As it happens, the new Audi A8 will be sailing into the midst of perhaps its fiercest competition yet, with a hot new 7 Series from BMW; a forthcoming new S-Class from Mercedes that promises a range of powerplants from the pedestrian to the ludicrous; and a sexy all-new Jaguar XJ that has finally ascended as a truly viable contender.
Good thing for Audi, then, that this is its best A8 to date. The next generation has been improved in just about every area, beginning with the chassis. Through the advancement of the aluminum Audi Space Frame, the platform is more rigid than that of its predecessor by a claimed 25 percent, helping contribute to a distinct feeling of driving precision and tautness.
Through ongoing development of the 4.2-liter V8, the new car is faster, with 372 hp compared to the outgoing base model's 350, as well as being more efficient. Audi estimates fuel economy has improved upwards of 20 percent. The V8 is hooked to a new eight-speed transmission that offers seamless shifts and helps efficiency, and those eight gears turn all four wheels via Audi's signature Quattro system with a sporting 40/60 front-to-rear split.
For now, the 4.2-liter V8 is the only power unit available for either the normal-wheelbase (NWB) A8 or the long-wheelbase A8 L, although we expect a new version of the more powerful 12-cylinder engine, arranged in the VW Group's W configuration, to come down the line at some point. But expect a significant price premium to accompany that unit. Europe gets further options like a 3.0-liter TDI, but those won't be making it over to the States-not, at least, any time soon (naturally).
Typical of a new-generation vehicle, the styling has created a stir among admirers and detractors. There are those who argue the new fascia with the large central trapezoid grille is too pronounced. Audi goes so far as to say the car wears its grille "proudly" like a "coat of arms." We might not go that far, but really it just follows the Audi family styling DNA; if the grille seems big, it's because the freaking car is big. The rest of the design remains conservatively, classically A8, with traditionally simple, yet elegant and dynamic body lines evocative of the car's design history. A new multispoke 19-inch wheel is standard, with a 20-inch wheel/tire package available at extra cost.
The base model 4.2 comes with plenty of standard equipment to put it on a level with its competitors. One notable feature is the next-gen Multi Media Interface (MMI), which features an integrated touchpad. By default, the pad allows access to six preset functions (like your favorite radio stations), but used in concert with the navigation system actually allows you to write letters with your fingertip, when entering a street name or point-of-interest destination for example. In addition to English (and German we presume), the pad is quite multilingual and recognizes Cyrillic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean characters. Trick, yes, but in our experience still a little clumsy; drawing the letter "Q" posed a unique challenge (overly eager to please, the system kept entering "O" before you had a chance to give the Q its little tail). Still, it's a neat idea and could probably be smoothed out with simple software updates (or practice on our part).
Other standards features include Bose surround-sound audio, adaptive headlamps, and 12-way adjustable power seats with heating, ventilation and massage. The new A8 also incorporates the Audi drive select system that can adjust the car's driving characteristics on the fly to suit the driver's mood. Adjustments can be made suspension damping, steering and accelerator inputs and transmission shift points. Four modes are available: Auto (default), Dynamic, Comfort, and Individual, wherein the user can preset a custom combination of settings using the MMI interface. The drive select system can also be enhanced with an optional sport differential in the rear that actively varies torque between the rear wheels, reducing understeer and enhancing the big car's cornering capabilities.
But the options list is where you start to delve into the really juicy tech stuff. In the audio department, the high-end Bang & Olufsen sound system makes a return to the option checklist, incorporating no less than 19 speakers to tickle the hard-core audiophile. Up front, all-LED headlamps are also available, just the second application of this technology in the Audi world (the first being the lamps on the R8 5.2). Available safety and convenience features are also present to match those of the A8's competitors: active cruise control, lane departure awareness and blind spot monitoring, and night vision with pedestrian marking capability. There's also the option of equipping this car with a factory-installed WLAN hotspot for wireless Internet access. The system is activated by inserting a data-capable SIM card into the online car phone and communicates through the car's rooftop antenna to offer reported access speeds up to 7.2 megabits per second. It can support up to eight terminal devices like laptops, notebooks or iPad-like tablets, giving the A8 potential to become a literal four-wheeled mobile hotspot.
The new A8, as with the old A8, is sumptuously appointed with high-grade materials like real aluminum and smooth leather, intuitively arranged controls, and possibly the best ergonomics of any German carmaker. But for us, the most striking thing about the new A8 is not its high degree of interior craftsmanship, superior material quality, or the way even the base 4.2 brims with cutting-edge technology; we expect all of that from the company flagship. More exciting is the way it drives: tighter and more taut than previous generations, with greater steering feel and precision-all combined with Quattro's peerless roadholding ability. In some respects it seems an altogether different kind of car than previous generations. Which, essentially, it is.
Audi chairman Rupert Stadler has called the new A8 "the sportiest sedan in its segment." We'll withhold judgment on that sentiment until we get a little more seat time, maybe do some back-to-back runs with a few of its competitors. But at the very least, we reiterate: This latest A8 is definitely the greatest.
2011 Audi A8 4.2 (NWB)
Longitudinal front engine,all-wheel drive
4.2-liter V8, dohc, 32-valve
Lightweight aluminum multilink front and rear, adaptive air suspension
Ventilated discs, ABS, EBD, ESC
Curb Weight: not listed
Peak Power: 372 hp @ 6800 rpm
Peak Torque: 328 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm
0-62 mph: 5.7 sec. (estimated)
Top Speed: 130 mph (limited)