Costa del Sol, Spain -- There was no sign of sol on the costa as I nosed the quartz-gray Audi A8 past the guard house of the Finca Cortesin hotel onto the rain-slicked traffic roundabout and headed toward the autoroute.
The long, smooth roadway that connected the hotel to the autoroute was the perfect place to get better acquainted with the A8's 372-hp, 4.2-liter V-8 and its 328 lb-ft of torque. Leaving the handsomely designed gear select in drive allowed the eight-speed Tiptronic transmission to run through the gears at its sole discretion. But with a flick of the steering-wheel-mounted paddles (downshifts executed with the left paddle; upshifts with the right), I snapped off downshifts to third gear to decelerate as I approached the roundabout, the transmission responding instantly with the discipline of a well-trained Doberman, the standard quattro all-wheel drive easily finding traction despite the rain-slicked tarmac. I merged with traffic, exited the roundabout and accelerated southwest toward Cadiz with the Mediterranean off to my left, popping into view as rain clouds scuttled toward Morocco.
The launch of a new A8, the flagship of the Audi lineup, is an event to be anticipated. Since 1994, a new generation has been introduced every eight years; even the Vulcan mating ritual of pon farr occurs more frequently. So when Audi invited AOL Autos to review its latest offering, we accepted without hesitation. We had questions: would Audi's penchant for technology come at the expense of an involving driver experience? Would the bar be raised when it came to Audi's reputation for the best interiors in the business? And what about environmental considerations? Is a high-performance, gas-chugging luxury sedan an anachronism in this time of receding glaciers and drowning polar bears?
The foundation of all A8 models has been the Audi Space Frame (ASF). Constructed of high-strength aluminum alloys, the structure is strong yet light. The torsional rigidity of the new ASF is 25% greater than its predecessor. A rigid structure provides a sturdy platform for the suspension, minimizing twist and flex during spirited driving. It also dampens noise, vibration, and harshness, enabling a quieter, more relaxing interior. Another benefit is greater impact absorption during crash events. The ASF is 40% lighter than an equivalent lightweight steel body, contributing to improved fuel efficiency by reducing mass.MMI Touch: The Next Step in Infotainment
The latest version of Audi's Multi Media Interface (MMI) Navigation plus integrates a unique touchpad for driver input. Using the broad width of the gear select as a hand rest, the driver uses their forefinger to trace letters or numbers onto the touchpad while keeping their eyes on the road ahead.
When not in use, the MMI's eight-inch monitor tucks into the center of the instrument panel. Activated, it rises from its niche, displaying information in high-quality, three-dimensional graphics. Functions include vehicle settings, navigation, phone, and information. The audio function has its own set of buttons and a control knob for volume.
The nav system in our test vehicle was preprogrammed with different test routes, including one that guided us from the airport in M?ga to our hotel outside of Casares. Enhanced with audible directions and a guidance screen in front of the driver, it performed flawlessly, including in the pesky roundabouts with their multiple exit choices.
The interior of our test car was outfitted in a handsomely stitched, deep chocolate brown leather, the kind that would be equally at home on a club chair in a swank Parisian boutique hotel. The headliner and even the visors were swathed in Alcantara, as pleasing to the eye as to the touch. Real wood abounds: ours was trimmed in a brown walnut veneer buffed to a matte finish. Optional trim choices may include brushed aluminum; gray vavona; beige birch grain; or brown ash grain.
The seats deserve mentioning for both their excellent support and long-term comfort. Our car came with the optional comfort seats which feature 22-way adjustability, in addition to heating and cooling capabilities as well as massage.
A Bose Surround Sound System with 14 speakers handling 630 watts is the standard audio system; the Bang & Olufsen Advanced Sound System is optional. The system rises above its unfortunate acronym with 19 speakers cranking out a tympanic-membrane-scorching 1460 watts. Especially cool are the two "acoustic lenses" which serve as the system's tweeters, rising dramatically from the dashboard like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey when the system is powered on.
Measuring almost seventeen feet long and six-and-a-half-feet wide, the new A8 is longer and wider than its predecessor and the competition. The trademark grille is still too oversized for our taste; fortunately, there are the awesome Predator-inspired LED headlamps to distract the eye away from the grille's baleen-like visage. In silhouette, the lines are subtle, with a nicely creased shoulder line that begins at the front fenders and carries back to the trunk lid. There, the line ties into a trunk lid spoiler which provides the right amount of dynamic lift to the eye.Powertrain
The heart and soul of any German luxury sedan worth its sturm und drang is the engine. The A8 features a 4.2-liter, direct-injected V-8 capable of launching the car from 0-62 mph in 5.7 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 155.34 mph. On the road, the A8 accelerates as if perched on the crest of a tremendous wave, the power building upon itself in a great hurtling surge. Under throttle, terrific turbine-like sounds emanate from the engine bay, giving a sense of seemingly endless reserves of power. Despite an increase of 22 hp over its predecessor, fuel economy is a respectable 25 mpg based on the EU cycle, an improvement of thirteen percent.
We also drove both diesel-powered A8 models: the 4.2-liter V-8 TDI and the 3.0-liter V-6. The 4.2 TDI churns out an axle-melting 590 lb-ft of torque between 1750 and 2750 rpm and goes from 0 to 62 mph in just 5.5 seconds -- yes, faster than its gas-powered sibling -- while delivering 31 mpg on the EU cycle. The 3.0 TDI drove with a spirited immediacy; that a diesel-engined car could feel so nimble was a revelation. In EU testing, the quattro version returns 36 mpg.
The A8's optional driver assistance package comes packed with a host of twenty-first-century technologies. Adaptive cruise control (ACC) uses front-mounted radar sensors to regulate speed and proximity to traffic at vehicle speeds up to 155 mph. Audi side assist utilizes rear-mounted radar sensors to monitor following traffic. Should another vehicle move into a critical zone, an LED in the driver's side view mirror illuminates as a warning. And at speeds above 40 mph, Audi lane assist alerts the driver by vibrating the steering wheel when the car wanders from its lane.
While unable to test the ACC, the side assist proved useful when fast-moving traffic approached from the rear. The lane assist was an annoyance, vibrating the wheel every time a gust of wind or momentary driver distraction took the car off its intended course.Summary
With the new A8, Audi has performed a sort of automotive alchemy. From the sum of basic elements such as wood, leather, steel, and aluminum, Audi has created the whole of a luxury sedan that is as pleasing to the senses as it is to the intellect. From a driver's perspective, the car offers an engaging driving experience that can be as involved and as stimulating as desired. For the hedonist, creature comforts are in full effect, with even the most cynical of sybarites certain to be satisfied.
Our only remaining question: What now, Mercedes and BMW?
Although Audi will not release pricing until later this summer, they assure us that they will be competitive in the segment. With a 2010 Mercedes-Benz S-class going for $91,600 and a 2010 BMW 750i priced at $82,000, we'd guess the 2011 A8 will sticker for around $90,000.