Audi A8

It may look conservative, but Audi’s new-gen A8 is a dramatic technological tour-de-force TH AN PONCHARD

WORDS NATHAN PONCHARD

THERE’S something deeply alluring about a superluxury range-topper from a premium brand. It’s the way each successive limousine generation encapsulates the pinnacle of a brand’s essence at the time, and available automotive technology, and ramps all that up to eleven.

Much like Audi’s all-new D5-generation A8. But to really appreciate this Ingolstadt limo’s trump card, you need to be seated inside its impeccable cabin.

Challenging the wondrous piece of technology that is Audi’s Virtual Cockpit instrument display are a pair of completely flush, smartphone-style centre touchscreens, the upper 10.1-inch example enabling you to swipe through layers like a tablet, with haptic feedback (and even a faint ‘click’ sound) when you select something.

This digital-age ‘MMI Touch Response’ interface makes the old rotary-dial MMI system (which we once raved about) seem clunky and completely outdated.

Select ‘search’ in the navigation function and the lower climate-control screen turns into your own digital etch-a-sketch. Draw a great big letter, the upper screen goes straight to what you’ve scrawled, and it’s just all incredibly simple and lovely from there. Technophobes, never fear – this is beautiful, seamless technology at its most intuitive.

There are plenty of other details to delight your visual senses. The four-spoke steering wheel, with a triggergrip- style spoke arrangement, looks futuristic and feels fabulous, and there’s leather covering every surface bar the sill caps and front kick panels. The ventilation outlets also do a Jag XF-style barrel roll when you switch the climate control on, but it’s a pity they’re so conspicuous when passing crisp air. And while there’s acres of room inside – even the base A8 rides on a vast 2998mm wheelbase – the front seats don’t offer quite T enough under-thigh support, even with the cushion’s leading edge tilted to max elevation.

Outside is where the new-gen A8’s cutting-edge persona begins to unravel slightly. Sure, its structure is 24 percent stiffer, aluminium now makes up 58 percent of the total weight of the car (1920kg in ‘base’ trim), and there are some masterful design flourishes. The way the bonnet shutline twists its way into becoming the upper shoulder line is quite special, and so is the lower swage line, which subtly ‘blisters’ over each wheelarch. The rear light display is a cracker, too, with a Knight Riderstyle heartbeat pulse from the upper red LED bar before it encircles the whole rear end. But the overall form is perhaps a little too subdued … until you spot the grille.

It’s at the front where the new-generation A8 lacks the elegance of its forebears. That oversized grille is almost clownish in its grinning expanse, while the A8’s relatively short dash-to-axle ratio continues to convey the impression that this mega-luxe Audi may in fact be front-wheel drive. It’s not – all A8s are quattro – but the DNA of the expanded MLB platform underneath certainly is. Think next-gen A6 on growth hormones.

On the road, however, the D5 A8 casts those aspersions aside. Fitted with adaptive air suspension and optional all-wheel steering, our test A8s were stupendous in shrinking car around driver.

On some seriously sinuous (if perfectly hotmix-smooth) roads in the hills outside Valencia in Spain, even the A8 L (a 5302mm-long car riding on a 3128mm wheelbase) felt agile and wieldy. There may be little true steering feel being fed through the A8’s funky four-spoke wheel, but there’s certainly the accuracy, the turn-in and the poise a big car like this needs when all four wheels are doing the pointing – especially at big speeds on snaking freeways.

54 WheelsMag.com.au Our well-optioned test A8s were stupendous in shrinking car around driver

Rise up

Coming in 2018 will be optional ‘Audi AI Active Suspension’, which incorporates electromechanical actuators on each wheel to prepare the suspension, via data fed to a screen-mounted camera, for oncoming obstacles. We were driven in a pre-production A8 W12 fitted with this system and its lift-and-separate approach to speed humps and various other lumps was quite remarkable – level, serene and suitably wafty. Think Audi’s take on Mercedes-Benz’s ‘Magic Body Control’. r s h s

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Dashboard is seamlessly integrated and brilliantly finished. Air vents fold away when ignition is off, making it even more streamlined, yet there’s warmth in here too, with plenty of colour, rich open-pore woods and tactile leather.

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TFT touchscreens add smartphone glamour to the A8’s control interfaces, while an embedded mechanical pulse (via an electromagnet moving the display by the width of a human hair) creates some ‘haptic feedback’ for your fingertips.

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Aussie A8s will get a three-seat rear bench.

Optional ‘relaxation package’ brings heightadjustable comfort headrests, footrests, full centre console, four-zone climate, and a rear-seat entertainment with a pair of ‘Audi tablets’.

The all-wheel steering chops more than a metre from the turning circle (down to a trim 11.4m) and half circle (down to a trim 11.4m) and half a turn out of the steering ratio (a brisk 2.2 turns lock-to-lock), all of which promises a solid base for next year’s forthcoming S8 version. And the new air-sprung A8 rides well too, or at least seems to on the not-so-severe surfaces we tested it on. Unlike the often brittle and inconsistent demeanour of A8’s past, this generation feels like it can truly look the S-Class and 7 Series directly in the eye without flinching.

Once the optional AI Active Suspension comes on line next year – where, thanks to Audi’s 48-volt electrical system, motors at each wheel can raise the A8 by up to 80mm, in response to an upper-screen camera capturing 80 frames-per-second of the road surface 20m ahead (at speeds approaching 80km/h) – the A8’s ride-quality should be truly unquestioned.

Drivetrain wise, Australia will follow Europe in offering a pair of launch engines – a 3.0-litre turbopetrol V6 (250kW/500Nm) and a 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6 (210kW/600Nm). The TDI slices nearly two litres per 100km from the TFSI’s economy figure, but the petrol is far more in keeping with the A8’s hushed refinement.

Tied to a silken eight-speed automatic, the singleturbo 3.0-litre sounds so much sweeter in the pampering A8 than it does in the somewhat grainy S4 and S5.

Its almost velvety induction acoustics, its greater rev range and its far more suitable gearing for twisty roads definitely puts the so-so diesel in the shade. Hire-car operators may prefer the oiler but for the rest of us, it’s petrol V6 all the way. Or punchy 338kW/660Nm twinturbo V8 if you’re from the Middle East.

Drive impressions aside, it’s the A8’s ‘Level 3’ conditional automation that should garner the biggest headlines. This is the first series-production vehicle in the world to offer such tech, but not all of it will be available from launch.

The winner is Traffic Jam Pilot, which can handle nose-to-tail driving in gridlocked traffic (at speeds up to 60km/h) all by itself. All you have to do is sit back and chill, though not sleep apparently because a sensor can detect if your eyes are closed. Thing is, Traffic Jam Pilot is currently only legislated for ‘testing’ in Germany and a few US states, so we’re essentially still mid-trimester.

Audi expects approval some time in 2018.

The other two are remote Garage Pilot and remote Park Pilot. The first (again, not available from launch) allows you to park your car via an app on your smartphone into a garage, even when turning is involved (though only if it’s moving forward). The Park version is for parallel parking, mimicking what you’d do if the A8 auto-parked while you’re in the hot seat, but without anyone on board.

For now, none of the new A8’s ‘AI’ kit will be coming to Australia – certainly not in time for its mid-2018 launch.

But the AI Active Suspension option will definitely be on the cards, and judging by our first taste of this technology, it represents a big step forward for the Ingolstadt brand’s luxury aspirations.

Perhaps the new A8’s conservative buyer profile won’t mind its slightly frumpy proportion ahead of the A-pillars, or the oversized mawkishness of its chrome grille. Certainly the saviour is its rear three-quarter proportion, which is actually quite pretty, but there’s always the prospect of a dark-hued S8 on black 21s with all that chrome overtness blacked out to save the day.

Bring on the ballistic S8, I say.

Defender

Supported by a ‘zFAS’ central driver-assistance controller and 24 sensors spanning its sizeable body, the A8 provides steering movements and brake application to prevent bumping into static and moving objects. And in the event of an impending side impact greater than 25km/h, A8s with the forthcoming active suspension option raise the body by 80mm (see above) to lift the side-sill height and reduce impact loads on the chest and abdomen by up to 50 percent.