The battle to be top luxury saloon takes another turn with the arrival of the tech-laden new A8, promising autonomy beyond what’s even currently legal.
On the road
On the road
The A8 is a car that could well be looked back on as a history-maker. Audi claims that its luxury saloon is the first production car that meets level three of the autonomous vehicle grading – the point where the car legally takes over and the driver can – in the short-term – take their hands off the wheel and switch off from driving. You could potentially watch the in-car television, although you still need to be ready to re-assume control.
In the case of the A8, it has the ability to take full driving responsibility – accelerating, steering and braking in its lane – at up to 37mph on major roads with a barrier between the two carriageways, once such technology is written into legislation. At present, the cars aren’t actually equipped with the piloted driving system, but will be, via an AI button on the centre console, once the laws have caught up with technology. Audi says the cars with the tech activated will be geo-located so they know where it can and can’t be deployed, and the car also monitors the driver to make sure they are prepared to take over, prompting them via three phases of visual and acoustic warning and then an emergency brake if, for example, it spots the driver’s eyes are closed for an extended period. Other related tech includes autonomously driving the car in or out of parallel and perpendicular parking spaces and garages without the driver even sitting in the vehicle, using a smartphone and the MyAudi app.
But there’s plenty more to the A8 that is relevant now, as well as in the future. Audi says the car’s key new points are introducing the brand’s new design language, a new touchscreen operating concept that we’ll come on to later (spoiler alert, it’s very good) and the mild hybrid system designed to trim emissions – something most car makers will deploy in the near future as pressure to cut emissions intensifies. Basically, the flagship is also the trail-blazer for Audi.
It’s also a very simple range from the off, with just a 286hp 3.0-litre diesel engine or a 340hp 3.0 petrol to choose from, with both coming in just the one trim level, and equipped with an eight-speed automatic gearbox and quattro four-wheel drive. There are two lengths to choose from, with the regular one as usual for the A8 joined by a long-wheelbase model that adds another 130mm to the rear-seat passenger space in exchange for £3,995. There are some equipment upgrades that come with that, such as four-zone climate control rather than the regular two-zone, but that’s still a decent wedge of cash for just over five inches.
One rather odd decision Audi is introducing with the A8 is a new and somewhat illogical badging policy. The diesel is known as the A8 50 TDI and the petrol 55 TFSI in a naming strategy that will follow across all mainstream models in time. The numbers related to the power output in kW, but not directly, and Audi’s engines will run from 25 to 60 in numbering terms, depending on power. It’s a very bizarre move that’s guaranteed to cause confusion as there’s nothing in the model number to clearly say which engine it is. But that’s the route Audi is going down, and in time it will begin to become more familiar at least, as more models adopt the nomenclature.
The rear is certainly the view that best betrays the new car as the latest A8, with a more slender and aggressive line. The front, though sleeker and more stylish than the previous car, isn’t such a big step and it’s a shame the new tech-laden flagship doesn’t have a more marked visual departure.
But step inside and it’s a very different story. The A8 introduces Audi’s new control system that ditches the rotary dial and buttons for a pair of touchscreens located and angled nicely within reach. A big step forward is that for most functions, the touchscreen clicks can be heard and felt, and the screens themselves have a high-quality glass appearance. It’s an impressive system that manages to be as usable as it is smart to look at, and bodes well for the smaller Audis that it will no doubt filter down to. The navigation system also has the ability to learn drivers’ regular routes and offer suggestions, as well as showing 3D depictions of major European cities.
The cabin is exactly as expected for a top-line Audi, in that it’s high quality and comfortable across the board, with particular nod to the nice wood that hides the rotating air vents. The seats are top-level comfortable, front and rear, with the rear certainly being more than suitable for senior executives to work or rest in between high-powered meetings. Especially with the huge number of personalisation options for the rear, including seat ventilation with massage function, entertainment television pack with tablet-style screens, matrix LED reading lights and electrically adjustable seats with footrests.
But from up-front or in the back, the overriding sensation is of comfort and refinement, two things the A8 has got incredibly well under control. However, it’s fair to say that this is a big car that doesn’t feel like it enjoys being hustled along. It can do it, but its true forte is a smooth and rapid delivery of performance that occupants barely notice, while the car dispatches bumps and thumps with minimal fuss. There was a slight low-speed powertrain judder on our car, but relaxed progress is the A8’s character and something it’s really rather excellent at.
From a running costs perspective, the A8’s limited line-up handicaps the car a touch, especially with the quattro four-wheel drive system fitted to all cars. On standard 18-inch wheels the A8 diesel gets down to as low as 145g/km, rising if optional alloys are fitted, but the rear-wheel drive BMW 7-Series is down as low as 124g/km for the same performance level. It’s a shame the Audi doesn’t have a more marked improvement over the previous car, with fuel efficiency improving by just 1.6%, although power from the 3.0-litre diesel is up by 24hp.
The small efficiency improvement is especially disappointing because the A8 is one of the first new cars to feature mild hybrid technology.
Fitted to all engines, the new 48-volt electrical system allows the A8 to coast with the engine switched off and restart smoothly, as well as recoup energy under braking and extend the stop-start facility to help efficiency. In particular, the coasting function cuts in and out fluidly without drawing attention to itself.
This is a deeply impressive car from technological, refinement and comfort points of view, which makes it an undoubted triumph, because those were the key goals for Audi. In addition to that, the new infotainment touchscreen control looks great and works well, successfully doing away with buttons and the rotating control of the firm’s previous MMI system. The A8 could look more different from its predecessor and it’s a shame emissions don’t drop further despite the performance increase, although the plug-in hybrid version will cure that when it comes at some point in the next year or two. Nevertheless, as it is the new car more than ably showcases the brand’s range of talents.
This is the fourth generation of Audi’s flagship saloon. The first arrived in 1994, and was pioneering in terms of its use of lightweight aluminium construction, and by 1997 that car was also the first all-wheel-drive model in production to get electronic stability protection, as well as the first production car with front and rear side airbags.
Eight years later the second-generation car arrived (pictured), debuting Audi’s MMI multimedia interface. It was also the first Audi to get bi-xenon and adaptive headlamps and Audi’s GPS navigation system with DVD maps, establishing the car’s role as a technological showcase.
By 2007, the A8 had adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection and lane assist.
The third Audi A8 arrived in 2010, and technology had developed to include the pre-sense collision avoidance system, infrared night vision and hard-drive GPS sat-nav, as well as the A8’s first petrol-electric hybrid model.
This fourth-generation A8 made its debut in a TV advert, driven by Spiderman’s alter-ego, Peter Parker.
At its 2014 peak, only a little under 40,000 A8s were being built a year, compared with less than 12,000 in 2001.
What they said
What They Said
“The latest evolution of the A8 takes premium to a new level and is a great indicator for the brand’s design direction."
"The interior quality and refinement make it a fantastic place to be, and the technology accessible via the new touchscreen is already awe-inspiring and will be even more so in the coming months when we roll out features such as the predictive active suspension and automated driving and parking pilots. Initial feedback from both our dealer partners and key influencers has been incredibly positive, and we’re confident that the car will resonate equally strongly with our customers.”
Tom Brennan, head of fleet, Audi UK
Need to know
Three things we like...
The clever haptic feel to the touchscreen works very well
The B&O speakers rise neatly from the dash
The button for the heated seats also heats the armrest. Lovely
...And one we don't
To open the door you pull the handle from the bottom, which is counter-intuitive
It’s clearly a big car from a piloting perspective, but the diesel powertrain pulls it well.
The quattro four-wheel-drive system doesn’t help, but there’s only been a 2.8% reduction in emissions over the outgoing car’s.
There’s not much stowage space in the front, but boot space is within reach of key rivals. Parking sensors are a bit too jumpy.
Premium quality options cost premium prices, but the range of ways to kit out an A8 is impressive. Our test car had more than £36,000 of optional extras.
The rear is more different than the front, but it all looks too similar to the previous A8. Classy, but takes a glance to spot the new one.
Comfort and refinement 10/10
Incredible refinement whatever the speed is impressive, and the ride quality is equally commendable.
Interior touch and feel is all top-notch, as you’d expect, and it’s very comfortable, front and back.
The new double-screen centre consul works well, especially with the haptic feedback that the touchscreens offer.
Whole life costs 7/10
Costs are reasonable, but the cheaper and more efficient BMW 7-Series takes top spot, and the Mercedes’ better residuals also nudge it a touch ahead of the slightly cheaper A8.
CCT opinion 8/10
A fitting flagship for the Audi range the A8 is refined, comfy and classy. Rapid and smooth power delivery makes for a great way to travel.
Many, many strengths, but it’s a shame the new A8 isn’t a bit more efficient or a bit more visually different from its predecessor. Still, there’s quality in abundance.