The new Audi A8 is a superlative car in every sense. It’s a real shakeup for the large luxury segment at the $200k-plus price point. In fairness, however, very few ordinary Australians will feel or notice that. For a very few people, there will be plenty to like about this practically unattainable car, but one thing’s certain: Mercedes-Benz and BMW are going to hate it.
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Together, M-B and BMW have spent the first half of 2010 luxuriating in the lion’s share of this uber-elite market. There’s plenty of profit on tap here, even if the market annually for this kind of car struggles to better 1000 sales. Fast-lane flagships in Australia have of late boiled down to a two-horse race – the S Class or the 7 Series. In the first half of 2010, only 126 well-heeled Aussies forked over the big bucks for an S Class, closely followed by 116 of ‘us’ who are 7 Series customers. After that, it’s daylight to the high-priced also-rans. Just 34 Lexus LS sales happened over those six months, plus 19 of the ageing and outgoing A8, and just five XJ Jaguars.
If you look at the old A8 next to the new one, even in photographs, you’ll see how much has changed. This new car’s a real contender; time had already overtaken the predecessor, and the sales had basically evaporated. (The old A8 was rather the success before time did its thing, however. It managed 146,000 sales globally.)
Frankly, though, it’s not just the sales that are important to Audi. It’s also the gravitas – and the consequential sales lower down in the range – that flow from fronting a flagship that many aspire to, and which so few can in fact afford. You can generate demand for plenty of incremental A3s, 4s, 5s and 6s simply by fielding the right flagship. And luckily this is happening at a time when Audi’s new boss Down Under, Uwe Hagen, has committed to growing sales the grown-up way, by driving demand.
It really is only a very few people who buy cars in this upmarket segment, too: statistically, fewer than one in 20,000 Australians (and just over one in 1000 car buyers) jump into this rareified atmosphere. It’s really the difference between flying first class and slumming it in economy.
So, what’s the new A8 like to drive? We drove several 4.2 V8 FSI-powered A8s from Cairns up onto the Atherton Tablelands and back during the national media launch late in August. That road from the coast to the tablelands is a wonderful, linear racetrack. It’s a glorious drive in a glorious part of the country, and this is a glorious car to do it in. As a luxury flagship the A8 far sportier than you’d expect. It’s very satisfying to drive – which is almost perverse, seeing as in other markets than Australia, owning an A8 is almost exclusively a back-seat experience (because people that successful in, say, Singapore have a driver, which frees you up for, you know, getting high-level stuff done in the back seat). Getting the balance of engagement and luxury right must be tough act – but with this car, Audi’s engineers have got it right. You can enjoy punting this new A8 much harder than 99 per cent of owners ever will. However, if you do that with the ESP on you will probably be mildly frustrated that the incipient ESP intervention starts pulling power out of the engine. If you want to keep having fun, you can always switch it off. It’s also a car that’s quite rewarding to drive at sane speeds. It just eats the kays at legal highway speeds, and the seats are some of the best I’ve ever experienced, from both a support and comfort perspective.
The 4.2 FSI engine delivers 273kW and 445Nm – a moderate step up from the predecessor – and yet the A8 still returns an official 9.5L/100km in the official combined cycle fuel test. It’s also 0.4 seconds quicker to 100km/h, compared with its predecessor. This is all thanks in part to the aluminium body, plus a commitment to efficiency-based developments (lower friction, better thermal management, and even an on-demand oil pump, etc.) that Audi claims make the car 13 per cent more efficient overall. There’s even an eight – count ‘em; eight! – speed tiptronic with shift-by-wire technology rendering mechanical linkages obsolete. Then there’s the mind-bendingly slippery drag coefficient: 0.26.
It begs the obvious question: Why bother with all this efficiency guff? People with that much money to drop on a car can afford fuel at basically any price, and can afford to consume it in basically any quantity. The answer is simple – for a significant number of deep-pocketed consumers, efficiency is as much (or maybe more) a moral obligation as a financial one, which is why smart marketers can’t afford to field a car that’s beautiful but with the underlying eco credentials of a Hummer.
More evidence of the moral high ground is seen in the car’s wood trim. No less than four variants are available – walnut brown, fine grain ash velvet, fine grain birch, vavona wood – but no rainforests were harmed in their production, we’re told. It’s all plantation timber.
The A8 will go on sale in September with 4.2 FSI petrol V8. It will be followed by a 3.0-litre TDI, and a 4.2-litre V8 TDI (in that order) as well as a long-wheelbase variant. There’s no word yet on an S8, but if there is one in the wings, its launch would be an excellent time to dust off Bob DeNiro for a sequel to the cult classic movie, Ronin, which was one of the best advertisements of all time for the S8. Rent it if you haven’t seen it.
This new car is packed with technology – so packed, in fact, that six or even 12 months after buying it you will probably discover it can do things you hadn’t previously known. In this respect, it’s not unlike your laptop computer or iPad. You’ll probably discover stuff like that by accident. Either that or your 15-year-old son or daughter will do it and then look at you as if you are infinitely stupid if you are moved to ask how. Either way, the A8 has manifold hi-tech capability – including a touchpad for inputting data into the multimedia interface … by scrawling them there with the tip of your finger. Nobody needs that … but it’s nice to have.
Safety? You bet. This thing has more bags than Qantas, plus a raft of hi-tech features that blur the line between passive and active safety-tech. Audi calls it Pre Sense, an obvious swipe at Benz’s Pre Safe system, both of which take action – like shutting the windows and tensioning the seatbelts if they think you’re likely to crash. The Audi system, which is modular and depends on the options you select, can when fully optioned detect threat from in front, from behind and at the side. It also warns the driver, pre-fills the brakes and – if warnings are ignored – is capable of whipping up a textbook emergency stop. It has a four-stage intervention approach – predicated on usurping control from the driver only as a last resort.
There is also a really neat night vision option that employs technology previously used only in devices like Apache helicopters. Using a forward-looking infrared camera mounted near the centre rear-vision mirror the system displays the scene ahead on a high-rez screen between the tacho and the speedo. Animals and pedestrians are detected as far away as 300m – beyond the range of the headlights – and smart software even categorises the threat they pose to you by analysing their movement. Anything that’s detected gets a yellow box painted around it. Threats likely to move in front of the car are wrapped in a red box. It’s both useful and very, very cool. In a James Bond meets Black Hawk Down kind of way.
Speaking of options – hang onto your hat, because the A8 is structured in such a way that it can absorb basically whatever amount of money over and above the list price you would care to throw at it. If you like ticking boxes, best whip a new refill into your favourite Mont Blanc. Here goes:
- Sports differential: $3000
- Sports air suspension: $2200
- 20-inch alloys with 265/40 tyres: $3000
- Adaptive cruise control with stop/go function plus lane and side assist: $9000
- Dynamic steering: $3500
- Full LED lighting package: $2700
- Night vision with pedestrian detection: $5400
- Double glazing with rear privacy glass: $5500
- Sunroof with solar panel: $1100
- Electric sun blinds for the rear: $2700
- Sports front seats: $1100
- Front seats with ventilation and massage function (I used this; you want it. Trust me on this.) $5500
- Electric rear seats (makes the car a four-seater but, hey, the remaining two kids will be v-e-r-y comfy): $9400
- 19-speaker, 1400W Bang and Olufsen audio system: $14,400
- Rear seat entertainment system: $9800
And if that’s not enough, how about the ‘works burger’ retrim? (Audi does not refer to it in these terms.) Audi calls it ‘Audi design selection Balao brown – a very tasty combination of Balao brown Valcona leather with accordion pleats and contrasting seams, plus fine grain ash inlays in balsamic brown and lower inlays in brushed aluminium. If you’re interested it’s a total of just over $46,000.
All up, if you’re a box-ticking kind of bloke (and it is overwhelmingly blokes who buy cars like this) you can spend more than $350,000 on a new A8. That’s more than $120,000 in options – enough to buy a TT S TFSI quattro roadster, a snappy wardrobe from Herringbone and an Omega Speedmaster Professional. Just to put things in perspective.
This review has only just scratched the surface. We haven’t even talked about the interior lighting package that allows you to specify the ambient lighting colour you want, or the servomotor-based door closing system that means you’ll never leave the door ajar again.
Bottom line – test driving an A8 is like this: It’s very easy to move forward in a commercial jet aeroplane. It’s easy to get up from economy, stride past the peasants in business class, and plonk your RS down in seat 1A. After that, all the way from Sydney to Heathrow, it’s just a blur of Veuve Cliquot and wagyu beef carpaccio. And would you like a manicure with that? It’s bloody difficult, however, to move the other way. Economy? Me? The jaws of life are usually required when the stark realisation hits that it’s time to hand the keys back, and that your own somewhat pedestrian car still awaits you at the airport.
- CarAdvice Overall Rating: 5/5
- How does it drive: 5/5
- How does it look: 5/5
- How does it go: 5/5