Audi's A8 has long been the big saloon to choose if discretion and understatement work for you. Is that still the case? Jonathan Crouch looks at what's on offer from the fourth generation version.
This MK4 model Audi A8 faces some tough rivals, but there's an argument that it's as good as any of its competitors, even Mercedes' mighty S-Class. It's smarter, larger and more sophisticated and claims to be the first production car in the world to have been developed for highly automated driving.
Audi is used to winning. It's got extremely good at it, continuing to push technological boundaries wherever it can to stay a step ahead of its rivals. And the best place to see Vorsprung Durch Teknic at work? Well it has to be here doesn't it, with the brand's top A8 large luxury saloon, further improved in this fourth generation form. It's hard to remember now, but prior to this A8's original launch back in 1994, Audi wasn't really considered a fully-fledged prestigious brand. Its cars generally languished in the corner of your local Volkswagen dealer's showroom and appealed to those who couldn't quite stretch to the products of the smarter German makers. The first generation A8 changed all of that, a car the like of which the luxury segment had never seen before. Aluminium spaceframe technology from NASA. 4WD quattro technology from the World Rally Championship. And exquisite standards of build quality that redefined what boardroom buyers could expect from a European luxury car. At a stroke, it put posh rivals on the back foot - and Audi has never looked back since. The second and third generation A8 saloon merely perfected the recipe, but this MK4 model claims to have taken a real step forward once again. Has it? Let's find out.
The array of engines you get in the latest A8 is pretty mouth-watering. While it's true that the oily bits have been tweaked rather than offering anything overwhelmingly novel, they were good to begin with and have just got better. There are two extensively re-engineered V6 turbo engines: a 3.0 TDI and a 3.0 TFSI. The diesel develops 286PS, and the petrol version 340PS. There's also an eight-cylinder TDI - a 4.0-litre with 435PS - and as before, the exclusive top engine version is the W12 with a displacement of 6.0 litres. An e-tron quattro variant has also been developed, this derivative mating a 3.0 TFSI petrol engine with an electric motor to achieve a 449PS output and 700Nm of torque. This time round, dynamic all-wheel steering complements the standard quattro permanent all-wheel drive system and buyers also get Audi AI active suspension, a fully active suspension set-up. Depending on the driver's wishes and the driving situation, it is capable of raising or lowering each wheel separately with electric actuators. This newfound latitude enables it to deliver the polished ride comfort of a classic luxury saloon and the taut, composed agility of a more driver-oriented performance car in equal measure. It's clever. It's an Audi. What else did you expect?
Audi says that this fourth generation A8 signals the beginning of a new design era for the entire brand. The front end with its wide, upright Singleframe grille and the fluid, muscular body both aim to convey power, elegance, sophistication and modernity. As before, two bodystyles are available, the 5.17-metre 'standard' version and the A8 L, which has a 13cm-longer wheelbase. Space is often considered to be the ultimate luxury, and compared to its predecessor this MK4 A8 has grown substantially in length in both body styles. Occupants can also now relax in even more sublime surroundings, with every detail radiating superlative bespoke quality - from the perforation in the seat upholstery to the electrically opening and closing shutters on the air vents. The most sought-after seat in the new Audi flagship model could quite possibly be the rear left - the optional relaxation seat in the A8 L that comes with four different adjustment options and a footrest. In this seat, the passenger can warm and massage the soles of their feet on a unit with multiple settings incorporated into the back of the front-passenger seat. Up-front, the instrument panel is largely free of buttons and switches. At its centre is a 10.1-inch touchscreen display which, when off, blends almost invisibly into the high-gloss black surround thanks to its black-panel look.
Prices start at just under £70,000 and range up to just over £100,000. A major draw this time round is the automated driving technology that Audi has built in. The Audi AI traffic jam pilot takes charge of driving in slow-moving traffic at up to 37mph on major roads where a physical barrier separates the two carriageways. The system is activated using the AI button on the centre console. The traffic jam pilot manages starting, accelerating, steering and braking. The driver no longer needs to monitor the car permanently and can even switch to watching the on-board TV. As soon as the system reaches its limits, it calls on the driver to take back control of the task of driving. Whether this wil be permitted by UK legislation is yet to be determined but from a technical perspective, the traffic jam pilot is revolutionary. And there's more. The Audi AI remote parking pilot and the Audi AI remote garage pilot autonomously steer the A8 into and out of a parking space or a garage, while the manoeuvre is monitored by the driver. The driver does not need to be sitting in the car - he or she can start the appropriate system from their smartphone using the new myAudi app. It broadcasts a live feed of the parking manoeuvre taken from the car's 360-degree cameras onto the owner's handheld device for easy monitoring.
All the conventional A8 engines operate in conjunction with a belt alternator starter, which is the nerve centre of the 48-volt electrical system. This mild hybrid technology enables the car to coast with the engine switched off, and to restart smoothly. It also has an extended start/stop function and an energy recovery output of up to 12kW. The combined effect of these measures is to improve efficiency substantially. For ultimate performance in that regard though, you'll want to talk to your Audi Centre about the A8 L e-tron quattro version, which uses a powerful plug-in petrol/electric hybrid drivetrain. Its 3.0 TFSI engine and powerful electric motor achieve 449PS of system power and 700 Nm and there's a lithium-ion battery that stores enough power for about 31 miles of electric driving. Audi Wireless Charging will be offered at a later date as an option. Here, a pad in the garage floor transfers the power inductively to a receiver coil in the car. Depreciation in this sector is traditionally severe, especially where the more expensive models are concerned, but Audi residuals are usually strong.
This fourth generation A8 is an impressive achievement. Every car in this segment is. As it should be, this is a showcase for Audi's best and most advanced engineering, aluminium construction and quattro all-wheel-drive now joined by astonishingly clever industry-leading automated driving technologies. Add in classier design and a range of engines that are pokier yet cleaner and more frugal and you've a formidable luxury saloon. But is it one that you can bond with, a luxury conveyance you'll love as well as admire? The answer depends upon the owner of course. Some may still see this A8 as being a little remote compared to a wood-panelled Jaguar, a status-conscious Mercedes or a proudly opulent BMW. I'm guessing though, that a significant number of boardroom buyers might now find this Audi a surprisingly complete all-round choice. Hugely capable, innovative and beautifully built, this is the car that rivals always feared Audi would build. And if you're in this market, it's one you need to try.