Driving the Audi A8 along the gorgeous Northern California coastline near Big Sur is a joy. But no matter how wonderful the car may be, it had the opportunity to be better. Possibly. Instead, Audi originally announced that Traffic Jam Pilot, its level-three autonomous feature, was coming to the luxury sedan. Alas, the company had to scrap those plans. The world wasn't ready for a car that drives itself for a short period of time in select situations.
Updated semi-autonomous cruise control and lane keep assist help Audi keep up with other luxury brands
Ride is quick while simultaneously quiet and classy
Four-wheel steering makes short work of mountain switchbacks and tight parking lots
The hidden vents seem a bit hokey
Driver assistance features still on a supplemental stalk instead of the steering wheel
Even without the announced level three autonomy, the A8 brings next-generation tech to the warm embrace of the luxury sedan. The new MMI infotainment system almost makes me not miss physical buttons and the evolution of the company’s driver assist features makes me wonder what could have been.
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It's a bummer but it doesn't really diminish the quality of the new A8 (starting at $83,300) as the luxury sedan is a substantial evolution of the automaker's top-end lineup.
Behind the wheel, the A8L (initially the United States will get only the long-wheelbase version of car) is equal parts smooth and powerful. The 3.0 liter V8 turbo engine pushes out 335 horsepower and 369 foot-pounds of torque. The result is a car that has enough power to pass on the highway and hit straightaways with confidence.
Audi has also finally created an auto start/stop system that I don't want to turn off. From stoplights, the transition from engine off to the A8 moving forward is seamless and smooth. You almost don't realize that the auto start/stop system is even turned on.
You are aware of how well the A8 handles corners, though. The automaker had its media drive along the California coastline near Big Sur. The roads (when not packed with tourists gawking at the splendid scenery) are a good combination of meandering curves and exciting switchbacks. Far more exciting than anything the average A8 will encounter on a typical day.
The car's tight steering kept the large sedan between the lane markings on the coastal road better than expected while still delivering a smooth ride thanks to the standard adaptive air suspension and all-wheel steering. The result is a dynamic driving experience that doesn't jar the passengers as the system smooths out most asphalt imperfections.
Inside, the automaker has upped its game with wood paneling, hidden air vents and an updated MMI infotainment system. The design of the interior both in the front and back seats is the automotive equivalent of the British manor's drawing room. Leather and wood surround the passengers and add an aura of warmth to a car teeming with technology.
The front seats are comfortable while the rear ones recline far enough back and are cozy enough to trigger my nap reflex. The headrest feels more like a pillow than a piece of automotive furniture. Other features include a foot massage for one lucky rear passenger, massage seats and a tiny satellite MMI control panel. The MMI infotainment system is usually under the domain of the driver. But in the A8 the rear passengers have a smartphone-size, detachable OLED tablet that controls the temperature, media and even shares details about they'll arrive at their destination. It's a bit ridiculous and after using it, I want it in all the cars.
As for the actual updated MMI system, the haptic feedback and "action" of button presses feel a bit sharper than on the A7 I drove in Germany a few months back. Laid out more like a tablet over two displays (10.3 inches up top and 8.6 on the bottom) the new system surfaces more of the features you actually use, like media, navigation, phone and the radio. It also learns about you as you drive and creates your favorites on the lower display that does duty as the climate control.
While I'm a fan of physical buttons for climate control, Audi does a good job keeping the controls in the same spot on the display, so you do work up some muscle memory. It also helps that your hand can rest on the gear shift while using the lower screen to reduce wayward taps when the car is jostled.
That brings us to the driver assistance suite. This is where Audi's level-three Traffic Jam Pilot (a way to commute at low speeds without paying attention to the road) would have resided. Unfortunately, I was unable to try it out, so we don't know if it was great or is the automaker was jumping the gun. What I do know is that Audi's Adaptive Cruise Assist system has matured with this new car.
The adaptive cruise control is smoother at starts and stops in gridlock. The vehicle has the usual camera and radar on the front, but Audi also added a laser scanner to the A8 that complements those other input devices for more robust data about what the car is about to encounter.
One feature that's made possible by the laser scanner (along with the camera) is the predictive active suspension. When the vehicle encounters a bump in the road it can pre-load the chassis, raising it so that only the wheels and suspension feel the brunt of the bump in the road.
The automaker demoed the feature, and if you stay under 20 miles an hour it's very impressive. If your morning routine involves a hot cup of coffee and speed bumps, this could reduce burned hands and spilled java.
Audi also updated the lane keep assist of its driver-assistance system. During my drive, it centered the A8 better than previous Audi systems. Like other automakers, this is an ongoing evolution, and during my test, it was only confused once while on a white road with white lane markings near an exit ramp (a tricky situation for any car with lane keep assist). It's also a reminder that there could be a more robust semi-autonomous system in this car. For now, Audi has updated its system as far as it can and it's done a splendid job at that.
While all those smarts make for a better driving experience, the new tech also helps make the car safer for passengers in a side impact. When the sensors notice an object coming at the car from the side, the predictive active suspension can lift the car as much as 3.1 inches to allow the frame to absorb more of the impact. The vehicle also begins to close the window and sunroof to minimize the debris that lands in the vehicle. During a demo, a foam block accelerated at the car (which was behind a protective glass barrier) and right before it would have struck the passenger side of the car, the A8 raised itself in anticipation of the collision. It was exciting, but I'm hoping you never have to experience this in real life. But if you do, hopefully, it works as advertised.
The Audi A8 is Audi's premier sedan. With it, the automaker is introducing an enormous amount of tech. Bumper to bumper, the car is dripping with new features. When that happens, there's the possibility that the end result is an overwhelming barrage of imagination. Instead, the automaker has an excellent luxury sedan on its hands that will appeal to anyone looking for comfort, technology and safety.
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