Ring­ing the changes in the lux­ury mar­ket

IN­TER­NA­TIONAL LAUNCH/ Audi closer to lift­ing its A8 high enough to tackle the mighty S-Class Mercedes, says Michael Tay­lor

Business Day - Motor News - - COMMERCIAL NEWS -

Ground­break­ing Level 3 self-driv­ing technology isn’t here yet, but a whole lot of other technology is, and it turns Audi’s most lux­u­ri­ous car into one of the world’s safest.

It might not be as opulent or overtly lux­u­ri­ous as an S-Class, but the A8 has its own charm­ing com­bi­na­tion of class, time­less­ness and technology. It even rides and han­dles prop­erly.

This is my third en­counter with the all-new A8. It’s also the first en­counter with an A8 with­out the AI (Audi In­tel­li­gence) but­ton for its Level 3 self-driv­ing sys­tem. That’s pos­si­bly a good thing, pre­vent­ing the car-is-in­con­trol de­bate from over­shad­ow­ing the rest of what Audi has done. And it has done a lot to help the A8 to bridge the canyon in sales to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and prob­a­bly be­yond the BMW 7 Se­ries.

Not that you’d no­tice at a glance, which seems to stamp it as a mod­er­ate evo­lu­tion of the old A8, al­beit with a grille so wide that it seems to oc­cupy 95% of the A8’s face.

It must have been a bru­tal chal­lenge for its pro­duc­tion en­gi­neers. It’s only 6mm longer in the wheel­base. At 5,172mm it’s 37mm longer than the old car. But the devil is in the de­tail. The edges of the bon­net, for ex­am­ple, be­gin life flanked by horizontal shut­lines be­fore they twist to be­come ver­ti­cal shut­lines, which be­come the edged tor­nado line that stretches the length of the car and ends in­side the tail light.

There are slight haunches over the wheel arches that plant the car to high­light its all-wheeldrive lay­out, while the bon­net creases are so sharp they could have been made by Gil­lette.

THEATRE

The tail lights pro­vide theatre across the width of the car, and come with four OLED sliv­ers per side. LED lights are stan­dard up front. There is an op­tional Ma­trix LED setup and the range-top­ping laser sys­tem, which takes lessons learned from the R8 Plus and moves the whole laser game on.

But lights and crisp de­sign aren’t go­ing to sell a limou­sine in the rich­est sliver of the car mar­ket where any­thing other than an S-Class is seen as a brave choice.

The in­te­rior of the A8 has al­ways gone its own way with a com­bi­na­tion of dig­ni­fied, tech­ni­cal lux­ury, as op­posed to the Mercedes’ more opulent cabin. That theme has been car­ried over, with higher tech lev­els, air­tight fit and fin­ish, rich ma­te­ri­als and space for­ever.

The cabin at­mos­phere starts up front, where the ex­pe­ri­ence is dom­i­nated by dig­i­tal screens. The old car’s scroller has gone and so has the touch­pad that sat on top of it.

That’s now in the low­est of the three screens, the 8.6-inch unit that usu­ally gov­erns the cli­mate con­trol sys­tem. It works well and fig­ures out most il­leg­i­ble gib­ber­ish. The mul­ti­me­dia screen is 10.1 inches Q3 2018 250kW 500Nm 250km/h 5.6 sec­onds 7.8l/100km 178g/km di­ag­o­nally and it seems to be the most in­tu­itive user-in­ter­face any­body has come up with. It ab­sorbs smart­phone ideas, like pinch­ing to zoom out, push­ing to zoom in or swip­ing left or right to move through op­tions.

The Vir­tual Cock­pit dig­i­tal screen is right in front of the driver, and there is a high-res­o­lu­tion, full-colour head-up dis­play as well.

The driv­ing po­si­tion is pretty much per­fect, with a huge range of ad­just­ment. There is an ar­ray of mas­sage func­tions, so it goes well be­yond heat­ing and ven­ti­la­tion, and the driver’s seat is ter­rif­i­cally sup­port­ive and com­fort­able, though it doesn’t have the S-Class’s im­me­di­ate, in­y­our-face soft­ness.

While the long wheel­base ver­sion is well en­dowed for legroom, the stan­dard one is pretty good, too, and there are matt-screened tablets that click in be­hind the front head­rests. They can also be re­moved to play them out­side the car, while the cen­tre con­sole has an­other re­mov­able tablet to re­motely con­trol the rear seats’ func­tions.

There’s an up­grade of the ac­tive an­tiroll bar, it will be the first Audi with in­duc­tive charg­ing for its hy­brid ver­sions, electronically con­trolled ac­tive sus­pen­sion that pre­dicts and man­ages bump strikes and qu­at­tro all-wheel drive is stan­dard across the board.

All this technology has come at a price, with the A8s up to 95kg heav­ier than their pre­de­ces­sors, largely be­cause of mild­hy­brid sys­tems that ren­der the ex­tra mass emis­sions-neu­tral. They also work seam­lessly, al­low­ing the car to re­gen­er­ate 10Ah of en­ergy via a belt-driven starter gen­er­a­tor, so it can coast, even on cruise con­trol, between 55 and 160km/h, with the en­gine switched off and the elec­tric­ity do­ing the driv­ing.

We tested the V6 petrol and V6 tur­bod­iesel; there will also be a 4.0l petrol V8 twin-turbo and a W12 twin turbo. Both pow­er­trains we tested were im­pres­sive, with the petrol V6 adding a layer of so­phis­ti­ca­tion and smooth­ness the quite match.

One of the key steps for­ward has been the erad­i­ca­tion of noise, vi­bra­tion and harsh­ness from the cabin. The pow­er­train im­prove­ments are just a small part of this and so is the mild­hy­brid sys­tem. It’s so quiet that at a con­stant 100km/h you start to be an­noyed by the soft hiss of wind emerg­ing from the dash vents. My smart­phone’s deci­bel me­ter has never seen a lower num­ber at cruis­ing speeds. It’s not just chas­sis and pow­er­train en­gi­neer­ing, be­cause there is also a noise-can­celling sys­tem.

On the V8 and W12 mod­els, plus the clunkier 3.0l TDI V6, there are ac­tive en­gine mounts that wipe away the top layer of the vi­bra­tions, as well as help­ing the han­dling by min­imis­ing weight trans­fer in cor­ners.

The ride is firmer than you’ll find in an S-Class, with Audi try­ing diesel can’t to make the A8 both limou­sine and quasi grand tourer. The ac­tive sus­pen­sion sys­tems and the rear-wheel steer­ing com­bine to make it feel small on wind­ing roads, while ab­sorb­ing bump strikes. The ride qual­ity never has the cos­set­ing qual­i­ties of the S-Class, but the body con­trol is bet­ter, it sits flat­ter in cor­ners and it car­ries more cor­ner­ing speed, with more sta­bil­ity.

The steer­ing is the weak link in the han­dling pack­age, of­fer­ing well-weighted bland­ness. But the rest of the han­dling pack­age is flaw­less and sparkling for a car this size.

It’s a car that does so much well, some that no other car maker has done, yet its stan­dard sus­pen­sion falls short on ride com­fort over ver­ti­cal bumps com­pared to the S-Class. The ac­tive sus­pen­sion has no such short­com­ings and it’s the thing to have.

CO2 emis­sions: Star rat­ing:

Left: The new A8 will ar­rive with its wider grin in the sec­ond half of 2018. Above: The in­te­rior is vastly im­proved in­clud­ing su­perb tech and an un­par­al­leled level of peace and quiet. Be­low left: The rear fea­tures OLED light­ing that sets the A8 apart from ri­vals.

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