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Review: Gorgeous 3D maps and quattro AWD guide Audi’s A8 to greatness

2013 audi a8 exterior front motionWhen is too much simply not enough? When you’re shopping for a full sized luxury sedan, of course.

The 2013 Audi A8 represents the third generation of Audi’s flagship model and comes equipped with more smarts and sophistication than a Harvard grad, sans the obligatory sweater vest.

And it’s going to have to, with a segment that boasts the very best from fellow Ivy Leaguers like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the BMW 7 Series, the Lexus LS, and the Jaguar XJ.

Of course, Audi prides the A8 on being the perfect blend of performance, technology, and luxury so the question we asked is: Is there any truth in the A8’s engineering – or is it all a luxury lie?

Sedan or S.S. Google?

The latest generation of Audi’s MMI Navigation sports a 40GB hard drive, runs on BlackBerry’s QNX system, is powered by a NVIDIA processor, and features an eight inch high-resolution full-color LCD screen that smoothly emerges space-ship style from the dash when the vehicle is fired up, something we never grew tired of witnessing.

In addition to a controller wheel, Audi has included a new touchpad interface that interprets handwritten inputs, while dedicated radio preset buttons can also be programmed for easy access to favorite stations.

2013 audi a8 interior front

The new touchpad is certainly a welcome addition; however, a steep learning curve — and the fact that it required us to pay more attention to it than we felt necessary — places a damper on its usefulness.

Audi’s controller wheel seems much more intuitive at this point, although the corresponding menu buttons surrounding the wheel, which relate to different options on the LCD display, can be difficult to manage, too.

We get that the A8 is Audi’s flagship and thus comes with a wide array of functions and buttons (lots and lots of buttons) but we still feel Audi’s dash designers need to embark on some spring cleaning and tidy up that interface.

In addition to standard audio inputs like a CD player, AM/FM radio, Sirius Satellite Radio with complimentary three-month subscription, the A8 allows for Bluetooth streaming and iPod connectivity, the latter of which function’s sublimely were it not for the convoluted MMI interface making it difficult to access initially.

The A8 comes equipped with “Audi connect,” which converts the car into a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot and provides access to an impressive suite of Google-powered features. These include enhanced navigation features such as Google Earth with full 3D mapping, Google Local Search, which allows online searches of points of interests, and Google Voice Local Search, which simply adds hands-free functionality.

Audi connect also provides up-to-date weather and nearby gas prices as well as access to news feeds over 3G.

With so many mobile users accustomed to 4G speeds now, using the A8’s 3G data connection can feel excruciating slow. Booting up can take a spell and accessing each of the subsequent features tacks on even more time.

More than being just a cabin, the A8’s interior is an experience.

Some of Audi connect’s features, like scrolling through news feeds, are only accessible while the car is stationary, meaning it makes more sense to just whip out your 4G LTE phone at a stop light or while parked.

Unlike Mercedes’s COMAND online system, which will actually read aloud feeds to you, Audi’s does not. And unlike COMAND online, which is displayed prominently as its own menu option, Audi connect is tucked away behind a series of menus in the navigation tab.

Rearview cameras are on their way to becoming mandatory but A8 owners need not worry. In addition to providing the standard rear view complete with trajectory lines and proximity sensors, the A8 also adds a camera and computer generated “birds-eye” viewpoint to help navigate the Titanic, er… A8, through narrow spaces.

And you’ll need them. The A8 is a big car and undertaking even the most rudimentary parking maneuvers requires some skill… and patience.

With cameras placed in each side mirror and front grille, we were able to view a total of five different angles including front, rear, front corner, top view, and rear corner, with the different viewing angles accessed through the MMI’s control wheel.

The A8 is available with an optional driver assistance package ($3,000) and was included in our review model. Here, a number of safety tech features are designed to help mitigate and avoid potential collisions. These include active lane assist and blind-spot monitoring as well as adaptive cruise control.

Active lane assist integrates with the A8’s front-facing camera (located just behind the rearview mirror) and front-mounted radar. When driving, the A8 was able to detect whenever we veered out of our lanes and pro-actively informed us by vibrating the steering wheel. The sensitivity and level of vibration can be adjusted in the MMI vehicle settings.

Blind spot monitoring is less sexy but just as important, especially given the A8’s barge-like stature. Here, the onboard sensors detect any cars in your blind spot and provide visual warnings when attempting to switch lanes.

Adaptive cruise control works in the same way as it does in other luxury brands. We were able to set the desired cruising speed and following distance with the dedicated ACC stalk on the steering wheel.  Using its front-mounted sensors, the A8 sweeps the area in front of it. Whenever a vehicle in front would brake, the A8 automatically slows down without any driver input and then speeds back up again if the distance gap opens up.

Seducing us with space

More than being just a cabin, the A8’s interior is an experience. It’s an impeccable blend of the very best the four rings has to offer.

Material quality is phenomenal. The leather seats are both comfortable and luxurious. And the power seat settings can be adjusted a staggering 18 different ways. The only thing missing from this executive suite is a secretary waiting to hold all your calls.

The A8 remains voluminous in the back with a second row bench seat comfortably sitting three full-sized adults. Shoulder and hip room is abundant, while passengers in the back have a particularly impressive 43-inches of legroom.

Style sterilized 

The 2013 A8 is as handsome as they come but when judged on looks alone it leaves us wanting more.

Perhaps it’s too clean-shaven with its taught lines and minimal creases. Truthfully there is no drama to be witnessed other than Audi’s signature LEDs (front and back) and the jailed maw that is its gaping shield grille.

2013 audi a8 exterior front right

While most will appreciate its simple and at times subdued design, when compared to other cars in its segment, like the Jaguar XJ and Mercedes-Benz S-Class, it never feels quite as compelling.

Truthfully we’d like to see a bit more flair added to its body language (a raked rear like the A7 perhaps) but we very well could be in the minority.

Smaller engine, bigger payoff

The 2013 A8 is available in variety of model trims starting with the 3.0T ($72,200), L 3.0T ($78,500), 4.0T ($80,900), L 4.0T ($87,200) and ending at the mothership herself, the L W12 ($134,500).

Just how much of a difference does the letter “L” make? About five inches worth. That’s the extra wheelbase length afforded our 2013 Audi A8 L 3.0T quattro tiptronic (who knew five inches could be such a mouthful) over the standard 3.0T model.

It seems awfully perfunctory to describe anything in the A8 as “base”; nevertheless, powering our four-wheeled Hilton is a supercharged 3.0-liter V6 that whips out 333 horses and 325 pound-feet of torque. Power is sent to all four wheels via the quattro all-wheel drive system (more on that in minute) and mated to Audi’s eight-speed automatic.

Apart from just sounding cool, the aluminum Space Frame helps retain body rigidity while keeping weight down.

Interestingly, Audi did away with last year’s base 4.2-liter V8, replacing it with the new supercharged V6. While this causes a drop of 39 hp and three lb.ft of torque, the A8 never feels lethargic off the line, quite the contrary.

Merging onto the freeway is elementary and overtaking cars is done with the same disdain Einstein must have felt every time he was asked to explain his theory of relativity to the dimwitted gentry. (Wait, so “E” equals what now?)

Still, considering for whom the A8 is geared toward, it’s downright depressing thinking of all the stiff-shirted execs driving around, or even worse being driver around and knowing full well they’ll never push it to its limits.

Of course anyone wanting to shatter any self-imposed financial and performance limits can always opt for the new turbocharged 420hp and 444 lb-ft of torque supercharged V8 or the fire-breathing 6.3-liter W12, which buffets the road with 500hp and 463 lb-ft of torque.

Fuel economy is important, even if you’re driving a beast like the A8. So naturally Audi added a start-stop efficiency system, similar to what we’ve seen in other luxury makes like the BMW X1 and the Mercedes-Benz SL550.

Here, the system operates in the same manner by shutting off the engine while at a stoplight or during prolonged idle situations and kicking back up again once we took our foot off the brake.

Start-stop systems have a tendency to become a nuisance (especially in particularly bad stop and go traffic) but the feature can easily be turned off. Unlike BMW’s system, which we will continue to single out, the A8’s stays off even after you’ve turned off the vehicle.

It’s easy to assume the 2013 A8’s inherent thirst for fuel but it isn’t as parched as you’d expect. EPA estimates rate the V6 at an impressive 18/28/21, which we found to be rather spot on, even netting slightly better numbers during our evaluation. Naturally, the V8 is slightly thirstier at 16/26/19 but it’s not until the W12 that the numbers dip significantly (13/21/16).

Can’t question quattro

Despite its heft, the A8 handling is exceptional thanks to Audi’s brilliant quattro all-wheel drive system and the inclusion of the Audi’s high-strength Space Frame aluminum body.

Quattro is simply one of the best AWD systems available and helps keep the A8 glued to the road. During arduous cornering, quattro keeps all wheels working all the time. When one starts to slip, a transfer of power is sent to the other wheels to compensate for that slippage.

Apart from just sounding cool, the aluminum Space Frame helps retain body rigidity while keeping weight down. For a quick recap of your high-school science class (oh come now it won’t be that bad), aluminum is stronger, lighter, and less likely to corrode than steel, which makes up the majority of vehicle frames. It also cost more but the use of the premium material should come as the no surprise for such a kitted-out sedan.

Adding to the A8’s exemplary road manners is an adaptive air suspension, which is an electronically controlled air suspension system at all four wheels that features a continuously adaptive damping system, providing sporty handling with a high level of ride comfort.

2013 audi a8 exterior left side motion

Additionally, the air suspension allows for a dynamic shift in ride height depending on how fast or slow the vehicle is moving. Higher speeds result in a lower center of gravity, which in turn increases directional stability and aerodynamics.

The dampening characteristics and ride height can be adjusted through the MMI, and while it takes some tinkering to become familiar with the various settings, it wasn’t long until we really started noticing what a difference the air suspensions makes towards improving handling and driving dynamics.

What that translates to out on the road is a confidence and versatility that betrayed our initial perceptions. Shame on us.

No matter where we drove, the A8 kept its cool. Expanses of highways might be the A8’s home turf but that didn’t stop it from emigrating confidently to more demanding conditions. S-curves were frequently swallowed whole. Gravely roads were scarfed down like a gluttonous four-wheeled pig. And even pimply-faced roadways were sopped up with a surprising amount of grace.

Finish Line

Without a doubt the 2013 A8 is one of the finer specimens we have ever driven. Audi’s insatiable thirst for power, performance, and prestige come together in package that may fail to evoke emotion from you with its muted exterior aesthetic but more than makes up for it with a bevy of luxury inside and tech under the hood.

At this point in the game, price is practically irrelevant but at $84,245, the A8 represents excellent value for your white-collar money.

Sure the Mercedes S-Class nabs our vote for out-and-out luxury (it’s slightly more tech-filled, too) and the BMW 7 Series steals our breath with greater enthusiasm on the road but in the 2013 A8 we have an excellent blend of both and that’s more than alright with us.

Highs

  • Executive-level interior is both stylish and comfortable
  • Excellent amount of safety, performance, and connectivity tech
  • Superb handling courtesy of Audi’s Space Frame, quattro, and air suspension system
  • Nicer than some of our houses…

Lows

  • Anonymous exterior fails to generate much excitement
  • MMI can feel cluttered, steep learning curve to boot
  • Tendency to feel very boat-like in tight spaces and when parking despite excellent camera system
  • Nicer than some of our houses…

Photos by Bill Roberson

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