A Plus-Sized S4 With World-Beating Tech
2011 Audi A8 - Click above for high-res image gallery
"Holy #&%*@^% $#^@!"
I have to admit losing track of how many times my hapless copilot uttered this – and countless other unpublishable phrases – from the passenger seat during our drive. But if I'm being honest, it doesn't hold a candle to the endless string of explicatives running through my own mind.
The reason? I'm piloting a 2011 Audi A8
through a particularly tortuous stretch of California tarmac running between the Monterey Valley and the Pacific Coast, and for the better part of 20 miles, the driver of the tuned BMW 335i
in the lead hasn't seen anything other than the A8's massive slatted grille in his rearview mirror. Just as impressive – if not more so – is the pair of worked-over E36 M3s that are having a hard time keeping up. And these guys are locals. They've been running this road for over a decade, only to have me show and spoil their ragtag rally in Audi's latest luxo-bruiser.
I'd like to think that my hairpin heroics and high-speed capers are a testament to my own skills, but I'm not that deluded. I've been equipped with the standard auto journo-issued hamfists, and to think otherwise is to fall prey to motoring delusion and insult the work of Ingolstadt's magicians. Audi's new A8 is just that good, and the steer is just the half of it.
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Photos copyright ©2011 Damon Lavrinc / AOL
If you're not enamored by the looks of this latest flagship, you're not alone. Audi
has gotten back to its Germanic roots of offering one sausage in three sizes, so less obsessive types may have a hard time telling an A4
from an A8 from 50 yards out. Me? I've always been partial to the D3 chassis (2002-2009), which blended stately elegance with an understated air of superiority. It never looked menacing, but it certainly came across as imposing. Not so with the D4.
Viewed head-on, the aforementioned grille needs a survey crew to estimate its wingspan, while the angular bank of LEDs make the A8 look like Droopy Dog with electroluminescent eyeliner. In profile, Audi's designers simply embiggened the A4's roofline by 30 percent in Photoshop, did the same to the rear and called it a day. We can't blame them, because the sheer size of this latest A8 – a staggering 202.2 inches stem-to-stern with a wheelbase of 117.8 inches – is enough to separate it from the rest of the luxo-pleebs.
But if the exterior is too pedestrian for your tastes, once situated in the 22-way adjustable sports seat, any and all reservations are laid firmly to rest. This is how you do a luxury interior, and considering the four rings embedded on the chunky steering wheel, we've come to expect nothing less.
The driver's gauge cluster is standard fare, particularly when compared to the "Virtual Instruments" on the Jaguar XJ
, but what it lacks in gee-whiz, it makes up for in clarity and functionality. Nestled between the tach and speedo is Audi's seven-inch central information display, a screen that keeps everything from navigation instructions to infotainment information directly in front of the driver. The optional Night Vision Assistant with Thermal-Imaging Infrared Camera mounted in the front bumper can keep track of pedestrians and animals crossing the A8's path, alerting the driver with a quick tone and visual warning. Trick, but nothing we haven't seen in the latest Mercedes-Benz S-Class
But what truly impresses – and where this Audi stands apart – is with the first application of its MMI Touch interface. Situated on the left side of the center console, and perfectly placed to allow the driver to rest his or her forearm on the yacht-inspired shifter, the rectangular touchpad allows you to simply write letters with your fingertip and effortlessly scroll through menus. Gone are the days of endlessly twisting the MMI knob to input an address, find a phone contact, dial up an XM station or navigate a map on the flip-up, central-mounted display. The MMI Touch is hands-down the A8's killer app, and Audi's competitors better hope that the patent application has more holes than the Steelers' defense.
But the crew from Ingolstadt hasn't stopped there. In addition to the de riguer
adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection and Audi Lane Assist (wander out of your lane and the steering wheel gently vibrates), Audi will begin offering an optional factory-installed WLAN hotspot that can not only connect to any number of WiFi devices, it can plumb a fully-integrated Google Earth experience into the MMI system. While it wasn't equipped on our $80k-and-change tester (it's not coming to the U.S. for another few months), we had the chance to sample the system at a media event and came away impressed with the execution, but not the graphics. It's pretty, but with the topographical and satellite imagery in use by BMW and other manufacturers, it doesn't look as visually polished as even the most standard graphical sat-navs.
However, polished doesn't even begin to describe the available Bang & Olufsen Advanced
sound system. Nineteen speakers, 19 channels and 1,400 watts of B&O-patented aural majesty are at one's disposal. Throughout my week with the car, the system ably provides more than a few "driveway moments" where I sat parked, blasting the Kleptones' latest
while reveling in dynamic highs and forceful bass. And my neighbors were no worse for the wear – with the doors shut and the windows sealed, not an ounce of perfectly matched mid-80s mashups oozes outside the cabin.
There's certainly more than enough to impress inside the A8, but Audi is billing the standard wheelbase sedan as its driver's car, leaving the "prestige, sportiness and comfort" to the elongated and plush-packed A8L. So how's it go?
As if I didn't already give up enough in the opener, it's magnificent. The combination of the lightweight aluminum space-frame chassis and the 372 horsepower, 4.2-liter direct injection V8 means the A8 is on par with its peers, but the addition of Audi's rear-biased Quattro all-wheel-drive puts it into new territory. While the engine's output is far from world-beating, the 328 pound-feet of torque available from 3,500 rpm onwards is more than enough to effortlessly merge with freeway traffic and blow into triple digits without thinking twice. But what impressed more than anything is the utter chuckability of what is – by all outward appearances – a ponderous, massive slab of aluminum and steel.
Forget about the official 0-60 mph time of 5.7 seconds. It simply isn't a factor. Instead, Audi's chassis and powertrain boffins have focused on making this big boy dance. And it does. You wouldn't think that something this large and this lux could be this quick on its feet, responding to steering inputs with immediacy and selecting the perfect of its eight ratios to put the power down, but it does. And it does it with clinical precision that doesn't leave the driver out of the mix – a neat trick that's often lacking in the rarified air of the sports executive set.
With the Audi Drive Select set to Dynamic, a Cray's worth of computing power seamlessly tweaks the adaptive air suspension and S4-derived Sport Differential to nearly eliminate any trace of understeer and allow mid-corner lifts to forcibly tuck that massive schnoz into bends. My driving companions are left shaking their heads and I'm left with an unshakable grin. These kind of antics shouldn't be possible, but the A8 manages to hack physics thanks to a smorgasbord of trick electronics, a set of unflappable, fade-free stoppers and 20-inch wheels wrapped in sticky summer rubber. And it's not just what's added on – excellence is baked-in. Thanks to its stiff aluminum chassis clothed in matching bodywork, this Audi simply has less mass to move around than its competitors. The A8 checks in at 4,409 pounds, while the Mercedes-Benz S550 weighs 4,455 pounds and the BMW 750i checks in at a hefty 4,641-pound starting weight. That may not sound like a massive difference, but consider, too, that the A8 manages to be lighter while toting around all-wheel drive.
If you care about such things, Audi estimates fuel economy at 21 city and 27 highway, and I managed to average out around 19 mpg during a nine-day stretch – easily within spitting distance of both Benz's and Lexus' flagship... hybrids.
When the time came to motor back up Highway One for a very late dinner, I set the Select system to Individual (suspension in Comfort, the rest in Dynamic) and amped up the front seat massagers for both me and my companion. "You're $%#^@#& kidding me, right?" No. No I'm not, my vocabulary-challenged friend. And neither is Audi. For lack of a better phrase, they've put old luxury on notice and infused some very welcome "sport" into its flagship.