2011 Audi A8 Test Drive: Can Audi Best BMW and Mercedes Sedans?

2010-03-04 Read: 2 220x

MARBELLA, Spain If Audi ends up making good on its lofty goal of toppling both Mercedes-Benz and BMW in the U.S. market, its all-new A8 is likely to be more than partially responsible for the feat. That's because this is a class that is ruled by technology—the absolute state of the art, in fact. And that means the newer the better. But youth isn't the only reason that the A8 is a serious threat to the current Bavarian establishment. From a touch-based interface that allows drivers to enter queries by simply drawing characters to an all-new eight-speed transmission and some of the highest-quality interior materials we've seen, the car is a monumental achievement for Audi.

The Specs

Like its predecessor, the 2011 A8 is built on an aluminum space frame—a concept that first made its way into Audi's big sedans back in 1995 as a means of reducing weight and increasing rigidity. The engineers at Ingolstadt have been doing their homework as the years piled on, though. The new A8 is stiffer than ever, and weighs about 350 pounds less than its forebear, checking in at around 4050 pounds. That's several hundred pounds less than the Porsche Panamera.

At first glance, it may look like Audi simply shoehorned the same old 4.2-liter V8 into a new set of clothes, but a closer look reveals that the big V8 puts out 22 extra horsepower and 3 more lb-ft of torque this time around. That bumps the oomph up to a respectable 372 hp—still well short of some of its German competition, but more than enough to make the sedan feel capable, particularly when paired with the excellent new transmission.

While Audi may seem to have skipped over the beating heart, the new eight-speed automatic from ZF is a perfect match for the V8, making the engine feel more powerful and responsive than ever before. Throw in the on-the-fly throttle mapping (via Audi's Drive Select setup in the multimedia interface), and the eight-pot seems like the perfect choice for Audi's flagship leviathan.

Audi says it has managed to increase fuel economy by up to 15 percent, thanks to the slimmer beltline and remarkable gearbox. That's no small feat, especially in a day and age where each extra mile per gallon could mean the difference between making the sale and missing it. The EPA hasn't churned out final figures on the A8 yet, but if Audi is to be believed, we should be looking at somewhere around 18 mpg city and 26 mpg highway. The material quality inside the new A8 is a benchmark for Audi, for the first time besting both BMW and Mercedes-Benz by a comfortable margin. There isn't a surface you can put your hand on that doesn't feel expensive to the touch. There's entirely new ambient LED interior lighting, found in soft strips reminiscent of neon in carefully chosen places. You can change the colors, with settings like "Ruby" and "Polar," but the setup somehow manages not to seem tacky—an important consideration on a potentially six-figure personal investment.

But if the interior is the king's collection, the touchpad interface is its crown jewel. The navigation hooks up with Google, and to input an address, you simply write out the address—with your finger—on a console-mounted pad. The software then finds the destination that you're looking for. The biggest surprise here is that the system actually works. Try as we might, there was no confusing it—even left-handed from the passenger seat. Once you have your destination set, the navigation integrates with Google Maps to see it via satellite for easy recognition. On our shores, the setup will work through a yet-unnamed 3G cellphone provider, and will be free for the first six months (that is, it'll be included in the price of the car). After that, owners will pay a monthly fee.

The Drive

Despite only a slight nudge in horsepower, the 2011 Audi A8 feels quicker than its older sister. As competition from BMW and Mercedes-Benz seems to grow more detached from the driving experience, Audi is hoping the reworked sedan will cater to luxury buyers who want to feel something behind the wheel. As a result, the company has altered the quattro all-wheel drive system to put up to 60 percent of the available horsepower to the rear wheels for a more traditional sport sedan experience.

Does it work? The answer's not clear. While it's immediately evident that the A8 is faster all around—serving up 0-to-60-mph sprints in 5.7 seconds instead of 5.9— steering can be a bit heavy in the system's Dynamic mode. That said, the setting rewards with noticeably quicker throttle response and a slightly stiffer ride. It's fun to play with, but we can't imagine too many mega-sedan buyers whipping their cars around a racetrack. Chances are the system will stay set at Comfort for most of the life of the sedan. That's not exactly a bad thing, as the air suspension delivers a quality ride when relaxed.

As long as we're talking about comfort, the rear seats are fully adjustable (down to the headrests), and incorporate a memory function. You can have them heated, you can have them vented, and you can get electric window shades. If that weren't enough, you can have a massage while you're back there, and there are two climate zones, even featuring a separate air conditioner. You can have LCD monitors too, of course. And as long as you're opting for the ultimate in back seating, there's no reason not to check the roughly $8000 box for the incredible Bang & Olufsen sound system—it's only half the price of a nicely equipped Ford Fiesta, after all.

The Bottom Line

It would seem that in one fell swoop, Audi has trumped the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class in efficiency and technology. While the company hasn't released pricing on the fourth-generation A8, the final number isn't much of a consideration in this crowd—if the A8 comes in at the expected $90,000 price, it's the big sedan we'd park in our garage. But then again, competition in gadgetry is the name of the game in this segment, and you can bet that BMW and Mercedes aren't resting on their laurels.

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