2019 Audi A8 First Drive: Resetting The Standard
– Valencia, Spain
It’s telling that the first presentation on the 2019 Audi A8 mentions horsepower not once, but quotes processing power for the onboard computers multiple times. This car is a technological powerhouse, with more features and driving aids than ever before (in fact, there are so many gadgets I’ve broken some of the coolest ones out in a separate story). Yet the Audi is also designed to be so comfy, quiet, and easy to live with that a discussion of engine specs feels, well, almost like an afterthought. As a result, the new A8 is a superlative luxury machine in every respect.
You may want to rant online that the design is evolutionary, but in person the 2019 Audi A8 is clearly all-new. Even on paper, everything has changed: It has grown by 1.5 inches in length, 0.2 inches in wheelbase, and 0.7 inches in height. It now rides upon a version of the Volkswagen Group’s MLBevo modular platform (also used for Bentley Bentayga and Porsche Panamera). Fifty-eight percent of the body is made from aluminum, with the rest made from high-strength steel, magnesium, and carbon fiber. Body rigidity has improved by 24 percent versus the old model.
Visually, the A8 is a stunner – if not the most beautiful large sedan you can find, certainly one of the most striking. Tight-radiused creases inject energy into the sheet metal, and the nose is more aggressive than ever, with the big Singleframe grille perched between the headlights. As is so en vogue, designers endeavored to make the silhouette as coupe-like as possible, stretching out the rear window in a bid for both style and aerodynamics. Behind that you’ll note a smart trunk decorated with dazzling OLED illumination across its width. Wheel sizes from 17 to 21 inches in diameter are offered. The total package just plain works, and the A8 makes as strong an impression in dense traffic as it does on an auto-show display.
The total package just plain works, and the A8 makes as strong an impression in dense traffic as it does on an auto-show display.
Move inside and it’s clear an equal level of attention was paid to every surface you see and touch. Audi’s Virtual Cockpit full-color display presents a bounty of information behind the steering wheel. Most physical switches – save for a handful like the volume, tuning, drive-mode, and parking-camera buttons – have been excised, leaving a sleek and futuristic console.
All the climate controls have been digitized and now occupy an 8.6-inch touchscreen, while a crisp 10.1-inch display handles all infotainment duties. Ambient lighting, plus optional open-pore wood and various colors of suede and leather, adorn the chic door cards. With a relatively low cowl and the spacious design, the cabin presents a light, airy sensation.
The standard model will be labeled 55 TFSI under Audi’s controversial new naming scheme. It has a turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 engine, with a “hot-V” design to reduce turbo lag and the “B cycle” valve timing also used on the new VW Tiguan’s engine to promote efficiency. Total ratings are 340 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque, or gains of 7 hp and 44 lb-ft versus the old A8’s base engine. Audi predicts the sprint to 62 miles per hour will take 5.7 seconds.
Like all of the new A8’s powertrains, the engine is a mild hybrid. In place of a traditional alternator is what’s called a “belt alternator starter,” which is connected to a small 48-volt lithium-ion battery in the trunk. Cold starts are still effected by a ring-pinion starter motor, but once the engine is warmed up, the BAS can start the engine more quickly and more smoothly, making stop-start activations almost unnoticeable. As a hybrid, the BAS contributes 8-13 hp (6-10 kilowatts) of extra power to the engine under acceleration and can recuperate up to 16 hp (12 kw) back to the battery under braking.
For all its trickery, the engine behaves predictably, slinking away from traffic lights and providing a smooth stream of power throughout its rev range.
Its most significant function, however, is to permit engine-off coasting. Like a few other modern high-end cars, the A8 will shift the transmission to neutral to save fuel when the car is coasting, e.g. going downhill or slowing for an off-ramp. But where those cars simply idle, the A8 will completely shut down its engine. The A8 will coast with the engine off for up to 40 seconds at a time when driving between 34 and 99 mph. Audi says doing so can save 0.2 gallon of fuel per 62 miles of driving – small, but it adds up over time. The BAS makes the coasting feature possible: the 12-volt system keeps the power steering and other safety functions running while the engine’s off, and the engine can be restarted without drawing current away from them because the BAS is powered by the 48-volt battery.
It sounds complicated, but fear not: the A8 drives as easily and as delightfully as any other Audi. For all its trickery, the engine behaves predictably, slinking away from traffic lights and providing a smooth stream of power throughout its rev range. The eight-speed automatic, the only gearbox on all A8s, serves up creamy shifts and is always ready to downshift when calling for more power. The turbo V6 feels like just-right power for the A8, always holding plenty of torque in reserve without ever dishing up too much power and surprising the driver. Quattro all-wheel drive is, as on almost all Audis, standard on the A8.
It’s a comfortable drive, too. In the U.S., an air suspension will come standard on the A8, with adaptive settings adjusted by the Comfort, Auto, and Dynamic modes accessible from the center-console Drive Select switches. It ably soaks up bumps without much fuss in the cabin.
The A8 stays remarkably flat through bends, sports car-like, but still floats plushly over rough roads. It’s the best of both worlds.
Optional will be Audi’s electromechanical active suspension, which uses a forward-facing camera to “read” the road, then commands actuators at each wheel to move the suspension up or down to further reduce cabin motions. That feature still needs some final polishing and was disabled on my test car, though I was able to ride in a test car on a small test track (read more in this technology round-up story). However, the active suspension also works to reduce dive, pitch, and roll – and that feature was enabled for my test drive. Like active anti-roll bars, the actuators counter body motions through bends or under braking. The A8 thus stays remarkably flat through bends, sports car-like, but still floats plushly over rough roads. It’s the best of both worlds.
All the window glass and seals do an excellent job keeping wind and road noise to a minimum. Little sound permeates the cabin even at highway speeds. All the better to hold a conversation without raising your voice, or to enjoy the optional Bang & Olufsen sound systems.
One of the most remarkable things about driving the A8 in the city is how deftly I can slip it through tight turns. Dynamic all-wheel steering turns the rear wheels opposite the fronts by up to five degrees at low speeds, effectively reducing the car’s turning circle by three feet versus the old A8. I sense the car pivoting around its center-point rather, and don’t have to swing wide to get the 17-foot sedan around bends with curbing wheels or scraping paint. At high speeds, the rear wheels move in parallel to the fronts, by up to two degrees, when cornering to improve stability.
I also take a drive in the 60 TFSI model, which boasts a biturbocharged 4.0-liter V8 good for 460 hp and 489 lb-ft. Audi doesn’t quote a 0-60 time yet, but it feels like something in the low four-second range. Noticeably punchier at all times than the V6, it still delivers its power impeccably smoothly and predictably. For eager drivers, the V8 will be the one to have, partly because it’s so much quicker, and partly because its engine note is throatier and more vocal.
A plug-in hybrid is planned for Europe and while it still has not been officially confirmed for the U.S. market, officials hint it’s almost certain to be offered here.
The U.S. market won’t receive the A8’s optional W12 gas engine, nor its 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 (called the 50 TDI); the former had a near-zero take rate on the outgoing car. A plug-in hybrid is planned for Europe and while it still has not been officially confirmed for the U.S. market, officials hint it’s almost certain to be offered here.
The infotainment system is all-new to the A8. Called MMI touch response, it eliminates the toggle wheel and buttons used on old Audis in favor of the 10.1- and 8.6-inch touchscreens, both of which have haptic feedback to help use them at a glance. They’re powered by a new Nvidia processor that is 50 times more powerful than the hardware inside the outgoing infotainment system. What that means is swiping, selecting, and switching between menus all happens with nary a hint of lag. The home menu screen shows a few pages of buttons to jump to various functions – Radio, Navigation, Telephone, etc – and each submenu presents its functions clearly, in very legible fonts, and without fuss. It’s my favorite infotainment system for its speed, simplicity, and prettiness.
Another addition is cloud-linked voice recognition, which can interpret natural phrases like “I’m cold” or “Find me a restaurant on such-and-such street in Munich.” For inputting addresses or searching destinations manually, simply draw letters or numbers on the lower touchscreen. The rest of the time, that lower display primarily serves to operate the climate control. Neat tricks include “pinching” to synchronize temperatures on both sides, and tapping a photo of the seats to bring up a menu of massage, heating/cooling, lumbar, and other options.
Another thing you care about when buying a car like this, of course, is the experience for those fortunate passengers in the rear seats. I slide into the back of an A8 for a few short journeys, stretching out my frame in the cavernous amounts of room and noting the dearth of any outside road noise or vibration. Yep, this one gets an A+ for back-seat appointments and isolation. Getting comfortable takes seconds; finding the willpower to exit again is tougher.
Once Audi has nailed down the legal issues, the A8 will be offered with Traffic Jam Pilot, which can take over all driving functions in freeway traffic at 37 mph or below.
Passengers can take advantage of all the amenities we’ve come to expect from this type of vehicle: power-reclining seats; a wi-fi hotspot; power sun shades; soft-close doors; heated, cooled, and massaging seats; seatback tablet displays; heated armrests; and even a perfume ionizer with settings for summer (“a Mediterranean note recalling sea air”) and winter (“alpine fragrance suggesting mountain air”) scents. You control all these functions, as well as the climate controls and radio, from a small removable touchscreen tablet in the center armrest.
Fear not about your chauffeur’s competence because active-safety technologies abound. As is becoming common across all car classes, you’ll find pre-collision warning and braking, blind-spot monitoring, front and rear cross-traffic alert, and adaptive cruise with lane-keep assist. On top of that, the A8 will brake if you’re about to turn across oncoming traffic; it will brake if you nose out of a driveway in the path of another car; it will lift its suspension to protect occupants from the full force of a side-impact crash; it will prevent you from opening the door into the path of a cyclist or car; and it will snug your seatbelt, close your window, and raise your headrest if any type of collision is imminent.
Not enough for you? Once Audi has nailed down the legal issues, the A8 will be offered with Traffic Jam Pilot, which can take over all driving functions in freeway traffic at 37 mph or below. A smartphone app will let you drive the Audi in and out of a parking space remotely, and one day soon the car will be able to guide itself to a space in a parking garage autonomously without a driver on board. In cities with the right infrastructure (in the U.S., that includes Las Vegas, with other cities coming online soon), the car receives information from traffic lights and tells you when they’ll turn green. And all A8s send information on events like stability-control activation or windshield-wiper use to the cloud to warn other A8 drivers of hazards. All of which is to say that this car is designed to make driving safer and easier in every possible way.
The A8 comes to the table with a stylish body, a gorgeous cabin, technology in spades, and a supremely likable driving demeanor.
The 2019 Audi A8 will reach European customers by the end of this year but won’t make it to the U.S. until fall 2018 – in V6 trim only, with the V8 to follow later. It’s way too early for official pricing, though it’s fair to guess at an increase of a few thousand dollars over last year’s model, which started at $83,450 after destination. As is the case with its rivals, the A8 will be offered only in long-wheelbase configuration in the U.S.; the take rate for short-wheelbase sedans in this class was negligible.
The Audi goes head-to-head with the refreshed Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the BMW 7 Series in the near-$100K sedan realm. The A8 comes to the table with a stylish body, a gorgeous cabin, technology in spades, and a supremely likable driving demeanor. But we’ll have to drive all three back to back – or rather, be chauffeured in them – to be able to definitively pick which is the most sublime German luxury sedan.
That said, it’s easy to be smitten with the A8. It looks like modern art, its cabin is as stylish as a high-end hotel, it makes driving a pleasure, its technologies solve problems you didn’t know you had, and it nestles passengers in first-class comfort. In every way, the 2019 Audi A8 resets the bar for what we must expect from a luxury car.