Lots of tech, but not enough power.
"Wait a tick," you might be thinking. "Haven't I already read a first drive of the 2019 Audi A8 on Motor1?"
Well, yeah. You have. It's right here. But that first story, published just over a year ago, saw Motor1 sample Audi's flagship luxury sedan on Spanish roads while presenting a thorough breakdown of all the killer technology included with the big four-door's latest redesign. This story is different, because rather than the Spanish countryside, we're testing the new A8 on the winding, wriggling strip of tarmac that clings to the side of the California coast.
The Pacific Coast Highway is a legendary stretch of road that alternates between stunning sections of curves and twists and crippling traffic from dimwitted, gawking tourists. The reason for both of these things is the same all along the PCH, but it's especially common in Big Sur – the rocky, majestic coast that played host to the U.S. launch of the 2019 A8.
And while it's tempting to spend time staring out the window, the unique conditions along the PCH are a fine proving ground for a car like the Audi A8. Yes, a Ford Mustang Convertible is more romantic and a Mazda MX-5 Miata is more fun, but the redesigned A8's balance between its German sedan heritage and the demands of luxury shoppers makes it a fine companion for combatting the California coast.
And while we don't mean to jump right in and start talking about technology, a huge part of that balance is thanks to the A8's Dynamic All-Wheel Steering (DAWS). An option on the A8, the four-wheel steering tightens the turning radius to a meager 38 feet, about the same as the far smaller A4. But the way Dynamic All-Wheel Steering reduces steering effort from behind the wheel makes this a must-have piece of equipment.
Rigged up with a laptop and a German engineer in the front passenger seat, we ran around a short handling loop with the system off and then on. The difference was tremendous. The A8 felt every bit of its 17.4 feet in length and 4,571 pounds of mass with only the front wheels turning. The steering was overly light and lacked precision compared to a DAWS-equipped car. With all four wheels working together, the steering had the heft and directness of a sportier car. The A8 felt responsive and agile at low speeds, but at higher speeds on the PCH, the DAWS-equipped A8 was remarkably composed and stable. This Audi is an easy car to drive on winding roads, perhaps the most composed in the class.
But asking the A8 to shut up and relax is also easy. The Comfort driving mode calms the big Audi down so its passengers can enjoy a supple, comfortable ride. The A8 is impressively quiet, too. Wind noise is nonexistent and the standard air suspension mutes road noise to an impressive degree. There's still some tire roar, but this is a pleasantly quiet car.
We also had a brief demonstration of Audi's new Predictive Active Suspension, which we explained in our first drive last year. We didn't get a chance to test it on the PCH, but based on the few minutes on the test track, it's a very promising system. We're eager to experience it in the real world.
This Audi is an easy car to drive on winding roads, perhaps the most composed in the class.
The A8 is not, however, a pleasantly quick car. Audi will launch a V8-powered A8 in the future, but it's launching for 2019 with nothing more than a turbocharged 3.0-liter V6, good for 335 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. Getting to 60 miles per hour takes 5.6 seconds, a number we'd categorize as “leisurely” for a flagship luxury sedan. An all-wheel-drive BMW 740i – a car with only 320 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque – takes just 5.1 seconds to hit 60, while the Mercedes-Benz S450 4Matic (362 hp and 369 lb-ft) does the deed in 5.4 seconds.
Executing passing maneuvers in the PCH's few passing zones required more planning than it should in a vehicle of this stature. The eight-speed automatic downshifted quickly, which made the A8 feel deceptively quick at the start of a passing maneuver, but as speeds climbed the engine started to run out of steam. The V6-powered A8 simply doesn't have the staying power it needs.
Aside from these passing situations, though, this remains a likable combination. The 3.0-liter V6 is quiet in everyday conditions, but it sounds pleasant and refined when pushed. And the eight-speed auto is charming. It’s composed and relaxed when puttering around town, but in Dynamic mode, it’s an easy transmission to have fun with. Kick it into the sportiest setting and work the wheel-mounted paddles, and (along with DAWS) the A8 starts feeling far sportier and engaging than it has any right to.
A headlining feature of the A8, like so many luxury cars nowadays, is its all-glass cockpit. Gone is Audi's traditional dial-based MMI infotainment suite. In its place are a pair of touchscreen displays, mounted neatly and attractively to the center stack. The top display shows all the normal MMI stuff, while the bottom screen manages climate controls and other systems. This is in addition to Audi Virtual Cockpit in the instrument cluster and the touchscreen display for passengers in the back seats. All told, the A8 has over 2.5 feet of screen real estate just in the front cabin.
The second-generation of Audi Virtual Cockpit is impressive, offering the same clear, clean, and customizable usefulness as the first-generation setup. The new touch-focused MMI is equally good. It's extremely responsive to inputs, with an excellent haptic feedback pulse following each tap.
But Audi's new layout for its MMI Touch Response system will take some adjusting to. Organized by tiles, it offers plenty of customizability, but older versions of MMI were dead simple to learn. MMI Touch Response feels far deeper and more complicated, like Audi is trying to do too much right out of the gate. Of course, it's very possible our opinion will change once we've spent more time with the latest version of MMI.
All told, the A8 has over 2.5 feet of screen real estate just in the front cabin.
We don't need to spend any more time with the cabin to confirm it's fantastic, though. Material quality throughout is top notch, with handsome leather, wood, and Alcantara suede covering almost every surface that isn't a display. The seating position in front is excellent, as is the A8's yoke-like steering wheel. Technically a four-spoke design, it features the usual spokes at the 3 and 9 o'clock positions, along with two more sprouting from the rim on the bottom half of the steering wheel. The result of this design is something that both looks very nice and is an absolute delight to handle. Form and function have never been so happy together.
In back, Audi offers two seating layouts. A standard bench does a good impression of the more impressive Executive Rear Seat Comfort package and its two individual seats. The center of the bench folds down, exposing cupholders, seat adjustments, and yet another display for controlling the rear climate, the audio system, the power blinds, the ambient lighting, and other systems.
If you go with the Executive Rear Seat Comfort package, a fixed center console includes all the same controls as the standard setup, but offers a greater array of adjustability for the two remaining seats (including power lumbar support), and a heated footrest that pops out of the passenger-side front seat’s back. This last bit is very neat, offering a foot massage function. We weren't able to try it, but the concept sounds great for the executive that's always on the go. If you opt to pass on this expansive (and expensive, at $7,550) option, rest easy – the standard bench is just fine. The adjustability it offers is impressive, and unsurprisingly, there's plenty of space.
Our biggest issue with the A8 is one Audi has started to get away from – the A8 just isn't very exciting to look at. Like the A7 and RS5, the A8 is pretty. But unlike those cars, it's anonymous. No one styling detail or angle really stands out. If a car like the Lexus LS500 has too much personality, the A8 has too little. That said, the inevitable S8 should address the conservative design to a degree. If you want a more visually exciting luxury sedan, we advise patience.
Prices for the 2019 Audi A8 start $83,800, not including a $995 destination charge. That's less than the $86,650 BMW 740i xDrive and quite a lot less than the $92,900 Mercedes-Benz S450 4Matic, so if you were worried about the lack of straight-line speed, rest easy knowing your sacrifice will save you some money.
In terms of options, there are only a few must-have items. You're a fool if you don't spend the $1,950 on the Dynamic All-Wheel Steering. The Lighting Package is a smart buy, too, ringing up at $3,400 and adding Matrix LED headlights and OLED taillights. The Matrix LED headlights will have some of their abilities hobbled – blame the draconian Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards – but Audi said it's negotiating with the federal government to update the rules. As soon as Uncle Sam joins the 21st century, Audi will issue an over-the-air update and enable the headlights' full range of abilities. The $2,750 Driver Assistance Package is a good buy, as well, adding the A8's full array of Level 2 semi-autonomous capabilities. Beyond those options, the A8 comes very well equipped – other features would merely be at the preference of the owner, rather than must-have equipment.
The 2019 A8 offers a bewildering array of technology and impressive comfort and composure on winding roads. But the winding roads we sampled the A8 on are not the real world, and it's there where the A8 will operate. So until we can see how this technology works in everyday conditions and how the lack of passing power limits drivability, it's difficult to recommend Audi's flagship sedan for anyone living outside of Big Sur. That said, we have very high hopes for this car – it's arguably the most advanced vehicle in its class – but we need more time before we can say that wholeheartedly.