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Audi is a brand that defines luxury through technology and engineering, so we expect the Ingolstadt set to bring its absolute A-game with its freshly redesigned flagship, the 2019 Audi A8 L.
This long-wheelbase, full-size luxury sedan is loaded with the first application of Audi's 48-volt mild hybrid powertrain and the very best driver aid, infotainment and performance technology in the automaker's playbook, much of which I was able to experience earlier this year in a European-spec model.
However, the fourth-generation A8 hasn't crossed the Atlantic totally intact. Regulations and market preferences mean that the 2019 A8 L arriving stateside (and in the Roadshow HQ garage) has a feature list that is, shall we say, a bit curated.
Perhaps the most interesting technology beneath the 2019 A8's sheet metal is its new mild hybrid system (MHEV), which augments the sedan's 3.0-liter twin-scroll turbo engine.
The engine makes 335 horsepower in US spec and 369 pound-feet of torque, which is sent through a standard 8-speed automatic transmission and to the wheels via Quattro all-wheel drive.
Integrated into the powertrain is a 48-volt starter-generator and a small 10Ah lithium-ion battery. The MHEV system captures energy via regenerative braking and uses it to power an advanced stop-start system that's smoother and more aggressive about shutting down the combustion engine while idling or coasting, which saves a bit of fuel.
The powertrain feels strong but a tad sleepy. In Dynamic mode, the 4,288-pound sedan hauls it from zero to 60 in 5.6 seconds and builds solid mid-range torque for a confident around-town feel. However, it's possible to catch the turbocharger or gearbox sleeping in stop-and-go traffic, resulting in occasionally poor tip-in throttle responsiveness in the Comfort and Eco settings. That's not the end of the world, the big tends itself towards a relaxed driving style anyway.
Audi expects the A8 L to average 19 miles per gallon city and 29 highway, on par with the 2018 6-cylinder model. Despite the extra equipment and luxury, it's disappointing to not see some sort of improvement for 2019, especially considering this new generation is also about 176 pounds lighter.
Audi's 48-volt mild-hybrid system also reaches the market around the same time as the Mercedes-Benz CLS' EQ 48-volt system. The Benz, which also uses a 3.0-liter six-cylinder, feels much more robust thanks to its use of electric torque to assist acceleration. If you're only here because you're curious about mild-hybrids, the smaller Benz is certainly worth a look.
Going MHEV offers other advantages, such as powering many of the vehicle's accessory systems, which would otherwise be a drag on the engine's performance. This includes the adaptive air suspension and Dynamic All-Wheel Steering (D-AWS) systems.
Standard on the 2019 A8, the air suspension features four levels of ride-height adjustability: Comfort, Dynamic, Low-Speed Lift for clearing obstructions, and a Low Drag setting that automatically activates at highway speeds to improve fuel economy. The air suspension seemed to change height quicker and more smoothly than many of the 12-volt systems I've tested, which meant less waiting for the nose to lift when clearing a really steep driveway.
Audi's all-wheel-steering system can turn the rear wheels (up to 5 degrees) in certain situations. At highway speeds, the rears turn with the fronts, increasing stability for lane changes or evasive maneuvers. At low speeds (below about 35 mph), the rear wheels cant opposing the fronts to scoot the tail around tighter bends, reducing the turning radius of the long sedan by about 3 meters.
The long-wheelbase A8 L with D-AWS can flip a U-turn in just 11.8 meters (about 38.7 feet). Remarkably, that's a slightly smaller turning circle than the compact Audi A4. On the road, the big A8 L felt like a much smaller car when maneuvering in urban environments. It still felt heavy and wide on a tight and technical set of switchbacks, but I noticed and appreciated every bit of nimbleness the all-wheel steering adds.
Audi says the 2019 A8 L is "autonomy ready," meaning it's packed to the gills with all of the sensors needed for the company's next-generation automated driving features. A total of 24 external sensors -- including ultrasonic, cameras, long- and short-range radar and the automaker's first production lidar laser sensor -- watch the vehicle's perimeter and power an advanced suite of driver aid features including full-speed adaptive cruise control, traffic sign recognition, 360-degree cameras, blind spot monitoring, pedestrian detection, optional night vision and more.
The standout new feature for 2019 is Active Lane Assist, an evolution of Audi's Traffic Jam Assist. When adaptive cruise is active, Lane Assist's cameras detect lane markers and, if present, a leading car. Electric steering assist then keeps the A8 in line with the car ahead and between the lane markers. Unlike the low-speed Traffic Jam Assist, this feature works at highway speeds.
I could feel Active Lane Assist moving the wheel in my hands as it followed curves in the road and nudged the sedan toward the lane's center. But don't be tempted to let go. This isn't autonomous tech, it's a partially automated, hands-on system that will alert you to regain control if you try to go hands-free.
Ignore the prompts and the alerts become more assertive, culminating in the A8 aggressively tightening the seat belt and tapping the brakes to wake a possible dozing driver. If that doesn't get you to grab the wheel, the A8 will activated its hazard lights, bring itself to a stop in its lane and call emergency services, assuming that the driver is incapacitated.
One of the first things Audi-philes will notice when settling behind the wheel is that that round MMI control knob has disappeared from the center console. In its place is MMI Touch Response, a dual capacitive-touchscreen setup with haptic feedback.
The main upper screen features a grid of icons that can be customized by dragging and dropping them around the main menu. Beyond the home screen, all of the submenus have been redesigned for more touch-friendly use. After years with the knob, the touchscreen felt alien -- like a step backwards -- but Audi has worked to make Touch Response feel like a phone. There's even a status bar at the top that can be clicked to reveal shortcuts to the settings menu. The learning curve is a surprisingly easy one.
Meanwhile, the new lower screen changes layout and function depending on what's happening upstairs. Usually, it's home to climate and seat-temperature controls, but search for a destination and the lower screen changes to a writing pad where I could simply write my destination. The extra space, relative to the old touch surface, feels more natural, allowing for the spelling out of whole words such as "HOME," rather than waiting for the system to recognize each letter at a time. It's even possible to layer one letter atop another and the system still figures out your intention.
Meanwhile, both displays offer haptic feedback. Press a virtual button to activate the ventilated seats, and the screen gives a bit of a tactile click that makes it feel like pressing a real button, not unlike many of today's smartphones. And with the two screens, Audi has been able to greatly reduce the number of physical buttons on the console -- I only counted six or seven left. Even the vent controls are neat little capacitive surfaces with haptic feedback.
Android Auto and Apple CarPlay make return appearances this generation and are easier and more natural to use with touch than they were with the control knob. However, the third-party interfaces don't support the haptic touch (yet).
If there's one weakness to going all-in on glossy touchscreens and gloss black dashboard trim, it's fingerprints. Even when my hands were dry to the touch, I kept prints of my various swipes, taps and scribbled destinations. You'll want to keep a microfiber cloth in the glove box, lest the smudges drive you mad.
Also present are a head-up display projected onto the windshield and the second generation of Audi's Virtual Cockpit digital instrument cluster. The latter features a improved display resolution and more processing power, which makes virtual gauges swing more believably and the Google Earth satellite maps slide by smoother.
For 2019, Audi has chosen to only import the long-wheelbase A8 L to the US with nearly one foot of additional legroom on the second row than the standard Euro model. So our A8 already boasts plenty of room for passengers, but available upgrades can pamper and outright spoil the driven.
Beyond the standard rear seat, there are two upgrade paths. The Rear Seat Comfort upgrade adds massage, recline, and heated and ventilated seats. The passengers control these seats as well as Active Matrix overhead reading lights and MMI media controls with a detachable wireless touchscreen.
My model was equipped with the Executive Rear Seat package, which upgrades the passenger-side rear bucket to a "relaxation seat" with more recline range and a novel foot massager built into the back of the front passenger seat.
My lucky passengers could also take advantage of a pair of detachable 10.1-inch Android tablets mounted on the seatbacks, which access MMI media controls and, thanks to the A8's 4G LTE-powered Wi-Fi hotspot, lets you connect to the Google Play Store to download apps such as Netflix or YouTube. With built-in cameras, you could even video conference at highway speed.
Opting for the Lighting package upgrades the A8's taillights to OLED illumination with a cool greeting animation that plays when the car is unlocked at night. The package also adds the hardware for Audi's LED Matrix headlights. This Matrix technology isn't street legal in the US yet, so the software to power the advanced light-shaping system will be disabled. But Audi tells me that it will push a software update to enable the Matrix illumination when the law changes.
Another advanced feature not available at launch is Audi's AI Active Suspension. This 48-volt electromechanical suspension system uses forward-looking cameras to scan the road ahead for big bumps, and it can quickly lift and guide the each wheel over those bump, resulting in a smoother ride. This tech won't be available until next year, but I think it might be a feature worth waiting for.
The A8 I drove in Europe earlier this year could also be unlocked and started by tapping an NFC-enabled Android phone to the door handle. Irritatingly, this feature isn't present on US models, as I was told by an Audi representative, because of lack of Apple iOS support. Seems like a silly reason to deny the tech to Android users, but perhaps it'll reappear some time after launch.
Of course, the "autonomy-ready" A8 is ready for a host of next-generation self-driving features, including a Level 3 self-driving system, which won't be available in the US at launch. That's not really Audi's fault, but for now, the Cadillac CT6's highway-only Super Cruise tech is still the best way to sample a truly hands-off driver aid on US roads.
For now, in my eyes, Mercedes-Benz's S-Class is still the gold standard for large luxury, but the A8 L is a solid contender with its different, technology-centered approach. However, many of the most compelling technologies -- Matrix lighting, Level 3 partial automation and AI Active suspension -- are locked away pending law changes or further tailoring for the US market.
The 2019 Audi A8 L starts at $84,795 (including a $995 destination charge), which is only a few hundred bucks more than the BMW 7 Series, and about six grand less than a base Mercedes S-Class. With a standard adaptive air suspension, Bang & Olufsen audio, MMI Touch Response and the mild hybrid system, that's a reasonable starting price. You'd probably be happy with just a base model.
My example goes big, checking every option box available and tipping the scales at $124,845, as tested. Personally, I'd skip all of the rear seat upgrades -- I'm no chauffeur -- keeping only the technology and driver-aid upgrades, ending up at a recommended price of around $100K.