Lighter and more aerodynamic than its predecessor, more power yet better fuel economy, improved MMI controller with touchpad, standard all-wheel drive.
Quirky center console controls, protruding rear-entertainment screens.
The All-New Audi A8 Aims for Large Luxury Sedan Domination
Having successfully built the R8 supercar and created a stable of strong competitors in the coupe, sedan, SUV and wagon segments, Audi is now focusing its efforts on its flagship A8. Hence the 2011 Audi A8 is loaded to the grilles with cutting-edge performance, technology and comforts.
The fourth generation of the A8 has more horsepower, yet returns better fuel economy, and the sedan's sleek aluminum body is lighter, stiffer and more slippery than its predecessor. Setting its sights on becoming a real challenger in the large luxury sedan segment, Audi claims the 2011 A8 is the longest and widest overall among its competitors in the normal-wheelbase class.
In sales, Audi's flagship A8 has lagged a distant 3rd to its Teutonic competitors, the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Also considered contenders are the Lexus LS 460 and Porsche Panamera, with more rivals on the horizon: the new Infiniti M56 and Jaguar XJ.
True to Audi's subtle style, the 2011 Audi A8 isn't a radical departure from the previous design, with no bulging Bangle butt or swooping Benz roof line. And although the aluminum frame and Quattro all-wheel drive pretty much remain the same, much on the new A8 -- from the Bang & Olufsen audio system to the all-LED headlights -- has been updated.
We drove the 2011 Audi A8 4.2 FSI Quattro at a press event near Malaga, Spain, when the Costa del Sol defied its description on a day of heavy rain. We couldn't push the car as hard as we would have liked on wet motorways and two-lane blacktop threading through coastal mountains, but got a good feel for the capabilities of the 4.2-liter V8, which produces 372 horsepower and 328 pound-feet torque. Audi claims the A8 can go from zero to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, which is on par with the last Mercedes S550 we tested but slower than the BMW 750i and Porsche Panamera 4S.
The A8's engine is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, which features a Sport setting and a Manual mode with paddle shifters. Engine torque is rear-biased, with the all-wheel-drive system directing 60 percent of power to the rear wheels and 40 percent to the front. A non-intrusive stability control system helps keep all four wheels planted. Audi's Drive Select feature has four settings -- Comfort, Auto, Dynamic and Individual -- for varying the throttle response, shift points, steering feel and suspension stiffness.
For the soggy Spanish roads, we chose the Dynamic setting and switched the suspension between Dynamic and Auto to gauge the effect of each. We left the tranny in auto-sport mode for highway cruising and spent the majority of our twisty mountain-road time working the paddle shifters. Considering the dismal weather, the A8 performed confidently, attacking and adhering to the road in all but the sharpest of corners and supplying power on demand for as hard as we dared push it.
In the 2011 Audi A8 Sedan, high performance doesn't come at the expense of comfort. But perhaps we felt that way because our test car came with optional custom leather seats with massage, heat and ventilation functions in both the front and rear. Wind and road noise are pretty much nil, although the cabin isn't a sensory-deprivation chamber like the Lexus LS. The 2011 A8 achieves a sweet balance between driver feedback and a luxury experience. Even in pouring rain, visibility was excellent.
The rear-seating area is generous, with ample leg- and headroom. The optional rear entertainment system includes a separate set of Audi's Multi Media Interface (MMI) controls that allow access to any entertainment option. A couple of novel twists include the ability to access navigation functions so that a rear passenger can select a route, and wireless Bluetooth headphones (instead of infrared) for better sound quality. And while we were dazzled by the 10.2-inch screens attached to the back of each front seat, we were baffled by the fact that they protrude into the rear-seating area.
If there's one area in which Audi has an advantage over its Teutonic competitors, it's with the MMI controller. Now labeled MMI touch, it adds a touchpad controller on the driver side of the center console. Using a finger, drivers can trace letters on the touchpad to input navigation system destinations. Like other nav systems, it loads logical choices as each character is entered, but with the 2011 Audi A8's system you don't have to hunt and peck on a traditional touchscreen or dial in a destination using a rotary controller.
The system gives voice confirmation after each character is entered so you can input info without taking your eyes off the road, and MMI touch can also be used to call up the contacts of a connected Bluetooth phone or radio presets. Character entry was about 90 percent accurate, although sometimes it mistook an "m" for an "n" or an "f" for a "p." To be fair, that was likely due as much to faulty user input as system error, and voice activation for inputting destinations is also available.
As much as we were impressed with the A8's ergonomics, we also uncovered a few quirks. For example, we kept reaching for the large rotary MMI controller to crank up the music or turn it down instead of using the smaller volume knob adjacent to it. Likewise, to move down within a menu in the dash-mounted screen, you have to twist the MMI dial counterclockwise, whereas logic tells you to turn it clockwise (an Audi engineer explained that it's set up to mimic the circular main menu of the in-dash screen).
The 2011 Audi A8 is also available with an optional Bang & Olufsen (B&O) Advanced Sound System, which has been bumped up to 1,400 watts from 1,000 in the previous A8, and adds five more speakers for a total of 19. B&O's trademark Acoustic Lens tweeters rise out of the dash when the system is turned on and recess when it's switched off.
Most listeners will be impressed with the sound of the system, but while auditioning our test tracks we found a few shortcomings. Bass on some tracks was boomy and highs were harsh. And while the system produces a soundstage that spans past the confines of the car, individual sonic images within were sometimes indistinct.
Design/Fit and Finish
Audi played it safe with the exterior styling on the 2011 A8 -- some would say too safe. Astute observers will notice classy creases and folds that have been added to the otherwise conservative sheet metal. The designers went a little wilder (by Audi's previously Spartan standards) in the interior, especially compared to the previous austere treatment.
Our 4.2 FSI test car's interior came laden with rich wood, sleek aluminum and soft leather accents. Audi labels the cabin's light, airy feel "skyliner-like," but the gearshift lever -- meant to mimic the throttle of a yacht -- looked and felt a little heavy-handed for our tastes.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2011 Audi A8 offers best-in-class technology and competitive performance. All-wheel drive is also standard, a welcome feature if you live in more inclement climates. If you are a 7 Series or S-Class customer, the A8 deserves your attention.