2011 Audi A8 First Drive

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February 08, 2010

Text and Photos by: Kris Hansen

AudiWorld was invited to participate in the global press launch for the all new 2011 A8, Audi’s recently unveiled all new flagship model. This is the 4th version of the A8, now on the internally referenced D4 platform, and the new A8 is revolutionary in many ways. This is an amazing car, and we’re only going to be able to scrape the surface in this First Drive article.

Obviously, the first thing someone notices with a new car is the exterior design. Based on the current Audi family design first introduced with the A5, then the A4, The 2011 A8 Short Wheelbase (the Long Wheelbase will be coming later in the ’11 model year. We’re told that the LWB car will not be simply a stretched SWB, instead the car will be a subtle redesign including different C pillar treatment to better blend the longer roofline.) possesses an edgy yet understated appearance, one which masks the true size of the car. The proportions of the body are perfect; especially when the car is fitted with optional 19 inch (or larger) wheels and tires. There are crisp taut lines running the length of the all aluminum body, and on the hood. It’s a muscular looking car, without being ostentatious, aggressive without being flamboyant. There is an air of understated luxury in the design, but it’s anything but boring. Subtle design touches on the new car, such as the strong chrome accents in the grille (which are echoed in the bumper grilles), give the car significant character. Chrome strips also line the rocker panels and rear bumper. The roofline has a gentle slope to the trunk, finishing off with a gently sloped lid and its integrated spoiler.

Once again Audi have used LED arrays for all exterior lighting. In front the LEDs are arranged to visually join body lines from the fenders to the grille. The tail lights are very similar in appearance to the A4/A5 siblings, and are all LED. The lighting configurations, both inside and out, can be customized by the owner using the MMI system. The new A8 also has optional night vision, which we were unable to test but were shown a demonstration, and we’re looking forward to testing it ourselves.

Audi have consistently been praised for the incredibly high quality of their interiors, and this car is no exception. In fact, this car definitively raises the bar for the rest of the industry. Good luck to them, as the interior in the new A8 is unlike anything this side of a Bentley. The overall design of the dash is reminiscent of the previous version, but heavily updated. Instruments are updated to the latest Audi style with the teardrop shaped pods housing on one side the tachometer and water temperature readout, and on the other side the speedometer and fuel level readout (the secondary readouts on each side do not have pointers, instead use a series of lights to indicate the reading, very cool.). The center console houses the MultiMedia Interface (MMI) controls, and the all new gear lever.

The new gear selector lever is actually designed to be a wrist rest for use while operating the MMI controls. The lever itself is used much like a standard automatic transmission lever; only in this case, it’s not connected by cables to the transmission. Instead, it’s fully “by wire”. As you depress the side button with your thumb, the lever can be used in 2 ways: either pull it back where detents are detectable as in a standard automatic, or, toggle the lever one setting at a time. Once the car is in D, or S, that’s when the lever reverts to being a wrist rest. Its physical location only changes for the brief period of time while you are selecting the drive mode, then it returns to its normal location. There are steering wheel mounted paddles for manual control of the new quick shifting 8 speed close ratio transmission, and the mode reverts to fully automatic after a brief period of manual override, the duration of which is longer in the S mode. No need to select P either, as pressing the Engine Start/Stop button will automatically select P for you.

The main dash has a separate mini-ledge that begins on the door panel and continues over the top of the dash meeting back up with the door on the other side of the car. We were shown a large variety of trim levels in Spain; we’re not certain what the trim levels will be when the US spec cars are launched, so keep in mind that in the photos you’re looking at European spec cars. The screen for the MMI hides within the dash when not needed by the push of a button. Other buttons that can be found on the dash are for ESP, rear sunshade etc.

We found the seats to be incredibly comfortable. Heated, cooled, multi-adjustable, and optionally equipped with a massage feature (which we can attest to works VERY well!), after several hours of driving, we felt no fatigue (if anything, the extreme comfort of the seats helped us recover from our travel fatigue). The front and rear seating areas are spacious. Hip, shoulder and leg room is impressive, but back seat leg room becomes somewhat compromised if the front seat is moved back for tall drivers (short wheelbase only). Head room in the Euro-spec cars we tested was vast given they were not equipped with the tilt-slide roof. We’re told that the US spec cars will likely have a variation of the Panorama roof, which we’re excited to see.

Another area where Audi have shone recently is with its in-car technology. Once again, the D4 A8 is overflowing with technology, not the least of which is it’s all new MMI system. Similar in operation and intuitiveness to recent iterations of this brilliant interface to multiple functions, the latest MMI adds a small touch pad for added flexibility.

The touch pad can be used in several ways, depending on where in the system you are. If you need to enter a location in the Navigation system, for example, instead of the old method of using the main MMI knob to one by one select letters to spell the city name, you simply “write” the first letter (in upper case, this is important) on the touch pad, which then interprets and finds the correct letter, bringing up a list to select from. As you add letters, it narrows the search. Other uses for the touch pad include calling up contacts for placing a phone call, or navigating through albums in the music and video libraries, and scrolling around the map in nav mode to select destinations manually.

For completely hands off navigation, the new A8 has a new voice recognition system which allows the driver to tell the system a full street address, which is then broken down correctly by city street state etc, and then mapped for navigation. This is something that we’re anxiously awaiting US spec cars (and US spec nav) to test further.

Also shown to us was the all new (optional) back seat entertainment system. Rear seat occupants are presented with video screens mounted on the backs of the front chairs, and their own MMI interface located on the center armrest. This secondary complete MMI system can be used to adjust heating/cooling, audio video, telephone, navigation (can be used to plan a route, then sent to the front MMI system where the driver can import it and begin route guidance) completely independently from the front seat MMI system. Best of all, the system can play the same source for both rear seats, or different sources. Also included are wireless headsets, so each back seat location can have it’s own video/audio while the front seat can have yet another unique source active, all at the same time. It’s quite incredible, and something that we’ll have to expand on once we’re given a US spec car to test.

In addition to the amazing MMI interface, the A8s that we sampled were equipped with an unbelievably good Bang and Olufsen sound system, consisting of 19 speakers being driven by over 1000 watts. The system can play CDs and DVDs as well as radio, satellite radio, mp3, etc.

By now surely you’re amazed with this car, and you haven’t even driven it yet. We sampled the engine that we know will come to the USA, as well as the diesel engines that we HOPE will make it to the USA, including the incredible 4.2 TDI. At first, the USA will be offered the ultra smooth and quiet 372bhp (328lb/ft max torque) 4.2 FSI gasoline engine, mated with the aforementioned 8 speed ZF automatic (torque converter, not dual clutch) transmission. The gear ratios are quite close, so while the car does a fair bit of shifting, because the action is so incredibly smooth, it’s not annoying in any way. Audi say that this combination will propel the A8 to 62mph in 5.7 seconds, and we have no doubt to the validity of this number. The 4.2 begins building power gradually, and as the throttle is held open, builds quickly past 4000rpm into a turbine-like rush of power. With each tap of the upshift paddle and subsequent instant upshift, speed builds at a rapid pace. At no point is the car noisy, or uncomfortable to driver or passengers, even during aggressive driving.

The new tiptronic transmission is very efficient. In normal operation, the torque converter lockup clutch is fully engaged at all times. Never did we sense any of the traditional slippage normally associated with torque converters, in fact, we had to look at the spec sheet to determine that it was in fact a non-dual clutch gearbox. Up-shifts are incredibly smooth, and quick. We noticed that even in the non-sport D mode, the car automatically downshifted as we decelerated. Again, it was very smooth, and almost imperceptible.

Also new is the 60/40 (rear/front) torque split in the center TORSEN differential. This gives the car a more neutral balance, and more of a rear wheel drive feel.

We also had the chance to sample the 350bhp (590lb/ft max torque) 4.2 TDI in the A8 (unfortunately we never had the chance to try the 3.0 TDI, which would be the most likely candidate for US import) and can say definitively that it’s far and away the most un-diesel engine ever sampled. Not only does it not sound (or smell) like a diesel, it doesn’t drive like a diesel. The engine note is very similar to the 4.2 FSI, perhaps a bit more baritone. Unlike many diesels, there is zero lag between depressing the pedal and engine response. The car accelerates incredibly fast. Audi claim that the run to 62 is over in 5.2 seconds (yes, it’s faster than the 4.2 FSI gas engine). Given the appropriately taller final drive to compensate for the lower max RPM of the 4.2TDI, the car loafs along at very low revs most of the time. With all of the torque this engine generates, combined with substantially superior fuel economy (and lower CO2 emissions) compared to the gas engine, we genuinely hope Audi can manage to bring this engine to the USA.

With that kind of acceleration, we were happy to find that the A8 has fantastic brakes. Pedal feel is good, and effort is light. The new car will have various levels of braking assist for panic stops and such. Along those lines, the A8 can pre-tension its seatbelts if, by using the built in radar proximity sensors, it determines that a collision is imminent. It can also apply brakes and stiffen the suspension to stabilize the car if it feels it needs to.

Given the size of the new A8, its still ultimately a driver’s car. It’s possible to drive in a very spirited manner, as we sampled on the tight and twisty roads around Marbella Spain. In S mode, and shifted manually, the car can be driven, and it responds very well to driver input (more so with the ESP stability control switched off, more on that later.) and becomes almost sporty in feel. On the highway, it would be hard to think of a more comfortable environment for travel. The A8 is incredibly quiet and smooth. This would be the ultimate long distance car.

We’re looking forward to spending more time with this incredible car, so stay tuned.


  • Discussion Forum: D4 A8 Forum
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