A Very Controlled Kind of Driving Excitement
The club of luxurious act-like-an-adult sedans is one with strict codes of conduct. There's supposed to be no fooling around. When you drive one, you're aware of an untold abundance of elegance and comfort, plus you feel the weight of a massive research and development budget pressing down upon your shoulders.
And so as we sit behind the multi-function steering wheel of the 2011 Audi A8 4.2 FSI, we feel the burden of 100 years of Vorsprung durch Technik in the FlexRay bus system that is processing the electrical messages that are shooting at light speed through the synapses of an entirely new wiring loom connected to nearly 30 onboard ECUs. So you can see how it's possible to fall into the usual reverent silence.
C'mon, it's a car, people.
Point is, we need to get past this very un-visceral first impression and drive awhile before we can actually start feeling the joy of living with the 2011 Audi A8 4.2 FSI. And so back and forth all day along the southern coast of Spain near Malaga, we play this techno-sled for all it's worth, trying to blot out the avalanche of information about the car's techno-wonders.
Once you make the sharp-looking 2011 Audi A8 lose its confounded German cool, then you can appreciate just how good it is.
The Endless Battle of (Pretty Much) Equals
Take anything from a Mercedes-Benz S550 with optional 4Matic to a Lexus LS 460 AWD, to a Porsche Panamera 4S, to the upcoming 2011 Infiniti M56 X AWD, or the BMW 750i xDrive, and they are all rolling cash cows for their respective companies as well as showboats of brand philosophy.
But the D segment, as this luxury portion of the market is called, has taken a hit in the last couple of years and sales have declined. The Audi A8 in general has never competed well worldwide, especially against its rivals from BMW and Mercedes. In 2009, the last year it was on sale in the U.S., just 1,463 examples of the Audi A8 4.2 FSI were sold in America. That's pitiful, even during a Great Recession. So Audi is desperate to turn around its reputation in the luxury class and that is the mission of the D4, the fourth-generation version of the Audi A8.
How to stand out from the competition that's crushing you no matter how good a car you make? Well, the 2011 Audi A8 is still the only car in its segment that is nearly 100 percent aluminum, which lets it boast about lightness and structural rigidity, plus slightly better fuel-efficiency. The 2011 Audi A8 is still the only large luxury sedan that always comes with all-wheel drive. Audi also wants us to believe that the 2011 A8 is the sportiest player in this class, and it makes a good start since the V8-powered 4.2 FSI weighs just 4,045 pounds.
Walking the Talk
As generational change-arounds go, we can't really think of another car in this segment that has changed as much as the Audi A8. The stern Teutonic look is gone. What Audi can do with aluminum these days is truly impressive, and the new car has impossibly complex creases and folds that are aesthetically pleasing from almost every angle. Our test car came with the optional 19-inch cast-aluminum wheels (18-inchers will be standard for North America) and they carried 255/45ZR19 104Y Pirelli P Zero tires. She looked good just sitting there in the Spanish sun.
The same message came through in the interior, as we told Norbert Weber, the Audi designer responsible for it. Compared to the A8's former sturdy (and almost always gray) notion of international comfort, the D4 has more of Audi's adventurous design spirit. Of course, this car also won us over with its optional custom leather seats with massage, heat and cooling functions for front and rear occupants. Plus the 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen stereo system is worthy of Carnegie Hall.
We started the engine via the aluminum button that sits on the noticeably cleaned-up center console. Thanks to a reduction in internal friction, the long-lived 4.2-liter BBK V8 gets a 5 percent boost in horsepower to 366 horsepower at 6,800 rpm. The torque figure goes up by just 4 pound-feet to 328 lb-ft, but almost all of it is now available between 3,000 and 4,500 rpm. We're told this direct-injected V8 will get the big Audi sedan to 60 mph in just 5.6 seconds, only a tick or two slower than the Porsche Panamera 4S. Of course, it's also a tick slower than the BMW 750i xDrive and Mercedes S550 4Matic, but the A8 4.2 FSI stays right there with them, so we really don't see a black mark for Audi in this regard.
"Technelegance" Is Big
The 2011 Audi A8 is the longest and widest overall among its competitors in the normal wheelbase class at 202.3 and 76.7 inches, respectively, and yet it's a dream when it comes to handling.
And it's all due to the technology aboard, an awful lot of which is destined to come standard on the A8 once it starts to arrive in North America in November (European deliveries begin in March). You start with the rear-biased torque split of the all-wheel-drive system (40 percent front/60 percent rear), plus an un-intrusive stability control calibration. Then Audi Drive Select can vary (through the much-evolved MMI interface) between Comfort, Auto, Dynamic and Individual modes for the throttle response; shift schedule for the new eight-speed automatic transmission; steering effort; and the action of the now-outstanding standard air suspension. For Spain's undulating roads we went to Individual and made everything Dynamic apart from the suspension, which we set in either Comfort or Auto to great effect.
Our only possible criticism of the 2011 Audi A8 really is the all-powerful version of the onboard MMI. Start the A8 and the 8-inch screen flips deftly upward from the upper dash, reminding us of the similar variety show in the Jaguar XJ. The same software interface as used in the latest generation of BMW's iDrive is used here, so that's fine. What's problematic is that Audi has outdone BMW by adding what seems to be twice the feature set to the software, making the MMI quite literally the dominate lobe of the A8's electronic brain.
The MMI is intuitive and good, to be sure, but there is just too much of it to deal with in one onboard computer. There's MMI Touch, for example, where you can write with your finger on a small touchscreen in front of the transmission lever to call up some command or another. But what happened to voice-activated tech? Downplaying the A8's standard voice-activated system just as Ford Sync has finally made this technology user-friendly leaves us wondering. According to the people from Audi of America, Inc., the final MMI software for the U.S. has yet to be decided, but it will likely be a bit simpler.
Pushing This Big Boy
With the ADS in Dynamic mode, which sets the 2011 Audi A8 1 inch lower to the ground than in the default setting at start-up, we used the shift paddles on the steering wheel to cycle through the gears of the eight-speed automatic. It's perhaps our latest favorite automatic transmission. And we were able to hold onto gears at highest revs, oh, joy!
The all-wheel-drive system can send as much as 80 percent of drive through the rear tires, which helps Audi support its claim that the A8 is the sportiest in its class. Audi of America will also make available the $1,100 sport differential for the rear axle, which swaps torque between the rear wheels in 0.1 of a second — faster than an ABS-based stability control system can manage. This will feed the driver's happiness portion of your brain just as it did ours. Meanwhile, the dampers are now manufactured in-house by Audi (Continental previously did the job) and frictional losses have been reduced while a noticeably better software program is doing the talking with Audi Drive Select.
We had the most fun with this 2011 Audi A8 on the enthusiastic side of the tachometer, between 3,000 rpm and the 7,000 rpm redline. That's plenty of power band and we had plenty of fun, and we didn't even have to use too much body English to keep our equilibrium behind the steering wheel as we made our way through the curves southward along the coast of the Mediterranean. Though bigger, this A8 is lighter, has a body that's 25 percent stiffer in bending rigidity, and has a shape with a 0.26 Cd that is the most aerodynamic in the segment.
Occasionally finding moments of oversteer (yes, really) while at speed in the back country, the optional dynamic steering corrected this foolery with its own small dose of countersteer. Then, as we parked on the narrow streets of several Spanish villages, the dynamic steering quickened the steering ratio by the nearly 100 percent as advertised, and with 2.2 turns lock-to-lock such urban work felt effortless.
So Much to It
In the end, the 2011 Audi A8 4.2 FSI sedan is a very big leap ahead versus its predecessor. As an all-around effort, it is at least the equal to its competition from BMW and Mercedes. Would we hastily hand it the crown after this first try?
Not quite so fast. What we need to do at least is have a shoot-out between this 2011 A8, the Mercedes S550 4Matic and BMW 750i xDrive. And ideally the new Infiniti M56X AWD would be ready, too. Really, the experience of living with the all-controlling Audi MMI is also required.
But make no mistake, the Audi A8 has come a long way, Baby. The 2011 Audi A8 FSI has got all sorts of spirit in its looks and a skip in its step. And when it comes to us in November, we'll also see the long-wheelbase version, which routinely accounts for nearly 80 percent of all A8 sales in the United States.
Now Audi just needs to start selling the thing better, too. It deserves it.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.