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Drive: New Audi A8 is the cleverest of them all

What is it?

The Audi A8: A big, important barge of a thing relatively few will buy, and a technical achievement few have the resources or engineering might to match or surpass. It’s the new 2018 Audi A8 – the cleverest Audi of all. And so it should be, because if you really want to see what a manufacturer is truly capable of engineering, you look at its flagship. And the A8 is and always had been Audi’s, which is why the new one gets a load of tech’ we haven’t seen before, but almost certainly will on future A6s and A4s.

Tech’ like ‘Traffic Jam Pilot’, which delivers “conditional level three autonomy” by taking complete control of the steering, brakes and accelerator on motorways and dual-carriageways. Or the new infotainment system, which pairs Audi’s ‘Virtual Cockpit’ instrument cluster with two touchscreens for a largely button-free centre-console. Much of said tech’ can only exist for the 48-volt, water-cooled electrical system that technically makes the A8 an ‘MHEV’, or ‘mild-hybrid electric vehicle’. This all takes some explaining, so more later.

More too on the interior, which because the new Audi A8 is bigger than the car it replaces – longer by 32mm and taller by 13 in either short- or long-wheelbase (which adds another 13cm of rear legroom) – is suitably spacious. The car’s heavier too; for all the aluminium, CFRP and magnesium Audi promises it’s used in the more rigid ‘Space Frame’ chassis, it’s almost 100kg up on the old car and lardier than either of its main competitors, the (relatively) featherweight carbon-cored BMW 7 Series and Mercedes S-Class.

What is it like on the road?

Both petrol and diesel V6s are the same engines offered in the last Audi A8, albeit heavily revised. The diesel’s OK, but the tell-tale grumble lets it down. It’s not as modern or complete an engine as Merc’s new inline six. The petrol loses a bit of twist but subtracts noise, so it wins. All work well in tandem with the standard-fit eight-speed auto, and all get the 48-volt electrical system we mentioned earlier.

Audis/VWs/Porsches have done the whole coasting thing – where the engine is effectively decoupled from the transmission to save fuel – for years, but the 48V system in the Audi A8 gives enough juice that the engine can switch off completely for up to 40 seconds when you let off the gas, saving even more fuel and regening energy back to the battery in the boot. As soon as you get back on the accelerator the engine refires and you’re away again. It works – but the car is picky about when it lets you do it, and that this qualifies the Audi A8 as an MHEV is, we reckon, slightly misleading. Because it isn’t really a hybrid at all.

But the 48V system gives other advantages. All A8s get adaptively damped air suspension as standard with selectable ‘Comfort’ and ‘Dynamic’ modes, but you can specify something cleverer – a system that, with the help of a camera, can ‘see’ potholes, speedbumps and so-on. Because the car knows the obstacle’s there, it can prepare itself accordingly. Rather than anti-roll bars A8s thusly equipped get an electric actuator at each corner. These actuators ‘pick-up’ individual wheels (or even lift the whole car) – stressing or relieving corners as necessary to dampen body movements. Audi let us test the system on a super-smooth closed course with mock speedbumps and manhole covers, and the effect is quite uncanny. Aiming for a speedbump then passing over it as though it were never there is as odd as it is excellent. But there’s a caveat.

You can’t actually spec the predictive suspension until “early next year”. So to placate journalists on the car’s launch, as well as the off-road demo Audi laid on a couple of cars with a “foretaste” of the system for us to drive on road. These cars had all the hardware and pitch/roll stabilisation, but couldn’t see/predict what was ahead. And these A8s simply didn’t ride as well as the ones on standard air suspension. The normal Audi A8 is smooth, really well-damped and a bit less ‘floaty’ than an S-Class. Proper comfy. With this other system onboard there was a slight tremor even on flat, smooth surfaces. As though its wheels were an inch or two too big or it was stuck in Dynamic mode. If it’s like that when it comes to market, and only offers good speedbump/manhole/pothole absorption rather than consistently better ride quality, we’d be tempted to skip it. Especially as it’s likely to be a pricey option. Time will tell.

The Traffic Jam Pilot and parking/garage pilot systems are even further away. Audi says their introduction is “wholly dependant on the clarification of statutory framework in each individual market”, hence the wait.

Early A8s are still capable of level two autonomy – like the Audi A4 or a Tesla – but because Traffic Jam Pilot, which is a level three system that enables the driver to effectively take his eyes off the road and do something else altogether (so long as it’s supported by the car, e.g. watching a movie on the infotainment screen, not flicking through Instagram on your phone), legal frameworks need to be put in place before Audi will offer it for sale. Bad news because since the Audi A8 is offered with more than 40 driver assistance systems, it’s those that dominate the driving experience.

On the inside

It wasn’t long ago that German manufacturers point-blank refused to put touchscreens in their cars. BMW caved and so has Audi, by giving the new A8 a radically different operating/infotainment system than we’re used to seeing from it. The ‘Virtual Cockpit’ instrument cluster is standard-fit and hasn’t changed much car-to-car, but rather than a single screen, rotary controller and separate, physical climate controls, the A8 gets two touchscreens. Think Velar, only better.

The top one is 10.1 inches and does everything, while the smaller one underneath is reserved for the climate controls (although it doubles as a keyboard/trackpad when you’re entering destinations into the nav). It’s a clearer, more coherent and more responsive setup than JLR’s – easier to navigate your way through and learn your way around. You can set it to respond to a tap and give no haptic/audible feedback, or require a firmer push (think Force Touch on an iPhone) and ‘click’. We like the latter, especially when you’re using it on the move.

Rear-seat passengers get a phone-sized screen in the armrest – standard on LWB and optional on SWB – that does rear-seat climate, opens/closes the blinds and controls the screens mounted on the backs of the front seats. And comfortable as the front (driving position is on point) is, it’s from the back seats that the A8 makes most sense. It’s a limo, after all, so you may as well go the whole nine yards and spec’ the ‘Relaxation Seat’. Among other things it gives a foot rest that massages and heats the soles of your feet. Yes, really.

Material quality is predictably superb, but we suspect the way the A8’s interior has been designed and laid out means it will appeal to a very different set of people than an S-Class. The Mercedes is all baroque curves and contours, whereas the Audi is modernist and straight-edged. For our money the S-Class gives a warmer, more immediately comforting environment than the serious, BUSINESS-ready A8 (foot massager notwithstanding). You might think different.

Verdict

Exceptionally clever and commendably capable, but there are problems. The big one is that you can’t actually get some of the signature AI technologies Audi’s touting for a year, and that when they are available, they can’t be retro-fitted to existing A8s.

Buy one in the meantime and you’re still getting a very well-rounded limo, albeit one that’s missing the features that truly separate it from the competition. We’re surprised Audi didn’t fit the necessary hardware, then make the kit available to existing owners via an over-the-air or dealer-fit update. So by all means go ahead and buy an A8 if you prefer it to a S-Class or 7 Series, but go into it knowing that no matter how much money you spend on one now, you’ll never use the car and its vast amount of processing power to its fullest capacity.

Were we spending our own money, which we seldom do, we’d wait and buy one when the full suite of tech’ comes online. As for how it compares to its competitors – we’re more into the baroque stylings of the S-Class than the pared-down, Bauhaus simplicity of the A8, so that’s probably where we’d lay our hat. Not that the A8 isn’t a lovely thing, because it really is.

Original content here: https://www.topgear.com/car-reviews/audi/a8

 

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