The Audi A8’s fifteen minutes of fame in Super Bowl XLV showed that Audi did not intend for its flagship to fall into the luxury sedan trap of courting mainstream aspirational lust with a stodgy, obviously “upscale” demeanor. And since America’s economic recovery is too halting to inspire over-the-top indulgence, and Mercedes owns the “bulk-and-bling” approach to luxury anyway, Audi’s attempt at a more subtle, sophisticated brand of luxury flagship makes good marketing sense on paper. But does Audi’s cleaner, leaner design aesthetic strike the right tone for a “new era of luxury,” or does it doom this A8 to the over-subtlety that kept its predecessors from breakinginto the mainstream of full-sized luxury? More to the point, does Audi’s sophisticated marketing message reflect a car that really does offer a different approach to luxury? Let’s find out…
Starting with that nose. Between the lovable tailfins on a Caddy and the Bangle-butt of a 7-series lies the polarizing grin of the A8’s drop-jaw grille. Our tester didn’t wear a front license plate, which is both a blessing and a curse: the need for the Auto Union logo sitting front and center eventually grates on the inner ADHD designer. Yet it looks like no BMW or Merc: white marker lights change to yellow when you signal a turn. The avant-garde LED headlight squares have, in the words of lighting guru Daniel Stern, “a richer spectral content in a particular range of wavelengths that facilitate visual acuity at night.” That’s true. Please believe that HID’s days are numbered.
Too bad love wanes past the A8’s fenders. It’s a plus sized A4, with more elegant swage lines. Much like a 30+ foot yacht from the manufacturer of smaller/similar vessels, the A8 looks sharp in its high beltline, with an oversized hull demanding respect. But the rear is downmarket enough to clamor for more chrome, more bustle…more of anything. As Simply Red once said, “She was so beautiful, but oh-so boring.” Ostentatious exterior design isn’t for everyone, but Audi seems to have again erred a bit too far on the side of subtlety.
But inside the A8 does scream posh, with a TV-binnacle free dashboard timelessly, effortlessly sweeps the length of the cabin. Only the console’s undefined meeting point with the dash and a DVD/Media door slapped in the center of prime real estate would make a Camry giggle with delight. Luckily, the A8’s mass quantities of woodgrain and brushed aluminum capture the heart faster than mercury-laced bread finds Huckleberry Finn. Not to mix metaphors, but the cabin’s LED accent lighting ups the ante with a TRON homage, bringing the front end’s goodwill indoors.
And from the driver’s seat, surrounded by well-chosen, well-crafted materials as well as the latest in technology, the A8’s sophisticated design brief finally begins to make sense. Sit back in a 22-way adjustable massaging throne–strong enough to pinch a nerve–and start the show. Tap the ignition button and Audi’s MMI screen elegantly pops out, along with two masterfully rendered Bang & Olufsen tweeters. The $6300 audio upgrade has best-in-class highs and imaging, but like B&O products sold in shopping malls, runs flat on mid/low bass back at home (paging Dr. Mark Levinson!).
The meaty tiller sports metal-like chrome bits, with a thumbwheel to control some of Audi’s MMI features. Not necessary, because the console’s rotary knob and fairly logical buttonage are a quick study. MMI’s unique Etch-A-Sketch-alike pad for entering addresses is cool, but stupid: a touch screen from Kenwood’s finest beats scraping a fingernail to write a street address. Still, a level of technology overload that would just seem pointless and geeky somehow feels proper when it’s located with ergonomic precision amid top-notch materials. Like the rest of the car, the technology is easy to overlook or dismiss, and yet just works with unobtrusive ease.
While the tee-bar gear lever never warmed my soul, the 8 speeds are a necessary part of the fun, if only in sport mode. It’s a close ratio box, leaving the 4.2L V8 (372hp @ 6800rpm) no chance to fall out of its powerband. Very necessary, since twin-turbo V8s are available at this price elsewhere. Even worse, Mercedes adds AWD as a relatively cheap ($3000) option.
Then again, Audi has the Kenny G commercial. And the all-aluminum A8 is far lighter on its feet than the big Benz, cornering with precision and idiot-proof poise: I couldn’t get the tires to chirp on a dry urban road. Flash the torque convertor, hammer the throttle and the A8 leaps forward, much to the fear of its occupants. Throw in a corner, hit the apex at full-tilt and still nothing: understeer creeps up and the active handling nanny taps the brakes, even with the system disengaged.
So it’s not an M5, but the A8 is a joy to drive on a twisty road, with linear steering, quick tip-in and acres of grip. It’s good enough to make A8 briefly lose power steering boost in a fast U-turn: a minor quibble, an easy fix for any chassis engineer.
So let’s chill. With the boulevardier in mind, the A8’s air-sprung ride goes flat over sharp bumps or pavement joints: no matter how beautiful, twanky-inch wheels are for children. The A8 has enough wheelbase/heft to dull impact harshness, but the endless banging from the front end on my commute to work got old in a hurry. Larger rubber might well help, but can the exterior really afford even more subtlety?
No car is perfect, not even a luxo-sedan that kisses a 6-figure asking price. And the A8 is the best in class for cornering, plus it’s a charming and timeless work of art, inside and out. If it had a pair of turbochargers and less worrisome depreciation rates, the A8 would hands down rule the competition. If, on the other hand, you can’t commit to an Audi A8 over a BMW or Merc, consider leasing one as a company car instead. Audi’s approach to luxury takes a little more time to appreciate than the competition, and even if you decide it’s not for you, it can be well worth experiencing.
Audi provided the test vehicle, insurance and a tank of gas.
Not a fan of our Facebook page? Too bad about that. For our Facebook peeps, here are your answers: Nick Roshon, not an old man’s car, MMI is easier than I expected to learn. Darren Williams: maybe the aluminum doors are why it feels cheap, so it’s a price worth paying. Adam Blank, I assume it tops out at 155mph like most German cars, you must promise to bail me out of jail before I find that out in the real world. John Walker: the lighting, MMI touch pad and massaging seats are pretty outstanding, and no, don’t tow with it. Ken Morton: every S-class I’ve been in rides better, road crushing weight perhaps? Stephen Schwarz: like so many new cars, the rear visibility is terrible, front is acceptable.