By on April 11, 2011

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.


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58 Comments on “Review: 2011 Audi A8 (Short Wheelbase)...”


  • avatar
    wsn

    Wow, according to the photos, the backseat legroom is severely limited.

  • avatar
    jmo

    <i>With the boulevardier in mind, the A8’s air-sprung ride goes flat over sharp bumps or pavement joints:</i>

    That’s exactly what I don’t want in a luxury car.  I want to see the huge pot hole, I want to tense up in anticipation of the impact, and I want it to be seemlessly absorbed.  In my experience only Mercedes does it well. 

  • avatar

    Sajeev,

    Did you have much chance to play with the Drive Select? It has a large effect on steering feel and ride quality. The latter gets downright floaty in “Comfort.”

  • avatar

    Reliability is always a big question mark with Audis. The new A4 has generally been good, but in the S4, Q5, and other Audis with the V6 water pumps have been failing early and often. If they can botch something as basic as a water pump…and the new A8 is a very complex car.

    I’d love to be able to provide reliability stats for the new A8, just a matter of getting enough owners involved. To help with the Car Reliability Survey, with just about any car:

    http://www.truedelta.com/reliability.php

    • 0 avatar

      Pumps seem to be a common issue for this segment… I’m thinking of the issues the current 3 series has with its high pressure fuel pumps.

    • 0 avatar
      Contrarian

      As an owner of a D2 A8, I find the exaggerated grill a bit too much. Also, considering my D2 was $75k back in 1998 (with far less technology), what the heck are they skimping on to still be selling them in the same price range, given feature-creep and inflation?

      • 0 avatar
        wsn

        Contrarian, it’s called competition. If you think it’s hard to make a better A8 without increasing the price, think about Corolla. It’s quite a feat.

      • 0 avatar
        Contrarian

        Also, I believe that each generation of A8 has had less hand assembly. At least that’s the scuttlebutt on the forums.

      • 0 avatar
        SP

        Haha.  If you drive a recent Corolla, you may come to the same conclusion I did.  Toyota took the easy solution to that conundrum … they just made the car worse!

        (I know it is the best-selling car in the world.  It makes me paranoid, like everyone else has been replaced by pod-consumers.)  ;)

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    That grille must look just fantastic in jurisdictions with mandatory front plates.

  • avatar
    John R

    Sounds like the Mark Levinson system in the Lexus LS is preferable.

  • avatar
    Verbal

    Did the test car suffer from any electronic gremlins?

  • avatar

    One thing I’m really interested in is the LED headlights.  Your comment about them vs. HID lights makes me even more curious.  Are they really that much better than the HIDs?  LEDs have typically not been good at projecting useable light, which is why we see them far more often as marker/indicator lights.  I’m sure a lot of that has to do with tuning the spectrum correctly, so maybe that problem is solved now.
     
    I’m really looking forward to seeing what designers will do with LED headlights as they become more common.  There’s not the need for a large housing for them, so it should be interesting to see how they evolve over the next few years.
     
    Aside from the lights, I love the A8.  If I moved in that economic circle, I’d probably have one of them.  Under warranty.

    • 0 avatar

      No doubt about it, LED light quality is superior.  The marketing hooey on the internet says it is more like natural daylight, which is misleading. The light is better quality and more usable in low visibility situations, the times when HIDs or regular light gets washed away by ambient light from streetlamps and/or thunderstorms.  (If that makes any sense.)

    • 0 avatar

      LEDs should also use less power and last longer. Though the decorative LEDs on Audis have been a common problem area.

      • 0 avatar
        ZekeToronto

        What kind of problems have arisen Michael? The only one I’ve heard about is from non-Audi drivers who don’t understand that the LED DRL shuts off (in daylight) on whichever side whose turn signal has been activated (i.e. a feature, not a bug). If there have been reliability issues, they’ve not affected me or the handful of other Audi drivers I know whose cars have LEDs.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Geeze, Audi has problems with LEDs? Wiring LEDs is, what, high-school electronics? I mean, you don’t even have a ballast or filament; they should last longer than HIDs or normal bulbs.

      But I forget that this is VW, also known as the company that can’t build a working AM radio—something an eight-year old can do with some wire, magnets and a penny.

      • 0 avatar
        Contrarian

        As an electronics designer, I can tell you there are a multitude of design considerations when applying LEDs, especially with the higher current types that are used in area and projection lighting. Heat is one of the biggest concerns and they typically require quite exacting heat-sinking and current management. It’s way mroe complicated than plugging in an incandescent bulb to 12 volts. Here are a couple of examples:

        http://www.designnews.com/article/509452-LED_Drivers_Get_Smart.php

        http://www.designnews.com/article/451284-Dealing_with_LED_Heat.php

  • avatar
    Dan R

    What an ugly car!

    • 0 avatar

      On this whole, its not bad. My first reaction was “jeebus look at the size of that nose!” Last time I saw an overhang like that it was on an airport bus.

      • 0 avatar
        SuperCoupe400

        Gotta say, I absolutely LOVE the front end. I think it is hands-down the single best design expression on the entire car.

        The rear end, however, falls woefully short on character and expression. It is completely underwhelming and quite an abysmal let-down considering the statement being made up front. That rear end (tail light design and all) is more boring than an Accord. ‘Understated luxury’ is one thing. But when the tail end of your $100k flagship sedan can be easily confussed with your entry-level sedan, somebody needs to be taken out back and horse-whipped.

        That front grille, though, is simply BOSS! But not in the overly austentacious way the Lincoln Navigator’s ‘cheese-grater’ grille is. This is classy swagger. Hats off to Audi for having the balls to drop the horizontal bar that was running the width of the grille in the previous generation A8 and let this incarnation go solo.

  • avatar
    pannkake

    What is the point of reviewing cars like this?  %99 percent of the population can’t afford them, and the people who can don’t or shouldn’t decide what to buy based on a blog review.  They just go buy the car that they want.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    With the gaping maw, if the car were white, its face would look like the mask in the movie Scream.
     
    With your tester in black, it’s a little Darth Vader (ish). “Sajeev, I am your father…hhhhfffffk, hhhhhfffffk,”

  • avatar
    mazder3

    The interior of this car is far better than my living room! The exterior on the other hand… bleargh. I’d sooner have the Mark VIII in the background. It looks great Sajeev!

    • 0 avatar

      Thank you, but I cropped my ride out at first…which made car/scenery lose context.  I think its in bad form to put another car in a review, but the angle was right. Plus, it was the last day I had the A8 and daylight was getting scarce.

  • avatar
    genuineleather

    My prediction? The new A8 will have strong (and by strong I mean half of what Benz and BMW do) initial sales, followed by a sharp decline and five years of virtually-nil numbers in the US market.

    Thankfully for Audi they don’t have to sell a lot of them; they can make the entire investment back on the $$$ Continental (with marginal Phaeton sales as gravy).

    As a shameless MB fanboy, I can’t wait for next year’s S-class to blow this car out of the water.

    • 0 avatar

      OH YES I AGREE WITH YOU.

      don’t get me wrong… I liked this A8 more than the outgoing model. Problem was, things started going wrong as soon as I got into it.
      #1 The shifter popped off.
      #2 The mirror switch is poorly designed.
      #3  The interior controls are pedantic and not as nicely integrated as in my S550.
      #4  Even though the car feels like wearing a tuxedo – the interior materials aren’t as good as the outgoing model’s.

      http://www1.epinions.com/review/2011_Audi_A8_epi/content_531956141700

      • 0 avatar
        Contrarian

        ^ More reasons why they can still sell it for around 75-80k. There is not a single cheap interior feature in my 98. Even the cap that covers the armrest bolt is machined from aluminum.

  • avatar

    Great review Sajeev.

    Any word on the W12?

    Fear for the new S500.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Major kudos to Audi for having an underhood engine presentation like that in a modern luxury car.

  • avatar
    dartman

    Gawd-damn!….”Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”

  • avatar
    WaftableTorque

    I used to be impressed by flagships because they used to come with the technology that would take years to reach the mainstream. Now, it doesn’t seem so impressive when a mainstream car like Prius has self parking, solar panels, radar cruise control, CVT’s, and LED headlamps.
     
    It looks like the future of luxury belongs to vehicles like Karma, Model S, 918 Hybrid, and LS600hL, which probably cost more to engineer the software than the actual hardware. Still, I wouldn’t mind driving one of these traditional barges until that day comes.

  • avatar
    Davekaybsc

    I’ve been in the back of the current S class and the previous gen 7 series. The Mercedes really doesn’t feel special at all. My first impression was “is this it?”. The 7 was a bit nicer, but still not amazing at all. The current 7 is better, and definitely better than the Merc, but both still pale in terms of materials and design to the Audi, both the 2004 car and the new one.
     
    If you want to know where Audi gets their reputation for interiors, sit in an A8 and you’ll get it. It makes the S class feel like an Acura.

  • avatar

    I have a 2005 Audi A8 and absolutely love it. The best car that I have ever owned. Far better than the BMW 540 that it replaced, whose water pump incidentally had a sudden failure while I was stuck in rush hour traffic in a rain storm (of course). No problems with the vehicle and I’m keeping it past its 100K warranty. In fact, I like it better than my 2009 Porsche Carrera S that is going back to Porsche when the lease is up. I drove the new A8 and was very impressed.  I’ll wait for that famous Audi depreciation to take place before I look at moving into one or the new S8 or A7/S7. I live in MI and the A8 with snow tires is unstoppable.

    Drove my buddies new Mercedes S class.  Very nice but not as sporty as the Audi A8 and a totally different driving experience. The S class seems to crush the bumps, potholes, etc. versus the Audi; but the S class just didn’t seem to be as responsive/fun when hooning.

    Yep- I’m a certified Audi A8 slappy.

  • avatar
    Kevin Kluttz

    I’d rather have the Mark VIII in the windshield of the interior shot!

  • avatar
    shoes

    I have been driving a 2011 short wheelbase A8 for a month now. I am finally old enough to appreciate a subtle piece like this. I really like the fact that the exterior is low key and the interior appointments outclass anything from BMW and Mercedes. I shoud note that I complement my A8 with a 2011 Mercedes CL550 (with the new twin turbo V8). My wife prefers the Audi and that has never happened before. Oh, and the standard Bose sound system is great.

  • avatar
    shoes

    Yes, Sajeev, it’s me again. I honestly rate this A8 above the S Class, 7 Series, XJ, QP and LS.

    I haven’t abandoned Mercedes, the CL is my favorite GT of the moment, although I am waiting to drive the new 6 Series for comparison.


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