Valencia, Spain - It would be tempting to describe Audi’s new A8 in numbers. Like the four electric motors used in its active suspension system, its level three autonomous driving ability, the 24% improved torsional rigidity, the 48 volt electrical system, and the four-wheel steering. And that’s just to mention a handful of them.
Such figures make for impressive bragging rights in the luxury sedan league, where rivals like the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes S-Class loom large with imposing numbers of their own.
The Audi’s level three autonomous driving in particular moves the game forward, as the A8’s the first volume production car with the ability to assume full driving control in stop-and-go traffic up to 60km/h. This Traffic Jam Pilot system will be introduced as different countries’ laws allow for it, but unfortunately it wasn’t a feature fitted to the test cars on the A8s I drove at the international launch in Spain last week.
The fourth-generation A8 can also park itself, automatically swerve or brake to avoid traffic accidents, and the ignition can be operated with a smartphone instead of a traditional key. A novel new safety feature is that the air suspension instantly lifts one side of the car by 8cm when it senses an impending side collision, using the stonger bottom sill to better absorb the impact than would the doors.
With its adaptive air suspension and double-glazed windows the big sedan glides along with whisper-smooth serenity - even more so with the optional AI active suspension which scans the road ahead and preemptively sets the dampers to better absorb upcoming humps. It’s a remarkably effective system, flattening out small bumps almost as if they weren’t there so that the boss sitting in the back seat won’t spill his or her drink.
The boss will however wish to take the wheel from time to time as the A8 has a surprisingly nimble nature for such a large car, especially when fitted with the optional rear-steering wheels. These turn in the same direction as the front wheels to improve high-speed stability, and opposite to the fronts for increased cornering agility, while at the same time giving the car a tighter turning circle than even the much smaller Audi A4.
Relatively sharp steering also gives this luxury Audi the cornering manners of a smaller and lighter car.
It’s an exceptionally refined car behind those soft-closing doors, even in the diesel model. The higher-end petrol versions also get active noise cancellation which is effectively like pressing the mute button on the outside world.
All models put the power down via eight- speed tiptronic auto and quattro drive, and the all-turbo engine line up starts with a 3-litre V6 diesel with outputs of 210kW/600Nm, a 3-litre V6 petrol with 250kW/500Nm, a 4-litre petrol V8 with 338kW/660Nm, and topped by a 6-litre W12 that musters 430kW/800Nm. Petrol-electric hybrid versions will also be launched later.
These are the first cars to use Audi’s confusing new naming convention, moving away from engine size in favour of two-digit numbers that hint at the power output range. For instance the 3-litre turbodiesel’s called the A8 50 TDI and the 4-litre V8 is badged the A8 60 TFSI.
Audi says the A8 introduces a new design language, but though it’s no radical departure from the norm it does bring some new styling elements to a brand that had lately been following the one-bratwurst-cut-into-different-lengths theme for its various vehicle ranges.
The enlarged single frame grille is a gulping whale shark mouth of a thing that makes a fittingly bold statement for a grand sedan, and another leap into design derring-do is the light strip connecting the 3D-look rear lights.
The car’s lights also come alive with a theatrical show when you lock or unlock it with either the standard key or the smartphone app, especially in the top-of-the-line version with HD Matrix LED headlights including Audi laser light and rear lamps with OLED technology.
Inside, the cockpit has adopted a futuristic Star Trek look, with digital screens everywhere. Apart from the digitised instrument panel there are two large tablet-style infotainment screens on the dashboard - all of which minimises the number of physical buttons needed. Sometimes such systems require a lot of meandering through complicated menus but I found the A8’s command centre generally quite straightforward to use, with quick-access icons for the most important features.
The voice control also recognises more natural speech. For instance you can say “I’m cold’’ and your friendly digital hostess will ask what temperature you would prefer, and sets it accordingly. Or you can ask it/her to make the satnav seek out restaurants in the area.
There’s a detachable tablet in the back seat for controlling various infotainment functions as well as comforts like the window blinds. Legroom is bountiful as you’d expect in a car measuring 5.17 metres long and there’s even more in the long wheelbase model which adds an extra 13cm of length.
The finely-finished cabin has a relaxed and uncluttered vibe that Audi refers to as ‘tranquility and reduction’, and the pampering options include rear seats that give massages and can be angled for more comfort, and there’s even a foot massager available.
So it’s truly a technological tour de force, but the new A8 is much more than impressive gadgets and numbers; it also nails the luxury part of the equation with its superb refinement and ride comfort.
What rand numbers Audi puts on all this will be revealed when the new A8 is launched in South Africa in the second quarter of next year.