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.