2011 Audi A8 Tech Review

Audi Schools BMW and Mercedes on Flagship Gadgets

We've driven the 2011 Audi A8. And we've reported those driving impressions to you along with an in-depth analysis of the large sedan's engine and chassis.

But flagship sedans like the A8 need more than oversize grilles, powerful engines and soft leather to satiate today's CEO. Today they must also showcase the automakers' best bells and state-of-the-art whistles. Bluetooth? iPod? That's just the tip of the terabyte.

In the past, Audi's A8 has lagged a distant third in this category behind its Teutonic competitors, the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes' S-Class. No more. Audi now understands the technology demands of today's luxury car buyer, which is why it has outfitted its all-new 2011 Audi A8 with an arsenal of electronics from a laptoplike touchpad to a Bang & Olufsen sound system.

It's that in-cabin tech we'll be reviewing here. Let's see how it all works.

C'mon, C'mon and Touch Me, Baby
You don't need to look — or reach — any farther than the company's Multi Media Interface (MMI) to know Audi is already the most tech-savvy among the German automakers. Call it the anti-iDrive, or just an intuitive set of controls that allow the driver to command (with a small c and two m's) the car's electronics instead of the other way around.

For the fourth-generation A8, Audi stuck with a winning formula but added a significant new feature: MMI touch, a touchpad controller on the driver side of the center console. With the infotainment system switched off, it could pass for a shallow coin tray, but fire up the electronics and numbers magically appear. These correspond to the radio presets, and touching one tunes the radio to a stored station. But that's the least of MMI touch's tricks.

Using a finger, drivers can trace letters on the touchpad to input destinations into the navigation system and, like other navs, it loads logical choices as each character is entered — without the driver having to hunt and peck on a traditional touchscreen or dial in a destination using a rotary controller. The system also gives voice confirmation after each character is entered so you can enter info without taking your eyes off the road.

Character entry using MMI touch was about 90 percent accurate, although it sometimes mistook an "m" for an "n" or an "f" for a "p." But to be fair, that was due as much to faulty user input as system error. Voice activation for inputting destinations is also available, and it worked well with a variety of languages and accents.

MMI touch can also be used to call up contacts in the address book of a connected Bluetooth phone, and you also have the option of doing it via voice activation. While we had trouble finding someone to call from Spain at 11:30 a.m. local time ("Morning, Mom!"), connecting an iPhone, downloading the address book and calling up contacts using MMI touch or voice activation was effortless.

The Bluetooth system can also be programmed so that critical numbers stay with the car instead of following the phone. So if you want to make sure that digits for, say, your family doctor or a favorite takeout joint are always on hand — even if someone else connects their phone — the car's contacts are displayed along with the other entries.

The Whole World in Your Dash
The 8-inch display that pops out of the dash is used to keep tabs on the A8's surplus of tech, but to be safe, most of the info is repeated in the instrument panel on a high-res LCD screen that straddles the speedo and tach.

Steering-wheel controls cycle through navigation, phone, audio and vehicle information in the IP display, and each subset is color-coded to help clue the driver to what's being presented. While the A8 throws a lot of data at the driver, it's delivered in a concise, coherent manner, and we particularly liked the IP display's realistic graphics used to show upcoming nav maneuvers.

And it doesn't get much more realistic than using Google Earth for nav mapping, which is downloaded using a 3G modem and available as an option. You'll never have to worry about maps being outdated since they're fetched fresh from Google's servers, and losing a connection may not mean you'll lose your way since the system caches data to keep the maps coming until you're back in signal range. Like the BMW 7 Series, the 2011 Audi A8 also has an Internet-connected Google search function so there are no worries of nav points of interest being obsolete either.

Myriad Music Options
If there's a way to access and store music in a car, the 2011 Audi A8 has it completely covered. There's a single-disc DVD/CD drive in the dash and underneath it are two slots for SD cards (and one for a SIM card for the 3G connectivity), while a six-disc CD/DVD changer is stashed in the glovebox. Up to 3,000 tunes can be loaded onto a 20GB hard drive from a CD, with the contents displayed using an Apple-like "cover flow" function.

An iPod can be hooked up using a proprietary cable that comes with the car and connects in the center console, but it doesn't use the same cover flow feature, although the usual artists, album and song menu structure is available. A USB port and aux input are also on tap, as well as Bluetooth audio for wireless music streaming from a compatible phone.

Reproducing the music from all of these sources in our 4.2 FSI test car was the optional Bang & Olufsen 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.

While most listeners will be stoked on the sound of the B&O system, while listening to our test tracks we found a significant shortcoming. Bass on some tracks was too boomy and highs were a bit harsh, and while the system produces a sound stage that spans past the confines of the car, individual sonic images within it were misaligned and indistinct.

We also found a few quirks with the MMI touch interface. My co-driver and I both kept reaching for the large rotary controller to crank up the music or turn it down instead of using the smaller volume knob adjacent to it. An owner would probably get used to the controls pretty quickly, plus there is a volume control on the right side of the steering wheel, but our initial impression was that different shapes would be better.

Likewise, to move down within a menu in the dash-mounted screen, you have to twist the dial counterclockwise, whereas logic tells you to turn it clockwise. Granted this is a small gripe, but it took us awhile to get used to it. (An Audi engineer explained that it's set up to mimic the circular main menu used to choose primary options such as phone, navigation, audio and vehicle info.)

VIP Lounge
The 2011 Audi A8 offers a refined rear-entertainment system that's more suited to spoiled execs than rich rug rats. It comes with 10.2-inch monitors attached to the back of the front seats that protrude like Sarah Jessica Parker's snout. In a rear center console is another MMI, sans the touchpad, that allows control over any media option in the car, while a second iPod dock and phone handset are tucked under a cover in the console.

The RSE setup uses Bluetooth headphones instead of infrared for better reception and sound quality, and in another novel twist, rear-seat occupants can access the nav system to set a destination and follow the car's path via maps on the rear monitors. Behind the armrest is an optional fridge for big shots to store their bubbly and above that is another CD/DVD drive and two more SD card slots.

If the driver gets distracted by the A8's tech detritus, gadgets look out for the occupants. Audi Pre Sense prepares the car for a crash by, among other things, cinching the seatbelts, closing the windows and sunroof and partially applying the brakes. The 2011 A8 is also the first vehicle to add a rear-collision warning system.

Other safety tech includes night vision with pedestrian detection that uses the IP display and lane assist to warn against lane drift, and side assist watches for vehicles in the A8's blind spots. The nav system will also scout a route and adjust the adaptive cruise control and headlights according to what the car will encounter down the road.

It's Got the Tech It Takes
With its aluminum space frame, standard all-wheel drive and 366-horsepower 4.2-liter V8, the 2011 Audi A8 4.2 FSI has the goods to be a serious contender in the D-segment — above and beyond its bells and whistles. But if the new A8 has a distinct advantage over the 7 Series and S-Class — or any competitor — it's the sedan's over-the-top technology. And that it won't drive a driver over the edge while using it.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.