Comparison Test: 2012 BMW 750Li xDrive vs. 2012 Audi A8L 4.2

By Seyth Miersma

February 21, 2012

(photo credit: Chris Amos)
 
 —Ypsilanti, Michigan 
 
When one is buying a luxury sedan for close to (or at) six-figure prices, the basic demands on the car are legion. It must look impressive inside and out, be supremely comfortable, have all of the latest technology, and offer refinement, quiet, and ear-tickling audio in equal measure.
 
Nowadays, these luxobarges are basically all expected to have sports-sedan like performance as well, with powerful V-8 engines and adaptive suspensions the rule rather than the exception.  
 
Of course, even with that sporting brief extending, more or less, to the entirety of the full-size luxury segment, BMW and Audi are two brands that stick out as the drivers' choice here. It's a fact that both the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the Jaguar XJ have the chops to compete in terms of driving joy, but the boys from Munich and Ingolstadt still have a leg up in terms of sporting perception, we'd say.  
 
So having the BMW 750Li xDrive and the Audi A8L square off for a good old fashioned comparison test seemed the right thing to do--to say nothing about being a great way to pass a winter afternoon.  
 
Earlier in the week Michigan had actually delivered up a bit of snow with which to make use of both all-wheel-drive configurations, but the roads were clear on the day of our ride/handling test. Suffice it to say, both Audi and BMW have created AWD cars that won't struggle in slippery conditions, be they icy, snowy, or simply rainy. The performance and handling of each car was differently affected by the all-wheels-driven setup, but fans of each car should rest assured that low-grip situations will be deftly dealt with.  
 
We'll talk more about the handling later, but first let's discuss the plush confines offered to drivers and passengers by these big sedans. The matte, natural wood finish inside the 750 is killer--a pleasure for both the eyes and the fingertips, to be sure. Many people hear "Audi" and think immediately of top-tier interior design, which is completely fair, but your author, at least, prefers the overall look of the BMW cabin.  
 
The truth is, though, that the subject is highly subjective, and that both cabins are really quite stunning. Our A8 tester felt much more glamorous inside, with high-gloss woods accented with brushed metal trim, and was a tactile delight as well. Audi makes great use of a soft-touch, rubberized material on the backs of grab handles and other high-touch areas, which help to remind you that you're driving a one-percenter car.
 
The damping on all of the controls is phenomenal in the A8; everything turns and moves with nice heft and sturdiness--the central storage bin under the armrest in particular has a vault-like quality when it's opened. 
 
In the all-important category of seat comfort, we're almost stalemated. The A8's buckets are softer and snugger than in the 750Li, but the BMW has an advantage in terms of overall adjustability. In the back quarters, things are nearly as even. Both cars will take a seven-footer as a passenger without too much trouble.
 
The A8 seems to offer just a hair more headroom, and also does provide better visibility through the forward window (if you're prone to car sickness, this is key). Our test cars were relatively light on the sort of amenities that you'd expect from a chauffer-driven car (no rear-seat entertainment, massaging seats, or champagne flutes were in evidence), but they didn't lack for basic space and comfort.  
 
Driving full-sized cars like these, we expect to have the ability to be dynamically thrilled without ever having too much intrusion from the outside world. We know, usually any and all driver feedback is a good thing in the Winding Road world, but in this near-limo class, the expectation is one of quiet confidence rather than raw thrills.  
 
The 750Li met that expectation, though it is safe to say that the car has a little bit of a dual personality. In some ways, the 7-Series drives a bit like a large 3-Series, which is both good and bad. The ride quality of the BMW is good, though it certainly doesn't soak up the cracks and bumps in the same way the Audi does. The trade off is that the 7er also leans a bit less in hard cornering than does the A8, with less movement through the suspension.  
 
This firmness seems like a net positive for a driver who is really after the "sportiest" feeling car in this class, but not like something that a buyer of a large luxury car is bound to expect. For example, over broken surfaces, the feedback from the suspension was occasionally strong enough to move the wheel from our hands a bit. There was definitely enough movement to jostle driver and passengers, too. 
 
On those same stretches of battered roads the A8 was better able to sustain a feeling of "gliding" over the surface of the Earth (closer to the Rolls-Royce "waft" if you will). We never once had to grab for a bouncing steering wheel, nor did we need to check to see that our coffee hadn't spilled. The Audi's ride was glass-smooth at all speeds, and over even the most wheel-threatening potholes.  
 
The truly surprising characteristic of the A8, though, given that softness and smoothness, was that the car still offers a fair bit of feedback from the road. The Audi tuning is really quite brilliant in this regard, filtering out the unwanted gross movements, while allowing their echoes to be felt through the steering wheel and the floorboards.  
 
Again, in a very aggressive cornering situation, the A8 is a lot less flat than the 750Li; the suspension seems to buckle a bit around the rear, inside wheel, and then roll progressively through the suspension travel. That's not ideal in a sports car, but we'd probably take it as a compromise, given the better ride comfort in the A8.    
 
Under cruising conditions the BMW seemed quieter than the A8, but just by a little. There was less wind noise and less tire noise in the Bimmer at freeway speeds (and even up near the triple digits, where wind becomes a real problem). We did hear the 750Li's engine and exhaust more when accelerating quickly, and when running the engine up to top rpm. Overall, that adds up to a better sonic suite; quieter when you want quiet, and louder when you want to hear all that motor you paid for.  
 
The BMW has a big advantage in terms of power, with its turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8 making 400 horsepower 450 pound-feet of torque versus 372 horsepower and 328 pound-feet for the Audi's 4.2-liter, naturally aspirated engine. Even with about 400 more pounds worth of curb weight to push around, that makes the 750Li faster to 60 miles per hour than the A8 by seven-tenths of a second (5.1 seconds versus 5.8 seconds). What's more, this isn't just a numbers game, the BMW does feel noticeably quicker when given the spurs than does its rival.  
 
But the Audi won't lose the whole powertrain battle, just because it's a bit less quick. We quite like the smoothness and quickness of the Audi's eight-speed automatic when compared with BMW's six-speed unit, and were even more impressed with the results it helped to garner in terms of fuel economy.
 
The EPA rates the 750Li xDrive at 14/20 miles per gallon, city/highway, while the A8L gets 18/28 mpg. That's a substantial enough difference on its own, before you even consider that the BMW is thirsty enough that you'll need to pay a $1300 gas guzzler tax to own one. The A8 doesn't require the tax, giving you more than a grand worth of premium gasoline as a housewarming gift, if you like.  
 
(One great side-note here: big fuel tanks are awesome. The A8 has a monster 23.8-gallon fuel tank, giving it a realistic range of well over 600 miles. The lower fuel economy and smaller tank [21.7 gallons] of the BMW makes it a little less of a highway crusher.)  
 
The pricing discrepancy doesn't end with fuel cost, either. The A8L 4.2 has an MSRP of $84,700. Add in the destination charge of $875 and you'll calculate a total "starting" price for this model of $85,575. The 750Li xDrive has a sticker of $91,200, an identical $875 destination, and the $1300 tax, for a total of $93,375. Both those prices include a geeky laundry list of standard features, and both cars can easily be pushed past $100,000 with added-cost options. Still, the A8 is clearly the price champ.  
 
We hate to get into debates about styling, so we won't. It is our experience that this A8 and this 7-Series have had their fair share of proponents and detractors since their respective launches. Neither car seems to be the sort of homerun design that has most critics falling in love, in unison, to be sure.
 
But, in our time with both cars, we did get more in the way of stoplight recognition in the BMW than we noticed in the Audi. Some of this may be down to the slightly flashier white paint of the 7, or the fact that the A8 is pretty subtle for a car this size, but the Bimmer did turn more heads over the course of our week. Enough said.  
 
In the end, these are two exceptionally good-to-drive large sedans that will have their owners bragging about them from day one. The 7-Series is clearly the more overtly sporting car, with slightly better at-limit handling and a beefier engine, but the A8 is pretty clearly the superior vehicle for the needs of the segment, and all around. With performance that is, at least, very close to the Bimmer, better ride quality, and a substantial advantage in terms of price point and running costs, we're forced to give this one to the newer, more complete Audi. Of course, the 7-Series is due for a mid-cycle refresh sometime this year, so this won't be the last you hear about this super-luxury showdown.
 
2012 Audi A8L 4.2
Engine: V-8, 4.2 liters, 32v
Output: 372 hp/328 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 5.8 sec
Weight: 4453 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 18/28 mpg
Base Price: $84,700
 
2012 BMW 750Li xDrive
Engine: Biturbocharged V-8, 4.4 liters, 32v
Output: 400 hp/450 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 5.1 sec
Weight: 4861 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 14/20 mpg
Base Price: $91,200