By on December 8, 2010

“Didn’t he say they had only one of the new A8s?”

“That’s an A4, Dad.”

Some people will walk away at this point, refusing to even consider spending $85,000+ on a car that can be so easily confused with one costing less than half as much. A similar problem killed GM’s luxury car sales back in the second half of the 1980s. But, by walking away, are these buyers missing out on the best large luxury sedan on the market?

Personally, I’ve long been okay with the “same sausage, different lengths” design philosophy. I don’t expect a size 12 shoe to be styled differently than a size 8, at least not if I like the design. Prefer the agility of a compact? Get the A4. Need the XXL, because you and all of your buddies must duck when walking through standard doorways? The A8 L could well be the car for you.

The problem, for me: the new Audi A8 doesn’t look enough like the A4. With the latest iterations of the A3, A4, A5, and Q5, Audi seemed to have finally figured out how to attractively incorporate a supersized grille into the face of a car. With these models, the outer thirds of the front fascia extend a little lower than the center section, and a bumper bar splits the grille horizontally, keeping it from appearing too tall. Well, with the new A8 a vastly oversized, unsegmented grille extends all the way to the fascia’s flat bottom edge. And, to make sure no one somehow misses it, Audi affixed eight pairs of chrome strips. Harley Earl would have loved it. Ditto the $1,400 all-LED headlamps. A“because we can” affectation, the hockey stick pattern formed by the LEDs has no relation to the rest of the car’s design.

Then there’s the side view. With the new A4 and A5, Audi located the front differential immediately behind the engine so that the front axle could be shifted forward a half-foot, vastly improving the car’s proportions. They’ve performed no such trickery with the new A8. Combining Audi’s traditional powertrain layout with a hood high enough to meet the latest European pedestrian safety standards yields an unsightly amount of front overhang.

Lastly, the lower bodysides of latest A4 have an upsweeping character line to lend visual interest. In contrast, the bodysides of the new A8 are relatively boring. A pair of character lines do subtly curve towards each other, but this only makes the rear of the car appear undersized and underdeveloped. Only through its sheer sheer size—207.4 inches long, 76.7 inches wide—and that of its glitzy grille does the A8 possibly command the “road presence” expected of this class of sedan. The previous A8 was considerably more attractive.

The 2011 Audi A8s interior design is an evolution of the previous car’s; not a bad thing, since the previous car’s interior was Germany’s most attractive. The Alcantara that now graces the door panels looks better in richer shades than the “as-tested” light beige. The sportily sloping center stack has been further reclined to create space for the MMI (Audi for iDrive) controls ahead of the shifter (they used to be behind it). To avoid obstructing these controls, the new all-electronic shifter is a much lower, fighter jet-inspired T. Knobs continue to be employed for the most basic HVAC and audio system functions.

When not in use, the display screen retracts into the instrument panel. This cleans up the IP—but the display is almost constantly in use. Even the seat adjustments are displayed, which is actually a good thing because they are so numerous. In general, so many adjustments are available for so many things that the average owner will probably never be aware of, much less be able to figure out how to use, 90 percent of them. It’s a high-end cell phone disguised as a large luxury sedan.

Option the new A8 to the hilt and even rear seat passengers can suffer from control overload. But the tested car included a mere $8,400 in options and so lacked power rear seats, dual-zone rear HVAC, and the dual-display entertainment system. Even so, each rear door included four switches and a button to operate four sunshades (overhead, each side window, and the rear window), both power windows, and a venting rear panel in the optional panoramic sunroof.

Oddly, given this car’s mission, seat comfort front and rear is just okay. In the traditional Audi fashion the seats are firm and lacking in contour. Those seeking lateral support should kick in another $2,000 for the Premium Package, which includes power-adjustable bolsters. Roominess, on the other hand, is outstanding. In the extended length L, nearly all of the lengthier wheelbase goes to the rear seat, yielding 42.9 inches of legroom—more than in the front seat. In the Hyundai Equus I complained about the lack of toe space beneath the front seats. In the A8 L my toes couldn’t reach the front seats. Perceived roominess is even better than the specs suggest, partly because Audi hasn’t run with the crowd to adopt ridiculously high beltlines—the windows remain relatively large. Unless you and your buds all play center, or you want to feel like a child again while riding in the back seat, there could even be too much room.

Most luxury car makers have been steadily enlarging the size of their engines. BMW went from a 4.0 to a 4.4 to a 4.8, Mercedes to a 5.5. Both are now downsizing their V8s, but are adding turbos to simultaneously boost power output. Even Hyundai plans to bump its 4.6-liter V8 to a full 5.0 next year. In contrast, Audi has been offering a smallest-in-class unblown 4.2-liter V8 for nearly two decades. The engine has received various tweaks, some of them substantial, along the way. The latest revision yields 372 horsepower, up 22 from last year and nearly 100 from the original. Wringing 372 horsepower from 4.2 liters—Mercedes gets only ten more out of its 5.5—necessarily requires lots of revs, 6,800 in this case. Put another way, there’s less power at low-to-moderate RPM with a smaller engine, and the 4.2’s torque output of 328 pound-feet at 3,500 trails the Mercedes’ 391 at 2,800, much less the turbocharged V8 in the BMW 7.

Personally, I don’t miss the missing torque in the Audi. The relatively small V8 revs so smoothly, and makes such luscious mechanical noises when doing so, that the need to work it harder might well be the opposite of a problem. The A8 might not launch quite as hard as the others, but once moving feels very quick. The new smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic does its part, always seeming to select the proper gear without delay. But if you do want to shift for yourself, paddles are located on the steering wheel.

Working an engine harder often harms fuel economy, and the Audi engine has been a bit of a guzzler in the past. But the EPA rates the 2011 at 17 city, 27 highway—up from 16/23 last year and impressive numbers for such a large, powerful, all-wheel-drive car. The BMW 750Li xDrive and Mercedes-Benz S500 4Matic do far worse: 14/20 and 14/21, respectively.

Shifting the front axle forward in the A4 and A5 also improved their weight distribution. Even without this change, though, the new A8 plows much less in hard turns than the old one did, and generally feels more agile. Which is not to say agile. The A8 drives a half-size smaller than it actually is, but this is a half-size smaller than XXL. Typical of all-wheel-drive Audi’s, the A8 can feel inflexible on dry pavement. Get on the throttle, get off the throttle, it doesn’t matter: the attitude of the chassis doesn’t change. To dial the handling up another notch or two, lend some rear-drive feel to the quattro drivetrain, and perhaps all but eliminate understeer, spend another $2,300 for “Audi drive select plus,” which includes active steering and an active, torque-vectoring rear differential.

“Audi drive select” (without the “plus”) is standard, so the throttle, steering, suspension (air springs and adaptive struts), and seat belt tensioners (go figure) can each be independently set to Comfort, “Dynamic” (sport), or Auto. With most such systems the differences between settings can be difficult to discern. Not so with Audi’s. Set the steering and suspension to “comfort,” and the car floats and wallows. “Auto” and “Dynamic” should be the only options. Dial both up to “dynamic,” and the steering becomes –if anything– overly firm, while the suspension becomes much tighter. No one else in the segment offers steering nearly this firm—the difference is easily detectable even while driving straight down the freeway. Move the wheel even a fraction of an inch and the car responds immediately. But all is not perfect: like the ultra-firm steering in a 1980s Detroit-issue Audi-fighter, though certainly not to the same extent, the steering’s weightiness feels artificial and doesn’t build progressively as the wheel is turned.

Ride quality suffers a bit in “Dynamic,” but remains very comfortable. A rock-solid, quiver-free body structure helps. Especially on concrete, road noise is more of an issue in any setting. There’s not a lot of it, but some competitors are nearly silent. The tested car did have the optional 20-inch high-performance tires; the standard 19s might be quieter.

Pack a large aluminum body chock full of technology, and the price isn’t going to be low. The 2011 Audi A8 starts at $78,925. The long, with some additional standard equipment: $84,875. Even lightly optioned, as in the case of the tested car, the price tops $94k. Load it up and you’re over $110k. This might seem pricey, but based on TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool a similarly-equipped BMW 750Li costs about $10,000 more.

The new Audi A8 is easily the sportiest car in the segment. Even BMW has gone soft in comparison, and the new 7 is also considerably more expensive. Not that the new A8 is perfect. The car’s exterior could be both more distinctive (aft of the grille) and more attractive (including the grille). The relatively small V8 doesn’t churn out pavement-rippling torque; with all wheels driven, the chassis could handle far more. Even the car’s technical excellence can seem a little cold—some competitors feel more “natural.” But then no car is perfect. If you’re a driving enthusiast ISO a very large car, the A8 wins by just about any objective measure, and by many subjective measures as well.

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data.

Lee “Pete” Canupp of Checkered Flag Audi in Virginia Beach, VA, provided the car. Pete can be reached at 757-490-1111.
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52 Comments on “Review: 2011 Audi A8 L 4.2 FSI...”

  • avatar

    I think it’s been nearly a decade since Audi has had a front end I could stomach.

    • 0 avatar

      I liked the outgoing A8’s front end, but this one is overdone to say the least.
      My problem with the A8 came when the gear shift left fell off because the retaining clips weren’t strong enough. [email protected]/5224740049/

      I also had a problem with the mirror adjustments and the pedantic design of the seat controls. I have no idea why BMW and Audi backed off of integrated redundant control through the i-Drive systems rather than improving them like Mercedes did.

      I for one believe this car felt world’s better than the outgoing model.

      Otherwise, its a very luxurious car.

    • 0 avatar

      When you are driving it the front end is not an issue.

    • 0 avatar

      A few years back Car & Driver described the A8 exterior as “The face of a demon with the body of an angel”. When I drive up behind a passing lane jackass cruiser, and they get a look at that growling face in their rear view mirror, most of these derelicts of the roadways jerk over to the right lane as soon as their way is clear. Many even do the right thing and actually speed up and LOOK for a way over. It is an amazing phenomenon. One I have never experienced with my four BMW’s or my one Mercedes.

      The A8 is like any other car design, it is not for everyone. But among those of us who actually own it and enjoy the pleasures of driving the fantastic car every day, you will be hard pressed not to find a believer, oh yea, even a lover. For me, its like 10 German engineers awoke one morning with one thought on their minds, “today I will build a car that Greg loves.”

  • avatar

    The relatively small V8 revs so smoothly, and makes such luscious mechanical noises when doing so, that the need to work it harder might well be the opposite of a problem.
    I really wish that Audi still offered a V8 for the S4.

    • 0 avatar

      When I sold my V8 S4 2 years ago, my friend said the engine sounded like a sewing machine! So funny, yet true! Then i switched to a v8 S8, and that similar engine has a much better noise, likely of the timing chain being a belt in the S8. Now i am  with a v6 A4, and the sewing machine sound is back… doh!

    • 0 avatar

      Oh yes, you are so right.

    • 0 avatar

      Welp, the old V-8-powered S4 was significantly SLOWER than the new supercharged V-6 version, and and it also provided ABYSMAL fuel mileage, but I’ll admit that it sounded great, particularly with an aftermarket exhaust.

      If you care about performance, then you might like to know that with a simple ECU re-flash and some good gas, the new V-6 S4 is capable of 12.1 second 1/4 miles @ 117+ mph.  (!!!)

  • avatar

    Nice car and great review. If it was available in RWD I’d consider it.

  • avatar

    I’ll take my XJ in navy over tan, and keep the change.

    • 0 avatar

      We drove an XJ at the same dealer right before driving this car. That review is next.

      With so much stuff packed into these cars, I wish I could say something about their reliability. The Jaguar XF has been among the worst, while Audi’s current record varies by model.

      Know someone with one of these cars? Information about the Car Reliability Survey can be found here:

  • avatar

    The front end looks like a Chinese Rolls-Royce clone.  Yikes.

  • avatar

    Interesting that the 7 series is no longer the (enthusiast) driver’s choice in this segment. 

    Despite the generous use of wood and what appear to be very high quality materials (love the leather-covered dash), the cabin visually looks rather average for a car of this price; perhaps it comes across better/”richer” in other colors.  I do appreciate the small touches, such as the metal(lic) surrounds on the rear door panel buttons… something to show you’re not getting a part straight out of the VW parts bin for your six-figure purchase.

    So many buttons on the dash/console!  Please, Audi, don’t get into Japanese (Acura) territory here.  Isn’t that what the wheel MMI interface is there to prevent?

    As for the huge grille on the front, I think it’d look a lot better without the horizontal chrome; perhaps Audi could offer an option to replace the chrome trim with black (“shadowline”) like BMW offers as part of a sport package.

    Any pics of the huge rear seat?

    • 0 avatar

      I thought I took at least one photo of the back seat, but apparently not.

      As noted in the review, I found the interior color quite blah. There are much better ones.

      I forgot to mention that those controls on the console include a pad that recognizes handwriting, so you can trace out letters with your fingertip.

      The problem with using fewer buttons is that buttons and knobs remain much quicker and easier to use than the MMI.

    • 0 avatar

      I played around with the Audi car configurator on the their website to see the other color combinations.   The tan leather isn’t the best, but I’d say it isn’t the worst either, the grey interior environment looks far cheaper and doesn’t have the warmth that the tan does.   My personal preference would be the black interior, but this tan combo would be a close second.
      I have to imagine that the tan interior is likely going to be the most popular from a sales perspective.  Cars like this have buyers that skew heavily towards the upper age range.  Selling Lincolns in Florida, I know a thing or two about what older buyers prefer, and in my experience, they love tan interiors like this.

  • avatar

    That honking big grille is going to look great with a NY plate stuck in the middle of it.  Not.

  • avatar

    Exterior styling inspired by the Kodak Bantam?

  • avatar

    The way these things depreciate, one of these may become the first car to qualify for the 24 Hours of LeMons because the headlights burned out.

  • avatar

    I agree that the looks are too underdone and the grille isn’t great. Shame.
    +I feel like the front grille was designed for Euro License Plates, as it would act as a phantom bumper/bar separator.

  • avatar

    Not quite my cup of tea but I applaud Audi for working on weight reduction with the A8 and the new A6 unlike other German car makers that keep piling on the pounds.

    • 0 avatar

      The A8L is about the size of a Cadillac DTS, but weighs about 400lb more. The Jaguar XJL appears to have the same curb weight as the A8L, despite being RWD and also having an aluminum chassis. The steel body Lincoln Ecoboost AWD MKS is about 100lb less.

      It seems that if you want a lighter full size sedan, you have to go back 1 or 2 generations when all of them weren’t such porkers.

  • avatar

    That gaping maw will look even better in the states with mandatory front plates.

  • avatar

    With the headlights down to a row of LEDs, why not bring back the classic “hidden headlight” look of the late 70’s Lincoln Continental, Mark V and Ford Thunderbird?  Only now without the moving headlight doors,  just painted surface on either side of the grille, with a thin, nearly invisible straight horizontal strip of LEDs near the bumper as headlights.  Why curve the LEDs to occupy the now mostly fake “headlight” lens?

  • avatar

    Audi just LOVES being behind the curve when it comes to powertrains. The  10hp-more powerful S-class has been around since ’06 and is due for replacement in 2012, at which point the A8 will be down a full 63hp from the segment leader.

    So, to recap: outdated engine, terrible styling, aluminum bodywork that is difficult and obscenely expensive to fix, plus Audi’s vaunted rep for reliability.

    Hope they’re able to keep them in stock.

    • 0 avatar

      I think I read that a V12 (well, given that it’s a VAG company, probably a W12) will be coming next year, that will do away with any power concerns. There will also likely be a S8 variant using some form of forced induction with the V8.

      I like the styling. Big executive-luxury sedans should look conservative yet imposing IMO, and the Audi does that well. The aluminum body is probably very expensive to repair, as you mentioned, but no one is buying a car like this to be fiscally responsible.

    • 0 avatar

      First of all…
      The power in this V8 is more than enough to move the car and make it feel powerful. No one is racing a car like this – which is one of the reasons I fail to see the necessity of an S63 or 760li.
      Second, the interior is very luxurious.  its not as classic looking as the S550 or 750 but it looks better inside than anything else on the road.
      Had the control systems worked through the MMI rather than being convoluted, I’d consider one. But its S550’s only for me.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Michael, how effective are those LED headlights?

  • avatar

    Good thing it does not have the typical steep up sweeping belt line and arc-thru-the-door-handles line of nearly every car these days.
    Thus it has a clean understated look without the desperate appearance of “me sporty” lines and creases like say the Sonata.

  • avatar

    Eh…looks kinda like a longer A4…except the A4 actually looks good.

  • avatar

    The reason that the A8 and A6 have slightly awkward looking LED headlights is because Audi has to be able to fit conventional Xenons in the same spot for those that don’t opt for the LEDs. If you want to see what their designers can do when they don’t have to work around conventional lights, just look at the front of the E-tron concepts. Much cooler.
    The XJ is ugly, has enormous rear overhang and those stupid black C-pillars, and an interior out of Kubrick’s 2001. The 7 series is blah. The S-class is also blah, and those arches haven’t gotten any less ugly. The venerable 4.2 may not be new, but it’s not really missing any features compared to the competition. It’s not a Honda engine after all, it’s just smaller. This “outdated” powertrain also easily beats the steel bodied rivals in fuel economy, so I don’t think Audi is too worried.
    How long will it be before BMW copies the hand writing recognition? It’s pretty sad how they suddenly decided that their cars all of a sudden had to have B&O stereos. Wonder where they got that idea?

  • avatar

    Nice review Michael, enjoyed it. If I was in the market for this kind of car (which I won’t be, not anytime soon), this would definitely be the car to go for, despite the grill. This is the purchase I would make with the accounting side of brain functioning properly. What I really want however, would be the new XJ. Damn, you Jaguar! Get the reliability sorted out!

  • avatar

    I can’t get over the look. The problem IMO is not necessarily that it looks like an A4, but that it just looks awkward. I’ve never been a fan of the extra side window on Audi sedans behind the rear doors but on top of that, this A8 seems to have a drooping beltline from some angles that looks weird. The schnoz isn’t pretty either. I’d much prefer they’d put the A7 nose on this.

    I’m not convinced by any of the big sedans of the big German three right now. I’d tend to go for the 7 but it’s not entirely the car you’d want it to be. The S is old and more importantly ugly inside and out. This A8…meh. Guess I’ll have to age a decade or so more to really start appreciating these type of cars.

    Side note on the extra side window; I think they have to implement this into the design because the cars are intrinsically FWD, hence, the frontwheels are placed ‘further back’ than they would have been with an RWD car and as a result the rear wheels are as well, so to keep a sporting stance, they need to have that extra window there. Have occasionally wondered about that for some time, does anyone know?

  • avatar

    I generally don’t use expletives in these forums but… holy shit the front of that car is ugly.

  • avatar
    Bunk Moreland

    I sure do love “the Germany”

  • avatar

    I like the grill and, thankfully, where I live no front plate required. Front plates really mess up the grill. I was hoping to get a review of the uber sat-nav system that is tied in with the transmission. I heard the transmission “reads” the sat-nav and knows when you are coming up to a series of turns and will shift down for you while winding through them, then shift up when you are entering a long straightaway….

  • avatar

    First of all, I will admit that I was decidedly underwhelmed by the new A8 when first released.  The front end looks a bit overblown and the rest of the exterior is just “blah”.  I find that the outgoing model was a bit more tidy and dignified, by far one of my favorite designs.
    Second, keep in mind that the concept of putting the differential ahead of the axle to reduce overhang actually was started with the previous generation A8 and then has made its way down the design lineup to the current “B8” A4/A5 models.  The problem here would appear to be that the front end design simply overhangs a lot more than before. That’s unfortunate and ruins the look a bit.
    The interior, however, really makes up for the blandness of the exterior.  I had the chance to spend some time in one recently and was very impressed with the overall look and feel – great stuff.  The new MMI fingerprint capability is a big plus, actually. I was skeptical about it at first, but after using it, it’s a great piece of kit.
    I also found the ride to be very enjoyable, quiet and comfortable, if a bit bland like the exterior.
    Finally, it would seem that Audi is leveraging its new car development platforms and efficiencies of scale to allow them a strategy they couldn’t employ in the past: keep relatively staid bread and butter models (A4, A6, A8) and introduce variants (A5 Sportback, A7) to fill the design gaps.  Personally, were I in the price range of the A8 I would end up with the new A7 because of the design.  Same with the A5 Sportback – I’d take that in a heartbeat over the otherwise pedestrian A4 (assuming we’re talking the need for 4 doors, which I have).  If rumors of an A9 are true, we could end up seeing a slick looking A8 at some point in the future.
    So, all in all the A8 seems to be falling in line with the new BMW 7 series which is again, otherwise indiscernible from the smaller new 5 series.  I’d love to see a bit more design swagger, but I suppose that’s what the variants in the lineup are for.

    • 0 avatar

      Before writing the review I sought, and failed to find, any indication that the differential is ahead of the transmission in any generation of A8. The dash-to-axle distance further suggests that the A8’s configuration remains the traditional one.

      Can you point me to any sources that say otherwise?

  • avatar

    Good grief, Kenworth makes smaller grills that are less conspicuous and ugly than this.  Though I am seeing where Chrysler may have gotten the shape for the headlights on the re-vamped 300.

  • avatar

    Is an 8-speed automatic really necessary? Couldn’t they get by with a 5-speed?

    • 0 avatar

      I think the 8 speed is the main reason the highway mileage went from 23 to 27 mpg.

    • 0 avatar

      Could they not also have gotten a little bit higher mileage out of it by putting a larger engine in that wouldn’t have had to work so hard? The only reason I say this is that I remember doing some reading about the Kia Spectra, not because I was going to buy one, but was curious, and it had either a 2.2 liter engine or a 2.5 and the 2.5 was about 10% more efficient (I’m fudging the numbers a little because I don’t remember them exactly).
      I will freely admit when I don’t know something and I’m not entirely sure how displacement affects fuel economy. B&B have your discussion. I’m curious to learn.

    • 0 avatar

      A larger engine at less revs may use less fuel than a smaller engine at highter revs.  But there is no direct correlation between displacement and efficiency.

  • avatar

    God if I have to look at another car with small windows, chrome strip at the bottom of the doors, deleted bodyside moldings and an oversize cartoonish grille again I’m going to scream!!!! If I have to suffer with one of these blandified clone sedans of 2010 I will just buy a Genesis dress up the drab exterior with some mud guards and exterior trim and laugh with nearly 50K in the bank with a very good rear drive V8 sedan packed with features.

    Quote: The previous A8 was considerably more attractive.
    Agree 100% on that statement.

  • avatar

    Audi never changes: The engine is too small; the front is too heavy; the car is too complicated, and at 60,000 miles it will need a very expensive overhaul (at which point most owners will just throw it away for some used car sucker to buy.) It’s a shame, really, but it’s why I still drive Mercedes and BMW.  Oh, and I use real winter tires; I don’t need all-wheel drive…no one does.

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