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Audi A8 Review

It all starts with a simple iPad app. Available now for free, the Audi A8 app shows you how the car will look in light tan or dark blue. You will also find out that the 19-speaker stereo system was custom-designed specifically for this car. You can find out how the pedestrian detection system works. And, you can gawk at a few beauty shots of this $78,000 luxury sedan. What the app doesn’t really explain though is that the real reason the Audi is such a wunderkind of engineering is not the tech features, or the styling, or even the luxury add-ons. The car is just a blast to drive – at any speed, under any conditions.

You can imagine that Audi engineers are chuckling to themselves about how Motor Trend just named the Chevy Volt as the car of the year. “Yeah right,” they might say. “And pigs can fly.”

The truth is, the A8 does not seem as innovative, at least in terms of fuel efficiency and high-tech features. It might come as a surprise to learn that the Infiniti M37X we recently tested actually has more advanced safety features (well, at first glance – more on that later) such as a lane keeping system that brakes the wheels slightly to nudge you back into your lane. In terms of “green tech” the Chevy Volt is decidedly more advanced – after all, not many cars have one gas and one electric motor.

However, taken as a whole, the Audi A8 is one of the best (if not the best) production cars ever made. After a week of driving an all-black model with the extra PreSense package and a few optional accessories (such as all LED lights on the front and rear of the car that mimic sunlight), we can say that this is the vehicle you want if you crave only the best top-end luxury and high-tech features.

Styling and interior accents

The Audi A8 retains that classic Audi look, which is to say that it’s not flashy or bulbous like a BMW 7-Series or the Infiniti M37X, but instead has a sleek and understated look and a slim side profile. It’s surprisingly sleek for a large sedan. The all-black model we drove was not really a head-turner, but we think Audi likes it that way. It is a car that is designed for luxury and sporty handling.

Inside, the A8 is also not necessarily meant for extreme luxury appointments. We ended up liking the cockpit feel of the Infinity M37X better, and found that the A8 has a bit more of that Mercedes feel where you don’t necessarily feel like you are in tune with the controls. That changed quickly once we actually put the vehicle in drive, because at that point the shifting and adjustments the car makes take over and it’s a blast to accelerate into high speeds and a lot of fun to take corners. In many ways, the interior styling is also meant to be understated – it’s not flashy, but trim and professional.

Now, we should mention the stereo system at this point. Designed by Bang & Olufsen, this 19-speaker system pumps out 1500 watts and you feel every note. Seriously, this is an extremely powerful, crisp, and well-tuned audio system and finally, after many months, we can say it is on par or even slightly edges out the stereo system in the BMW 740Li. (Interestingly, we found the stereo in the Jeep Grand Cherokee to be a hair louder and more bass-thumping than the A8.) When you switch the car on, the front speakers rise out of the dash; they look like tiny satellites. We played recent releases by Band of Horses, Bruce Springsteen, and a band called The Go! Team and were just blown away.

Driving the A8

A few things occurred to us right away as we drove the A8. One is that the car has a unique way of not just hugging the road, but commanding the road. As you drive, the vehicle actually uses a brand new adaptive air suspension that responds to forces on the road – such as a curve. This means as you are driving, the car does not seem to pitch or cause a slight body roll. Instead, it stays flat.

The car uses a new sports differential that is similar to the Audi R8. As you corner, the car directs more power to the outer wheels to make sure you do not feel too much force in the turn. Sometimes, these tech terms like “sports differential” sound like gibberish, so here is what it really means. The car seems to have a mind of its own around corner. Even though it is an AWD, the A8 does not hug the road like a Corvette and feel like it is burning up the tires on the road. It seems to float. To some people this is what a large car should be doing. Others might be turned off.

If you really pay attention to the cornering, you can see what is happening: the car is adjusting itself so ease you around a corner, and the really amazing result to this is that the A8 is just more fun to drive that other cars. You don’t feel the weight of cornering, but you do feel the rush.

Another seemingly minor finding as we drove is that the RPM indicator moves very quickly – almost instantaneously – on its dial. This is due to the 8-speed transmission, which very efficiently switches gears to save on fuel economy. (Audi also used a new aluminum body on the A8 to make it lighter and thus better on fuel consumption.) The A8 accelerates quickly – in the neighborhood of 6 seconds going 0-60 in our tests, so not really a sports car speed demon but fast enough for most purposes.

Tech features

As we mentioned, the A8 does not appear to have the most robust tech features. For example, the Volvo S60 supposedly has better pedestrian detection because it can brake if someone jumps in front of the car, and the A8 will only brake when it senses any obstruction (people or objects). The Infiniti M37X we tested has blind spot intervention (it nudges you back to your lane if there is another car present) and also nudges you into your lane if you cross a lane marking.

Interestingly, the actual results of our testing place the A8 just a hair more advanced. This is a good example where, on paper, one car might appear to be more advanced than another, but in reality it is really important to test out the car. The A8 has better adaptive cruise control than most cars, including the Mercedes S-Class and the Infiniti line. The reason is that the A8 uses sensors all around the car and a video feed that can tell whether the car in front of you is getting too close. What’s amazing is that the A8 does this so smoothly and effortlessly, similar to the cruise on a Mercedes E-350.

Another major tech advancement is just the PreSense technology itself, which is constantly monitoring the car in a 360-degree arc to find any potential danger. It’s one thing to have pedestrian detection; it is another for the detection to work really well. (We have not had a chance to test the S60 yet.) On the A8, as we drove in a crowded parking lot, people walking around showed up in yellow. When they got too close to the car, the display (which is right above the steering wheel) marked them in red. We never actually found out what would happen if the car had to stop, but Audi said it is very quick.

The LED lighting on the car is amazing. It is a bit of a trade-off, though, because the standard package for the Audi includes adaptive headlights that follow a curve in the road. You don’t get that amenity with the A8, but you may not need it. The LED lights are so bright (think sunlight on a bright day) that the headlamps emanate all over the road and make nighttime driving much easier. There is a version of the A8 that just comes with front LED lamps and one that has front and rear lamps.

There are a couple of other tech features worth noting. One is that the newly re-designed MMI dash interface for controlling navigation (nav) and the stereo system is now easier to use and more powerful. There is a small touchpad where you can draw with your finger on the nav map and find an exact POI, and you can spell out the name of a city to use that for your route. It was a little hard to use at times, but we quickly learned the ropes (The A8 iPad app actually includes a quick touchpad tutorial.)

Next year, Audi will release an upgrade for MMI that includes the Google Earth 3D mapping service. What this means is that the car will connect using its 3G service. You can type in a POI and then see how that POI actually looks. It is a pre-visualization tool for car navigation – we can’t tell you whether it works that well though, since Audi has not released the upgrade even for testing in reviews.

So what else? For the most part, the A8 just handles exceptionally well – you want to just stay in the car and either drive it or just listen to the stereo. We’ve highlighted the features that impressed us most in terms of driving features, but this is a car that people could write books about. There are so many subtle engineering aspects – the sports differential, the adaptive air suspension. The real reason we call this vehicle out as one of the best ever is simply because it drives so effortlessly. Maybe some of the tech features do not appear to be as advanced and maybe other cars have a more attractive appearance. In some ways, electric cars are pushing into a new age, but for now, the Audi A8 is just an amazing car.

– Photos by Jamie Larson