Audi A8 sedan 2010 review
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THE previous Audi A8 had a hi-tech system you don't find in other cars: a fingerprint reader like the ones on business laptops. It could authenticate a driver and then load their preferences for seating, mirrors, aircon and audio. When the car emerged in 2002, this was very novel.
In the new A8, which goes on sale next month, the fingerprint reader has disappeared but there's something else that's exclusive to Audi: a touchpad that allows the driver to input letters or numbers by tracing them with a finger. You might use it to set a destination on the sat-nav or call up a number on your Bluetooth-linked mobile.
Audi doesn't say why the fingerprint reader has disappeared; it was presumably not as useful as it seemed. Where a car is used by different drivers, their preferences can be stored on each individual's key. If buyers were demanding it, other carmakers would have followed suit. But they didn't. The fingerprint reader turned out to be a technological cul-de-sac in the car market.
Even though it's only just arrived, I suspect the touchpad will go the same way. Each letter must be traced as a capital and confirmation given by the system before moving on to the next. Once you get the hang of it, it's reliable -- except for the letter A, awkward for a company called Audi -- but slow. In right-hand-drive markets such as Australia, you must write with your left hand, the wrong one for most people. Voice recognition is quicker and you don't have to take your hands off the wheel.
The touchpad will no doubt appeal to some buyers, but ultimately it's a bit of a gimmick. In the context of the new A8, though, it does the vital job of keeping up appearances. Audi, in common with most carmakers, uses its flagship luxury sedan as its technology spearhead.
The A8 is positively packed with new technology. For the first time it has an active cruise control system that can brake to a halt, then get going again without any driver intervention. There's night vision that can recognise and highlight pedestrians, and a system that detects an imminent collision and applies the brakes. There are “intelligent” LED headlights and clever ambient strip-lights in the cabin.
These are sophisticated systems that have been finessed to a high level in the A8. However, all of them have already been offered elsewhere. In the equivalent Mercedes, BMW or Lexus, some of this technology has been available for four years or more.
Except, of course, for the touchpad reader. Audi has that to itself.
This doesn't make the A8 less desirable. But it does make Audi a follower, rather than a leader, in top-end technology. And that runs counter to the brand's carefully cultivated image. The touchpad is the cherry on top of a splendid gateau that's not quite as fresh as it appears.
There's a similar problem with another a key claim for the car. “The A8 is the sportiest sedan in the segment,” says Audi Australia's managing director Uwe Hagen. That's a big call against the new Jaguar XJ, BMW 7 Series and even the stately Mercedes S-Class.
On vital statistics, the A8 compares fairly well. It's a bigger car all around than before, but weight gains have been minimised by aluminium construction, which Audi pioneered in this segment in the mid-1990s. The 4.2-litre V8 under the bonnet has been made 13 per cent more fuel efficient -- helped by a new eight-speed automatic transmission -- but can still propel 1.9 tonnes to 100km/h in 5.7 seconds.
The all-wheel drive system splits torque 40:60 front-rear, in common with most upmarket Audis. The aluminium suspension features adaptive dampers and a sports differential, which can divide torque between the rear wheels.
Audi always makes sweet-sounding engines and this V8 plays a typically enticing tune, with the volume turned down a bit for the sake of refinement. The pace doesn't feel electrifying, but it's sufficient. It's as quick as the 5.0-litre V8 Jaguar XJ, which is lighter, but a half-second slower than the 300kW BMW 750i.
The launch drive in Queensland, up a winding road to the Atherton Tablelands, made the most of the Audi's strongest dynamic virtue: grip. The all-wheel drive system hangs on tight and makes the car secure at speed through tight corners. In wet weather on tricky roads, it would be a boon.
For the purist, though, rear-wheel drive will be more involving and, unfortunately, Audi's claim of sportiness comes unstuck elsewhere. The body rolls around quite a lot, even on dynamic settings, and the weight transfer side-to-side or front-rear isn't as controlled as rivals achieve.
The steering is inert and it's hard to dial in a corner without lots of little adjustments, while bumps send shudders through the wheel. The brakes are easy to modulate -- they often feel over-assisted in Audis -- but they're a highlight in an otherwise less-than-engaging experience.
The same engineering that makes the A8 a place-getter in the sporting stakes also handicaps its bid for luxury supremacy, with a ride quality that's too floaty in comfort setting and too jittery in other modes. Despite these qualifications, the A8 is undeniably a lovely car, fitted and finished to Audi's exemplary standards. If it's optioned to the max, you will want for very little.
The cabin, especially with satin metal trim, is one of the most appealing at this level. The seats are excellent and the range of adjustment is the most comprehensive I've seen. You could probably fold the front pew into an origami animal, with enough patience. Audi has overhauled its control system for the car and aside from the aircon, which still requires too many button-presses for simple functions, it's first rate.
The A8 is also competitive on boot space, although one surprise was less-than-generous space in the rear of the cabin. This is odd given the car's additional length, although it's probably explained by the fact the A8 will eventually be offered as a hybrid. Some of the extra real estate has been set aside for the electric gubbins. The hybrid is unlikely to be offered in Australia, but a 184kW turbo-diesel V6 will join the V8 towards the end of this year.
The exterior of the A8, while obviously new, works within the brand's design parameters. That's enough to make it feel attractively modern, if oddly conservative. In design terms, Audi is the strongest of the German carmakers and the A8 reinforces this reputation through consistency rather than innovation.
The A8, like its predecessors, arrives as a contender in the top luxury segment rather than its heir apparent. Most Australian customers at this level go for the other Germans, with a new Mercedes S-Class selling as many in one year as the previous A8 achieved over its entire life cycle.
This is unlikely to change, even though this A8 is both more efficient and less expensive than its rivals. The A8's real significance is this: having unveiled a lot of technology for the brand, Audi can quickly move it into other models.
In the race to make premium cars in as many niches as possible, Audi has been streaking ahead. In the eight years since the previous A8 appeared, it has added multiple new model lines, including the A5 junior executive, the R8 supercar and two SUVs, the Q5 and Q7. Within a year or two, we'll see an A1 entry model below the A3 hatchback, a smaller Q3 compact softroader and much more.
Once the A8 has done its job as master of ceremonies for new technology, Audi can fit it into the smaller premium segments where it will wow the young, fashion-conscious buyers it's chasing most effectively. Because at this level, there are few extra sales to be had.
AUDI A8 - $225,904 plus on-road costs
Vehicle: Large luxury sedan
Engine: 4.2-litre V8
Outputs: 273kW at 6800rpm and 445Nm at 3500rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
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Range and Specs
|3.0 TDI Quattro||3.0L, Diesel, 8 SP AUTO||$35,200 – 45,540||2010 Audi A8 2010 3.0 TDI Quattro Pricing and Specs|
|3.2 Quattro||3.1L, PULP, 6 SP||$20,600 – 27,940||2010 Audi A8 2010 3.2 Quattro Pricing and Specs|
|4.2 FSI Quattro||4.2L, PULP, 8 SP AUTO||$38,900 – 49,720||2010 Audi A8 2010 4.2 FSI Quattro Pricing and Specs|
|4.2 Quattro||4.2L, PULP, 6 SP||$27,500 – 36,410||2010 Audi A8 2010 4.2 Quattro Pricing and Specs|
Lowest price, based on third party pricing data