Road Test: 2011 Audi A8

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October 25, 2010

Text and Photos by: Adrian Harris

As part of the release of the new 2011 A8, AudiWorld was invited to the North American press release and test drive of the 4th iteration of their full size luxury vehicle. AudiWorld previously drove the vehicle at the global launch in Spain and we now had an opportunity to test it on some familiar local roads.

The D4 (as it is internally known within Audi) breaks ground in multiple areas, and the opportunity to spend a week with the vehicle highlighted a number of these accomplishments. The vehicle we drove was a Short Wheelbase model (there were no Long Wheelbase models available to test), in Havanna Black Metallic, which is definitely a beautiful shade on the all new body panels. The car was the “base” model, with the only option fitted being 20” wheels – which we felt suited the car very well. One of the exciting options that will be available on the forthcoming Long Wheel Base model, is the “Executive Pack” rear seat option. Consisting of reclining/massaging rear seats, LCD screens in the rear of the front seat headrests, and providing the rear passengers with their own MMI system – if you want your driver to re-route you via the polo club, just set the destination from the back seat, and it communicates it to the navigation system in the front!

An “intelligent” night vision system is also available as an option; it detects if the object in front of you is straying onto your path of travel and alerts you accordingly. The standard car however is quite feature rich, coming with Google maps navigation (an industry and Audi first), blind spot assistance, radar cruise control, 5 setting seat massaging for front seat passengers, a very strong Bose sound system which makes one question the value of the $6,000 optional Bang and Olufsen system.

Walking up to the car, the first thing that strikes you is the design of the vehicle. Elements such as the LED headlights, the familiar Audi single frame chrome grille, the stunning rear lights – they are actually LED’s refracted through tubes – the hip and shoulder lines, the raked C pillar, all work together to give impression of a 4 door sport sedan, and not that of an ordinary boring limousine. Whether viewed at day, or night, the car imparts both a distinctive, yet classy impression to bystanders and fellow motorists alike.

Stepping inside the vehicle adds to the experience. Starting with the wraparound double tiered dashboard which flows through the driver and passenger doors, the stunning piano black trim surrounding the transmission selector and MMI system, the color selectable LED’s that illuminate the cabin, through the touches of Alcantara in the cabin it’s clear that the A8 that was designed and built to be enjoyed equally by those on the inside as well those on the outside. The touch pad MMI system works exceedingly well, and the integration of the electronic systems is well thought out and adds to the driver experience. Little touches like color coding each of the various systemmenus throughout the MMI make the world of difference when travelling at 80mph on a Los Angeles freeway when you only have moments to glance and select an option.

We did have a couple of small criticisms of the interior – we felt that the panel covering the DVD unit was cheap and plasticy, and out of place amongst the rest of the beautiful interior. Also we were also a little disappointed in the interior space. While it isn’t exactly “snug” on the inside, we felt that it doesn’t accurately reflect the cars exterior size. Of particular note was the intrusion of the transmission tunnel in the front passenger foot well, requiring taller passengers to sit with their legs slightly skewed to the right. Also, at first glance the trunk didn’t look much larger than an A4’s, but in reality, it is a bit more spacious. Obviously the quattro system’s rear axle, capacious 23.8gallon fuel tank, and the multiple safety systems all need a place to be, perhaps the trunk size is compromised due to these things. If the space is not overwhelming, the A8’s overall weight certainly is, with the A8 being one of the lightest in its class.
We were always big fans of the previous generation D3 A8 at AudiWorld, from its steadfast ride, peerless build quality, its authoritative styling – it gave the impression, both from inside and out, that it was machined expertly from a single billet of aluminum. The D4 on the other hand has many of the similar qualities, but additionally it feels like it was sewn and woven together by the finest of craftsmen.

Jumping behind the wheel adds to the experience of expert craftsmanship. The driving position is perfect for all sizes and shapes with 18 way adjustability. Tap the start button – the A8 has Audi’s advanced key keyless entry and starting as standard equipment – and the engine awakens but is completely inaudible. Start moving and it is still almost silent inside, but once you really lean on the accelerator there is a very pleasant but subdued roar from what feels to be 3-4 car lengths behind you as the 4.2 liter FSI Direct injection engine sweeps across the tachometer to its 7000rpm redline.

It might be a 4500lb four wheel drive luxury sedan, but it hits 62mph (100kph) in 5.7s. The new ZF 8-speed gearbox and the 4.2 FSI V8 work in complete unison, and they make the machined aluminum gearshift paddles behind the steering wheel seem like a well crafted, beautiful-to-touch piece of redundancy as the gearbox always seems to be in the right gear.

The pairing of the direct injection V8 and the gearbox allows the A8 to get a very respectable 27mpg highway, 17mpg city and 23mpg combined (which is apparently either equal or greater than competitors 6cylinder or hybrid variants) – the numbers weren’t just unachievable EPA figures either, we averaged 30mpg during a 70mph cruise. The 3.0l TDI engine available in Europe is said to get over 40mpg hwy, allowing a range of around 1000miles! We wish they would bring it here.

Once you hit the corners, it really becomes evident the work the Audi engineers have done on the car. The steering is light and very direct on initial turn in, and the vehicle enters corners with a vigor that belies its size. Mid corner the steering builds weight quickly though somewhat artificially – but it struggles to communicate a whole lot of what is happening at the front wheels. Typically when pushed, understeer is the result. Fortunately, the chassis speaks with a greater degree of freedom, and you are able to feel through the seat what the car is doing, with stability control either on or off.

Forward visibility is excellent with the front haunches of the car easy to place towards the apex. Should you misjudge it at all the suspension handles mid corner bumps as if they are not present and exhibits very little body roll and enables you to re-adjust your line without drama. On corner exit the car just hunkers down and bolts to the next corner, and while you never wish for more power, you feel that the car could easily handle much more without breaking a sweat (leaves some room for an S8?).

Speaking of braking, the system fitted to the A8 has the capacity to cause severe retina dysfunction, and possibly broken ribs during emergency braking, they are very progressive, with strong initial bite and great feel, and it is pleasingly difficult to trigger the ABS. Something that perhaps will not please North American buyers however is the brake dust evident on the front wheels after a very short journey; we were informed by Audi North America that the brakes fitted to our car were US production spec – the issue will be compounded for owners by the elegant 20” wheels not being the easiest to clean. While we mentioned earlier that we saw little need for the steering wheel paddles given how intuitive the gearbox is, we found great pleasure in lowering the windows and using them to downshift coming into corners so we could hear the fabulous V8 echo from the canyon walls that were on our test route, the shifts were almost as immediate as Audi’s S-Tronic system, and it similarly “blips” the throttle during downshifts. Perhaps the A8 shares more with the R8 than its LED headlamps?

The electronics have become more than mere gizmo’s grafted on to the car, and now add a great deal to the driving experience. Devices such as the blind spot detection system, which works wonderfully, detecting a 50cc Vespa when you are unable to see it in your mirror for example– which is useful, as visibility around the C-Pillar is restricted due to the high shoulder line and swept roof. We found the sensors that vibrate the steering wheel slightly when you are veering from your lane to be more of a nuisance than a benefit, and while the system’s sensitivity can be adjusted, our preferred setting for it was off. The radar guided cruise control on the other hand we found to be excellent. Drivers can adjust their preferred following distance from the vehicle in front, it easily maintains the prescribed gap, even around corners. The system will even bring the vehicle to a smooth and stable halt (the cruise control system can actually apply the brakes when needed) if traffic stops in front of you – it definitely lowers your heart rate in a Los Angeles commute (although the first few times you utilize it you might have your foot hovering above the brake just in case!).

The MMI system’s new touch pad is also a big benefit to drivers while motoring along, enabling you to keep your eyes on the road as you type in your navigation destination, or your radio station, or the name of the person you are going to call through the integrated blue-tooth, it astounds you that no-one had thought of it previously!

Overall the new A8 is a simply amazing vehicle, not just to look at, or be in, but to drive as well. The updated engine and transmission provide fantastic gas mileage and performance, the overall fit and finish and build quality raise Audi’s already high bar to new levels, and the electronics are so intelligent and intuitive, it makes ones iPhone look a little old fashioned and complicated. Our only minor gripes are about the aforementioned interior space, and the brake dust. We would just order the Long Wheelbase model, and pay someone else to clean the wheels regularly. Above all though, we were thoroughly impressed with the new A8.


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