2019 Audi A8 First Drive: Luxury Flagship Adds Cool Tech To Its Reportoire
Quietness is a quality one expects from a luxury sedan but the near silence of the new 2019 Audi A8 is striking.
Setting off for a first drive in Audi’s new flagship in the hills outside Valencia, Spain reveals a car that’s not only quiet but also fast and surprisingly agile on narrow country roads.
At first the A8 feels intimidating; its sheer size being a challenge to position confidently in the corners. But once you learn to trust the car’s sophisticated steering system, it becomes easier to thread a path through the twisting backroads.
This is just one of the surprises in store when driving the A8. The car is literally a rolling demonstrator for advanced technology, from hybrid drivetrains, to active suspension, to laser and OLED lighting, to level three autonomous driving and much more.
But before discussing those features, let’s talk design. Audi is a company known for its progressive, sometimes avant-garde design; think TT, R8, A7 and lately the A5 Sportback. The new A8 is obviously from the same family but is not so ground breaking visually. It is handsome, imposing, substantial, but it is not progressive in the sense that Audi projects as a brand overall. The logic goes that flagship sedan buyers are an inherently conservative bunch and prefer a look that is contemporary but not unsettling or too futuristic. Thus we have a look that Audi itself refers to refer to as ‘sovereign’ or timeless in its styling, meaning that it won’t date quickly like more adventurous designs.
While the A8’s beltline is unrelentingly straight in profile, the overall form is given some dash by the ‘fast’ slope of the C pillar and the coupe-like roofline. And, as exterior designer Daniel De Jong says, the car “keeps the promise of the Audi Prologue concept” from 2014, in that the car’s all-wheel-drive quattro drivetrain is communicated by its pronounced wheel arches and ‘planted’ visual stance.
Stepping inside the A8, especially one finished in cream-colored leather trim, the progressive aspect of the Audi design ethic reasserts itself. In either the standard or long-wheelbase versions, the cabin feels expansive, light and modern. The atmosphere is perhaps not quite as plush as a Mercedes S class, but it also projects a more contemporary, less baroque feel than its Stuttgart rival.
Multi-adjustable, heated, cooled, massaging seats make it hard not to be comfortable in the front or back of the A8. For the driver, the new multi-screen, mostly glass cockpit is more like the cockpit of a latest generation executive jet than a car. I am wary of touch screens, which have been plagued by problems in some other brands’ vehicles. But Audi’s latest stab at MMI seems to be have been thoroughly thought out, with an emphasis on logical progressions and as few steps as possible. That said, learning the multitude of vehicle systems controlled by touch or voice commands is a process that will take hours, if not days of diligent study.
That’s doesn’t mean you can’t simply jump in the A8 and drive away. You can, but you will miss the details, and it’s the details that make this Audi interesting.
Versions of the A8 to be sold in the US will be long wheelbase, and the car will launch here with 3.0-liter V6 and 4.0-liter V8 hybrid gasoline powertrains (diesels are available but likely will not be sold in the US). Driving the A8 55L model, with its 340-hp V6, the overall impression is of silky smooth, quiet power, with 0-60mph taking 5.6 seconds. The A8 60L with its 460-hp V8 motor essentially provides more of the same, but the V6 seems powerful enough to suit US market driving conditions.
One key aspect of all the available powertrains is the standard 48-volt main electrical system, which enables a belt alternator stop-start system and extended coasting with the engine off. The hybrid system promises to be significantly more fuel-efficient than the outgoing A8 models.
Coming later to the US A8 line-up will be a plug-in hybrid version that can use a wireless, inductive charge floor pad.
The new A8’s standard adaptive air suspension system is enhanced by optional, active electromechanical actuators on all four wheels. Enabled by the 48-volt electrical system, the actuators can raise or lower the wheels to smooth out bumps or dips in the road. Rivals like Mercedes have hydraulic systems that can lower, but not actively raise, the wheels. My test vehicle was not equipped with the wheel actuators, but a demonstration model running over parking lot speed bumps was convincing. The system also controls body roll in corners and body dive under braking, which makes for a much smoother ride quality, especially for passengers.
Another wheel actuator ‘trick’ is the ability to lower the car when stopped to make entry and egress easier. And if the A8 senses an impending side impact in an accident, it will raise itself so that the strongest part of the car’s structure can absorb the forces.
Sadly our test drive did not include experiencing the A8’s much anticipated level three autonomous driving capability. This promises to allow the car to pilot itself in stop and go traffic up to 37-mph on divided highways. However at present, driving regulations in most American states will not permit autonomous operation, so it remains to be seen when the A8’s autonomous capabilities will be enabled in the US.
A similar obstacle faces one of the other many clever A8 technical features, its lighting system.