices and the navigation system, is Audi's MMI clickable control dial. Located in the centre console, it is flanked by buttons that let you jump directly to the system's key functions: navigation, telephone, radio, media, tone adjustment and traffic information (not available in Australia).
In addition to this, there's a fingerpad that can be used to write destinations in letter by letter. While this is a neat party trick, we found the built-in voice recognition system (accessed via a button on the steering wheel) to be far more useful. Given it's poor track record of recognising track names stored on the hard disk, it's probably a good idea that nav destinations have to spelt out letter by letter.
The high resolution screen between the speedo and tacho, controlled by a set of steering wheel buttons, can be used to display night vision or the car's comprehensive trip computer. It can also be used for a range of MMI functions, including displaying next turn instructions from the nav system, or controlling the music and telephone systems.
On the road
The steering, air suspension and rear differential can be tuned to three different settings: auto, comfort or dynamic. The ride height can also be raised and lowered. In low-rider mode and with the chassis set to dynamic, body roll is minimal and the steering, while not communicative, is generally of a nice heft. In tight corners, it feels a little nose heavy because of the V8 engine, but generally speaking the 1.8-tonne limousine handles like a much a lighter car.
Thus configured, the ride is firm and well-controlled, and just about right for enthusiastic drivers like ourselves. Limosuine riders who prefer more comfort can set everything to comfort and raise the ride height. While this results in a plusher ride -- just -- it has a deleterious effect on the handling. The steering becomes almost comically light, body increases quite a bit and its hard to keep people from feeling slightly queasy.
While the A8 doesn't have the eerie silence of a Lexus, the cabin is commendably silent, although the 19-inch wheels and fat tyres did protest at some of Sydney's poorer roads. There's little hint of the grumbly V8 orchestra under the bonnet, unless the windows are wound down or the right foot's buried into the carpet.
With 273kW of power and 445Nm of torque at one's disposal overtaking is never a hassle. Give the V8 it's marching orders and the A8 will race from zero to 100km/h in 5.6 seconds; top speed is electronically limited 250km/h. It never feels quite that quick, though, as the four-wheel drive system needs a split-second to figure out what to do with all the power that's just been unleashed. By default 60 per cent of the torque is sent to the rear wheels to make the car a sportier drive. In torrential rain that transformed roads to rivers, the four-wheel drive system kept the A8 completely sure-footed, even when we jabbed the lion with a sharp stick.
the A8 conquers our low (110km/h) speed limit highways with the same ease that Usain Bolt would have in a race with blindfolded kids wearing clogs. Navigating the car's almost two metre girth, not to mention its thick windscreen pillars and over-size wing mirrors, around the city, especially roundabouts and tight corners, are a matter more of faith than knowledge.
An eight-speed automatic is the only transmission on offer. Even in the heat of battle it shifts silkily and silent between cogs, although there was the odd, inexplicably clunky shift. The gear shifter is a curious looking thing and regardless of the gear it's in will always return to its central slot, which makes it hard to tell which gear or shift mode you've just selected.
It might be more efficient than the previous generation model, but the A8 still has a thirst for hydrocarbons. In official testing the A8 drinks 13.3L/100km in the city, 7.2L/100km out in the country and 9.5L/100km in the combined cycle. We never got close to these figures. In light city traffic the A8 14.2L/100km of 95RON unleaded, while in stop-start situations the thirst grew to 23.4L/100km. On the highway 9.1L/100km is more representative of the real world. Overall the A8 averaged 16.74L/100km.
Loaded with tonnes of well thought of tech gear and a fashioned beautiful interior, the A8 is a technically brilliant luxury sedan. With all the tangible elements taken care of, the only thing holding it back from greater success is brand snobbery.