We preview the autonomous driving features in Audi's flagship A8 sedan (including some very advanced features not coming to the US), and were very impressed by its smooth, quiet power train and the high level of cabin technology.
The A8 is Audi's flagship large luxury sedan, which means that it has to lead the way for the rest of the brand with the best comfort, technology and amenities that the German automaker has to offer. That's why the 2019 Audi A8 is so exciting; it promises to be the newest of the new, the best of the best.
I recently hit the road in one of the earliest examples of the 2019 Audi A8 55 and, while I'm still getting used to the automaker's new naming convention, I was able to put the sedan's promise to the test. And it delivered.
The most interesting features demonstrated were the upcoming Audi AI piloted driving systems. The luxury sedan rolls off of the line ready for the next generation of autonomous driving with an impressive suite of sensors -- ultrasonic, short and long-range radar, cameras, even a laser scanner -- that grant the A8 a quite complete view of its world and enable self-driving features.
Audi AI Traffic Jam Pilot is a completely self-driving, level 3 autonomous system, so the driver doesn't have to watch the road when active. It only works in low-speed traffic (limited to about 37 mph) and handles steering, acceleration and braking while the driver checks email, reads a book or whatever. Once the flow picks up, Traffic Jam Pilot notifies the driver to retake control of the wheel. I asked if Audi has plans for a hands-off highway-speed autonomous drive system like Cadillac's Super Cruise and was met with a very polite, "We're working on it, but cannot commit to a timeline."
There's also Audi AI Remote Garage Pilot, a parking assist system that moves the A8 into tight parking spaces via remote control. Just point the car at an open space or garage door, press the Audi AI button start the system, get out of the car and, on a smartphone, hold a button to remotely move the A8 into the spot. It doesn't even need to be perfectly lined up and can steer itself into position.
Also demonstrated was an Audi AI enhanced version of the Parking Pilot system that can steer, accelerate and brake and even shift gears automatically when parallel or perpendicular parking -- today's systems only handle the steering part.
The catch is that while the 2019 A8 will launch with the enhanced sensor package needed for these autonomous aids, the Audi AI features themselves will most likely not be available at the fall 2018 launch of the sedan. The timeline is a bit firmer in Europe, where the parking assist features should join the feature set in 2019 and the Traffic Jam Pilot will roll out sometime afterwards.
However, in the US, timing will depend on where autonomous driving laws end up. We recently learned that the AI Traffic Jam Pilot feature will not be a part of the A8's bag of tricks when it lands in the States in fall 2018. A variety of legal, infrastructural and consumer issues are to blame for the holdup.
One of the first things astute Audi-philes will notice when settling behind the wheel is that that round MMI control knob has disappeared for this generation. In its place is MMI Touch Response, a dual capacitive touchscreen setup with haptic feedback.
The upper screen is the main display. It features a vertical bank of shortcuts along the left edge that quickly jump to the five most commonly used functions. The bar can be customized by dragging and dropping icons from the main menu. Beyond each of these icons, all of the submenus have been redesigned for more touch-friendly use. I'll need to spend more time to be sure, but the learning curve doesn't feel too steep and everything feels familiar enough and well organized.
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.
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 and allowed me to write whole words such as "HOME" rather than waiting for one letter at a time.
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 sort of feel like pressing a real button. And with the two screens, Audi was 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.
If there's one weakness to going all-in on glossy touchscreens, it's fingerprints. My testing took place on a humid Spanish day and my slightly sweaty mitts kept leaving prints of my various swipes, taps and words. You'll want to keep a microfiber wiping cloth in the glove box.
Also present are the head-up display projected onto the windshield and the Audi Virtual Cockpit digital instrument cluster. Both of these systems behave as they did before and are just as good. I'm excited that Virtual Cockpit is standard on the 2019 A8; I'm a fan of this system's ease of use and its ability to put a lot of low-distraction information, even full satellite maps, in the driver's sightline.
This newest A8 has the most advanced lighting of any previous generation. It can be equipped with both LED matrix headlamps and laser high beams… in Europe. In the States, the most advanced headlight tech isn't yet street-legal. Thankfully, the standard full-LED headlamps should still look pretty dope and feature sequential turn signals and a new daytime light signature.
Out back, an optional OLED illumination upgrade adds a three-dimensional look to the taillights while LED light bars add safety with sequential turn signals and pizzazz with a new animation sequence at vehicle start and shutdown that really draws attention to the new connected taillight design.
During my test drive, I wasn't given a key to the A8. Rather, I used a smartphone to unlock and lock the doors via near field communication (NFC). Just tap the paired smartphone to the handle to unlock the doors and place the phone in center console -- where it can also be wirelessly charged -- to enable the starter. I didn't even need to unlock the phone; just tap and go. Of course, the A8 does have a conventional key fob for those not ready to trust their phones.
Back inside, a wide center console folds down between the rear seats to reveal a touch display where passengers can control their climate and infotainment or, if equipped, optional massage seats and rear-seat entertainment. The display's coolest trick is that it can be popped out and used wirelessly, so passengers can use it without stretching. Just try not to let your kids lose it.
OK, we've talked a lot about car tech , but what about the car?
In the US, the Audi A8 -- specifically, the 2019 Audi A8 L 55 -- will launch with a 3.0-liter, turbocharged gasoline engine that makes 340 horsepower and 370 pound-feet of torque. The motor is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission and standard Quattro all-wheel drive.
In Europe, the A8 also launches with a 3.0-liter diesel V6 option. And, post-launch, we'll see a plug-in hybrid etron version of the V6 engine join the ranks along with a 4.0-liter V8 engine. A 6.0-liter W12 engine will also be available, but probably on on this side of the pond.
The V6 feels powerful and accelerates strongly, but what stood out most was the quietness and smoothness of the power train. Even when accelerating hard for passing or climbing uphill, the V6 and eight-speed combo was as smooth as eggs and as quiet as a church mouse. It's almost too quiet, barely registering more than a hum even in its most dynamic mode at full throttle. For the luxury buyer, that's a very good problem to have.
Interestingly, this generation of A8 is also what Audi's calling a mild hybrid (MHEV) with a 48-volt starter-generator integrated into its power train 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 more aggressive about shutting down the combustion engine while idling or coasting and more smoothly restarts the engine. I almost didn't notice it in action; that's how smooth it is. The 48-volt system also powers the accessory systems for handling.
The Audi AI Active Suspension uses electromechanical motors at each corner, increasing or decreasing the load on each wheel instantaneously to create the desired handling characteristics. In the Dynamic setting, for example, body roll and dive are countered by the actuators to help keep the big sedan flat while cornering. In Comfort mode, the ride can be more compliant and smooth. The Active Suspension complements pneumatic ride height adjustments that allow the sedan to sit closer to the ground in dynamic mode, ride even lower for better highway fuel economy or even raise to clear tall obstructions.
The Active Suspension also comes into play as an active safety feature. If those 360-degree sensors detect an imminent side impact above about 15 mph, the suspension on the endangered side can instantly rise by 3.1 inches so the A8 is struck on its sill rather than the middle of the door. This is a stronger part of the body that can better absorb and spread impact forces around the cabin and increases safety for passengers by minimizing the possibility of intrusion.
The other big handling trick is Dynamic All-Wheel Steering. This system basically adds steering to the rear axle (up to 5 degrees) in certain situations. At low speed and high steering angles, the rear wheels turn the opposite direction to the fronts to scoot the rear end around tighter bends, virtually reducing the turning radius of the long sedan. At high speeds, the rears turn in the same direction as the fronts, increasing stability for lane changes or evasive maneuvers.
The new Audi A8 starts at 90,600 euros in Europe (about $106,000 converted), but US pricing for the 2019 Audi A8 L -- we only get the long wheelbase in the US -- will start at $83,800 before destination.
Overall, the new A8 makes a strong first impression with smooth and quiet performance and a tech-centric approach to luxury that I really enjoyed. Between the new dashboard tech and the promise of Audi AI autonomous features, the A8 is a top-tier tech car -- that the tech is easy to use and understand is even better. Plus, the cabin feel more spacious and comfortable than I remember the previous generation being.
As a total package, the new Audi A8 L feels more competitive than ever with the likes of the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW's upcoming 7 Series refresh, and it's priced to slot nicely between the two.
Editors' note: Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, travel costs were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.
Updated 5/14/2018: Review has been updated to reflect newly announced pricing for 2019 Audi A8 and to include news regarding delay of the AI Traffic Jam Pilot feature for the US model.