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Beyond being symbols of luxury, automakers use their flagship sedans to trot out the latest in technology. Such is the case with the 2011 Audi A8, sporting an innovative cabin tech interface, LED headlights, a raft of driver assistance features, and integration between Google and its navigation system. Inevitably, these types of tech features trickle down to lesser cars, but the well-heeled get first crack at them.
And though the A8 may be an electronics-filled luxury barge, performance technology also makes it a stunningly good driver over the kinds of roads that sports cars love. In this case, its adaptive suspension, all-wheel-drive system, and sport differential trickled up from models lower in the lineup, such as the 2009 Audi A4.
The A8 underwent a major change for the 2011 model year. Rebuilt from the ground up, Audi uses an aluminum cage around the cabin, which saves weight while retaining safety and rigidity. The latest version of Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system includes, optionally, a rear differential that pushes torque from left to right. Just about the only holdover from the previous generation is the direct-injection 4.2-liter V-8, which is already a very advanced engine.
In keeping with current car design principles, the body looks smoother, with less ornamentation, than the previous generation A8. Despite criticism of its big, open grilles, Audi emphasizes that element even more for 2011, including using more geometrically pronounced cross members.
Audi mimics its previously established parking-light style with these LED headlights.
But what really make the car stand out are the LED headlights, which follow a dipping line previously pioneered by Audi in its parking lights. These headlights have the advantages of lasting much longer than incandescent or HID lights and using less electricity. Audi says the light temperature resembles that of daylight, causing less eyestrain, although in our driving we did not particularly notice this quality.
Audi also did good work on the interior of the new A8. In previous models, we had complained that there was too much ugly plastic for a car that costs close to $100K, but Audi has fixed this problem, for the most part, in the 2011 model. Wood, leather, metal, and soft plastics are much more prevalent in the new A8, although many buttons remain plastic. However, we do like the finish on the plastic, which has a more quality look than in the previous generation.
Our car did not come equipped with the driver assistance features we would like to have seen, but they are available. Audi keeps up with Mercedes-Benz and BMW by offering night vision. An adaptive cruise control system can bring the A8 to a complete stop when there is traffic ahead. And the car can warn the driver of lane drift or vehicles in the blind spot.
Optional massage seats have a number of settings.
A luxury feature our vehicle did come equipped with was massaging front seats. With an easy-to-use lever and directional control on the side of the seat, we were able to choose from a pounding to a wave-like massage. This same control also let us fine tune the seat shape, changing headrest angle, bolster inflation, and lumbar support. Along with the usual forward/back, up/down, and recline, there are five areas of the seat that we could adjust.
Another feature not available until spring of next year is navigation integration with Google maps. During a demonstration, Audi showed us how satellite imagery from Google maps would fill in the navigation system's own maps, showing much more realistic detail of the car's surroundings. More importantly, the system will allow local search through Google, making it easy to find points of interest based on general search terms, rather than the specific terms required currently.
We were able to test the new cabin tech interface, which includes a revolutionary touch pad for tracing letters. Putting the navigation system into destination entry mode, we were able to bypass Audi's inefficient rotary alphanumeric input and trace letters on the touch pad. We found it very easy to keep our eyes on the road while entering letters and numbers, with the system offering verbal confirmation for each input.
Our penmanship was poor, but the A8 had no trouble recognizing the letter.
Audi also changed the main menus in the system--for navigation, phone, and audio--to an ellipse style. These aesthetically pleasing menus are very easy to read at a glance, and present a substantial amount of information.
Unchanged are the very rich maps in the navigation system, which uses an Nvidia graphics processor to render buildings in certain downtown areas with particular detail. The system even uses textures on some landmark buildings--the concept being to make it easier to correlate the map to the outside world. These maps are stored on a hard drive, giving Audi the space to use very rich graphics.
The A8's navigation system comes with the usual advanced features we would expect, such as text to speech and traffic avoidance. This latter feature did not always work optimally in our testing. In one instance, it advised us to get on the freeway into stop-and-go traffic rather than travel about four blocks on surface streets. Unlike some competitors, Audi has not added data sources such as weather or local gas prices.
The A8 is the kind of car that could be chauffeur-driven--and Audi will most likely release a long wheelbase version, as it did with the previous generation--but we preferred sitting in the driver's seat, usually with the car set in Dynamic mode.
Drive Select lets you choose from a variety of car settings.
Audi fits the A8 with its Drive Select system, which sets steering, suspension, throttle response, and transmission between Comfort, Automatic, Dynamic, and Individual modes. Piloting the big A8 around the city, we left it in Comfort mode, where the adaptive suspension did an excellent job absorbing the bumps without letting the driving experience feel sloppy.
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 S4. 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.
These acoustic lenses are designed to spread high-frequency sounds evenly around the cabin.
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.
The A8's phone system allows manual dialing or voice command.
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.
Looking like a powerboat throttle, the shifter is easy to grasp.
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|