2011 Audi A8 Preview
SEE ALSO: Audi Buyers Guide
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS
2011 Audi A8 Preview
The usual modus operandi for an automotive press introduction is this: journalists fly or drive to an event base, usually a hotel with adequate (read: abundant) parking, and spend a day driving and riding in the car. Ride and drive distance covered varies, but is usually several hundred miles of open road, with as little commute traffic as possible.
The 2011 Audi A8 was introduced a little differently: Audi rented an art gallery in a nearby city and sent the cars, chauffeured, to each journalist's house. We were chauffeured to a product presentation, then back home. With the car left for a week of driving on familiar roads.
Which makes perfect sense, from several points of view. Premium luxury sedans like the A8 are often chauffeur-driven, especially in Europe, so rear-seat time, not normally available during a press intro or at home, is important. And more time than is usually available for driving during a press launch means a much better feel for the car, and the details of its styling, construction, and road manners.
The art gallery? Appropriate, as the 2011 A8, to be available in the US market around the end of calendar year 2010, with pricing to be announced before that, is a work of art in several ways. Most obviously in its elegant styling, which if not the neo-Bauhaus minimalism of the first-generation Audi TT is as close to that as anything in the executive luxury class. And in important details, including the sculptural aluminum "Audi Space Frame" and the multifaceted LED headlights. Vorsprung durch technik -- advancement through technology -- is the Audi motto… and is taken seriously.
The fourth generation of A8, the 2011 edition will be offered in two variants - normal wheelbase and long wheelbase. The car debuted was the normal wheelbase model, but that wheelbase is two inches greater than that of the previous generation, for more rear seat room. The long-wheelbase version will debut later in the year.
"A" is for Audi, and A is also for aluminum. The majority of the A8's structure and skin is made of aluminum alloy; the equivalent in steel would likely, according to company spokespeople, be as much as 40 percent heavier. Reduced weight means improved performance and fuel economy, and improved fuel economy means lower carbon emissions.
The initial engine offered in the US market is the newest iteration of Audi's 4.2 liter direct fuel-injected V8, now with 372 horsepower and 328 lb-ft of torque. That's an improvement from the previous 350 and 325, respectively, yet fuel consumption is expected to be reduced by 15 percent. FSI direct fuel injection allows use of a high compression ratio -- 12.5:1 -- for increased power and economy. An eight-speed multi-mode automatic transmission also helps, with lower low gears for quick acceleration and higher high gears for highway economy. At (American) highway speed in standard mode, the engine is barely above idle, under 1500 rpm. Not breathing hard? It's hardly breathing at all. Interestingly, the transmission computer gets input from the navigation system for the ability to tailor shift response to the upcoming road.
Power, of course, goes to all four wheels via the latest development of Audi's quattro permanent all-wheel drive system, with a 40/60 front/rear static torque split for optimum sportiness. Wheels, tires, and hence contact patched are huge, with appropriately gigantic vented disc brakes for serious stopping power. All of the expected safety technologies -- ABS, traction and stability control, and a full complement of airbags -- are to be found, and the chassis and body structure is designed and constructed to protect passengers in an accident. Further protection comes from the Pre Sense system, which can activate braking automatically if an accident situation is detected by sensors. Available radar-based active cruise control and side assist (blind spot) systems add more protection. An infrared night-vision system will be offered later in the model year.
Suspension is by independent multilink struts all around, with adaptive and adjustable air springs and damping that provide "Comfort", "Automatic", and "Dynamic" modes. Comfort is Euro-luxury, compliant but well-damped, and still allows an enjoyable driving experience. Dynamic is noticeably firmer, for a premium sports suspension experience. Automatic combines the two, with comfort foremost and a touch of dynamic when the car is pushed harder. Ride height can be automatically varied, and lowered up to an inch for improved handling and reduced aerodynamic drag at speed.
But wait, there's more… navigation systems have been de rigueur in luxury automobiles for the past 15 years, and the 2011 Audi A8 has a good one, with the much-improved next-generation MMI (Multi Media Interface) interface. But later in the model year it will be superseded by one based on Google Earth, with Google Earth satellite imagery. In-car secure wifi will also be offered.
And let's not forget the (optional, but my test car had it) Bang & Olufsen 19-speaker audio system. Each speaker has its own tuned enclosure, and "acoustic lenses" at the corners of the dash ensure accurate high-frequency dispersal throughout the interior. And look like small alien space vehicles… In-car time is often the only time people have to listen to favorite music, and the A8's B&O system makes that a wonderful time.
I could say that I spent the entire week in the car, but because of travel commitments, that wasn't the case. I did have one entire, and very lovely, day with the car, and parts of two more. Which is still more than during a typical press launch. Impressions?
This is going to be the new class standard. Audi aimed a class above in styling, attention to detail, materials, and fit and finish. Which means that while the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S Class are the chief competitors, with the Lexus LS and Jaguar XJ close behind, some of the details and construction is more like what is found in cousin Bentley than those cars.
Inside and out, the 2011 A8 is very understated, in the manner of a timeless tailored suit, and should age very well. The car's lines do not shout, they whisper. Audi's "monoframe" grille has reached three-dimensional maturity, and the LED headlights are not only fantastically stylish, they work very well. And should last much longer than conventional or HID xenon lights.
Inside… yes, the rear seat is wonderful, with nearly as much legroom as the previous-generation long-wheelbase sedan. It's a four-seat mobile office, elegantly paneled in leather, wood, alcantara suede, and aluminum. No, the rear seat does not fold, nor is there a ski-passthrough to the trunk. These people have people…
Still, there is no need for a chauffeur. My test car had heated and cooled multi-mode massage front seats, mmmmmm! With adjustable everything, even bolster width. Which is good, as this is a sports sedan at heart. Interior design is as excellent as exterior, with multiple materials highlighting precise fit and finish and unique LED and fiber-optic lighting applications. The shifter design was allegedly inspired by a motor yacht's throttle control, and the MMI system is much more intuitive than previous German systems and even has a touchpad with handwriting recognition, useful when entering destinations into the nav system. The B&O sound system is the best I've ever heard in an automobile.
Ride, handling, and power? Insert large smile here… If you know what "quattro" means and its history, you'll leave the suspension in "Dynamic" mode and the drivetrain in S, or manual, shifting with the paddles on the steering wheel. There is a Sport Quattro in this car's ancestry -- and set up correctly it almost seems like an R8 sedan.
Realistically, most examples of the newest A8 will spend most of their time in Comfort or Automatic chassis modes, and normal D engine. Which works exceedingly well for a luxury car, and with surprisingly good fuel economy. I got 18mpg around town, and 20 to 25 on the highway in light-throttle driving. S drops down a gear or two, for quicker acceleration with a bit more fuel consumption. Manual sport driving is quite enjoyable, especially if you have stock in an oil company or two…
Audi has quietly been gaining market share in an uncertain market. Its new flagship sedan serves notice to competing manufacturers in the premium luxury segment that the old order is about to be upset. The 2011 Audi A8 is a fine car in which to be chauffeured. It's even better to be the chauffeur. And you just know that the technology introduced in the A8 will make its way throughout the Audi line eventually. Vorsprung durch Technik, indeed.
SPECIFICATIONS:2011 Audi A8
Base Price $ n/a (pricing to be announced at a later date) Price As Tested $ n/a Engine Type dual overhead cam aluminum alloy V8 with direct fuel injection, AVS variable intake valve lift Engine Size 4.2 liters / 254 cu. in. Horsepower 372 @ n/a rpm Torque (lb-ft) 328 @ n/a rpm Transmission 8-speed multi-mode automatic with manual shifting Wheelbase / Length 117.8 in. / 202.2 in. Curb Weight n/a lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower n/a Fuel Capacity n/a gal. Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline Tires P265/40R20 104Y Pirelli PZero Brakes, front/rear vented disc all around Suspension, front/rear multilink strut with adjustable air springs and damping Drivetrain longitudinal front engine, full-time all-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / overall 17 / 27 / 21 observed: 18 city, 24 highway, 12 performance 0 to 60 mph 5.7 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES not available at press time