Cutting Edge

2019 Audi A8 Review: Truly Next-Gen Innovations Place it Firmly at the Top


January 2, 2019 Cars By Photo by Eric Adams
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The fourth generation of Audi’s line-topping A8 sedan shows the company is quite serious about not just current state-of-the-art technology, but future state-of-the-art, as well. It uses an advanced mild-hybrid electrical system to provide significant safety and comfort benefits, while its powerful central computer will enable increasingly more capable semi-autonomous driving a bit further down the road. It also fully lives up to the premium flagship standard, stealing – for now anyway – the mantle of supremacy from the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7-Series, its two most obvious competitors.

The Good: Audi digs in deep with the technology here: The car has 24 sensors (laser, optical, radar) and tons of safety and convenience innovations. It’s one of the first vehicles to have a 48-volt electrical system, which gives it mild-hybrid qualities but also enables the usually power-sucking suspension tricks and other features. It’s primed for advanced semi-autonomous drive capability, as well. Though that tech isn’t quite here yet – and indeed, even some of the presently ready tech will still take until next year to enter the U.S. market – there are enough overall benefits to this tech infusion to absolutely make it worthwhile to buyers today.

Who It’s For: Despite the popularity of luxury SUVs, you still can’t match the presence of a true flagship sedan such as the A8. It exudes more authority and prestige than Audi’s taller and bulkier Q7 SUV, just as the Mercedes S-Class always manages to outshine the massive GLS. So this is a ride for those execs or luxury aficionados who don’t really feel the need for brute force. It’s also handily outpaced its rivals in the technology department with this iteration, so will score major points for drivers who truly want cutting-edge innovation.

Watch Out For: That grill. It’s too big. Way too big. Though the A8 has overall a marvelous design, the seemingly endless horizontal strakes in the maw up front are just too much, reeking of missed opportunities for the design team to make something more interesting of the fascia. It’s a modest complaint, but it’s also the most prominent view of any vehicle – so it counts. Also, some of its innovations won’t be available in the U.S. until at least next year, due to regulatory hurdles, so make sure you know what you’re getting and what you’re not when you throw down for this car.

Brief rant: there’s a bit of a trend of carmakers announcing features for specific new models but holding it back a year or so because the tech either isn’t fully baked yet or is awaiting federal approvals – new headlights, semi-autonomous features, even Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It results in a bewildering shell game of does-it-have-it-or-doesn’t-it amid already too many packages and options and tiers for every model in every manufacturer’s lineup. Put the tech in the car and sell it. Otherwise, hush. Wait until the refresh cycle comes around in a year or two or just slip it into another model when it is ready. -EA

Alternatives: The Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7 Series are the clearest alternatives, and while both have significant technology credentials – and while the S-Class remains the class leader from a purely luxury and ride perspective – their current iterations are many years old at this point. As a result, the A8 can claim the title of technology leader until one of them bests it. Elsewhere, the Lexus LS represents another fine flagship alternative, though it doesn’t really come close in terms of brute innovation.

Review: I drove the A8 up and down the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, California, where the roads are smooth, glorious ribbons draped over craggy and rough terrain. Bending nature to your will in this fashion is the challenge all automakers face – managing the transfer of often brutal surfacing from the road to the passenger, making it smooth and comfortable or exciting and energetic. The A8 has the former down pat, thanks to its meticulously constructed air suspension, and the latter comes close enough. The A8 is a fun car, and quick enough to squirt you up and down the open stretches coming out of each turn quite gamely. Though it’s no sports car.

Except when it is. The optional dynamic all-wheel-steering tightens up its turning radius substantially, enabling not only easier navigation around parking lots and such, but also fine-tuning the twisties while out and about. It feels far more sporty. The also-optional predictive active suspension – tested on a coned-out autocross rather than the open road – promises even better enhancement of the drive experience, including the ability to raise or lower each wheel individually in just 300 milliseconds – meaning it can essentially glide over bumps and divots in the road as if they’re not there, in addition to better controlling body motion overall.

Though we should be getting a V8 option next year, the car debuts with a new 3.0-liter turbocharged V6, supplemented by the also-new 48-volt electrical system. This hardware – still rare even among luxury carmakers – not only powers the previously mentioned suspension gadgetry, but it also helps smooth out powertrain response in general via power recuperation and delivery, and it enables the advanced onboard computer to process its intel faster, for more capable driver assistance systems and, eventually, semi-autonomous driving. The A8 is the first car to use a laser scanner, among its myriad other sensors, so its collision-avoidance and mitigation capabilities are truly next-level. For instance, it now maintains persistent 360-degree awareness, and can, with the predictive suspension option, jack up one side or the other in an anticipated side-impact situation to better direct crash energy through the chassis, protecting the occupants. It can also allow for better lane-centering and adaptive-cruise performance, taking the stress out of commuting and road-tripping.

Inside, nicely integrated into its rich interior design, a new MMI touch-response system replaces the previous system’s dial-based interface. Now it’s touchscreen-based, with haptic feedback accompanying every tap to help confirm your presses and actions with minimal visual distraction. (That is, you can better “feel” the system working, rather than having to constantly scan it visually during every button press.) The upper screen is 10.3 inches and contains the navigation and infotainment systems while the smaller 8.6-inch lower screen controls seating, HVAC, and shortcuts to other infotainment functions. You can also now use natural language when delivering voice commands, and access your smartphone via Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

All of these advances, both in the drive and interaction elements, add up to a significantly evolved experience – it’s less stressful, more enjoyable, and more integrated than most any other system on the market. It’s a car you wouldn’t mind inhabiting in really any context – weekend jaunts down the PCH, or even the daily grind into the office.

Verdict: It’s hard to fault Audi’s approach here. They deliver an outstanding luxury product with a suite of truly next-gen innovations, all of which place the car firmly at the top – at least until its rivals cough up the next iterations of their top-dog sedans

What Others Are Saying:

• “The A8 passed slow-moving traffic along Highway 1 briskly enough during our day-long test drive; with a claimed 0 to 60 mph time of 5.6 seconds, this big boy can certainly get out of its own way. However, it doesn’t exactly feel potent; think, sensory deprivation tank, not guided missile.” – Basem Wasef, Automobile

• “By all measures, Audi’s fourth generation A8 is a considerable leap beyond its predecessor. Advanced comfort, convenience, and safety technologies set new full-size luxury sedan benchmarks for ride quality, handling, and usability. Siphoning S-Class and 7 Series buyers won’t be easy, but Audi has the right product to disrupt the segment.” – Miles Branman, Digital Trends

• “For now, in my eyes, Mercedes-Benz’s S-Class is still the gold standard for large luxury, but the A8 L is a solid contender with its different, technology-centered approach. However, many of the most compelling technologies — Matrix lighting, Level 3 partial automation and AI Active suspension — are locked away pending law changes or further tailoring for the US market.” – Antuan Goodwin, Roadshow

2019 Audi A8 Key Specs

Engine: 3.0-liter turbocharged V6
Transmission: 8-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive
Horsepower: 335
Torque: 369 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 5.6 seconds
Fuel economy: 19/25 mpg city/highway
Price: $83,800 (MSRP)

Audi hosted us and provided this product for review.

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