Driven: 2011 Audi A8

By John Beltz Snyder

October 04, 2010

—Detroit, Michigan

Audi is on a roll, particularly in the luxury segment, as it begins the second half of what the company calls a 10-year plan for the brand. The next phase begins here, with the flagship Audi A8, soon to be followed by the new A7 and A6. Attention to detail is definitely part of the plan for continued success, with Audi adding more technology, more safety, more comfort, and more styling to its lineup. Surely, though, Audi is also improving the fundamentals of its vehicles, and continuing to perfect some of the core building blocks that make their cars good to drive and competitive in the marketplace. If the new Audi A8 is any indication, the brand is forging ahead on the right track.

From the outside, the A8 is a looker. Its large, prominent grille extending down the front fascia is pretty unmistakable, but not overdone in any gaudy sense. Use of LED lighting, with the signature look lining the headlights, looks sharp, besides all its practical values. Lines are crisp, creasing the sheet metal just enough to accentuate the car’s overall form. Some of the subtle details, such as the way the lines meet at angles without shutlines, would be bold if they didn’t blend so well into the whole figure. Those touches add to the pleasing image of the A8, even if you don’t look closely enough to notice them individually.

The interior, in true Audi form, is striking and classy. Materials, from leather to microsuede, are all very sensual. Brushed aluminum lines and thoughtful use of wood grain add balance and a touch of class. Everything fits together nicely, and elements translate from dash to door smoothly and elegantly. The doors appear to bow outward from the inside, creating a sense of spaciousness. In the rear, the headliner curves similarly before meeting the rear window, giving an extra bit of headroom for passengers. To top it off, interior LED lighting adds a soothing ambiance to the cabin.

The ride in the A8 is compliant, as one would expect in a large, European luxury sedan. The suspension filters out most of the bumps and ripples in the road. At the same time, though, there is not much body roll, and the A8 can hold its speed pretty comfortably when driven hard into a corner—more on that shortly. There is a bit of a floating sensation, though, on some of the larger undulations in the highway, mostly felt as a soft bounce in the nose.

The A8, also in the spirit of comfort, accelerates very smoothly. The 4.2-liter V-8 packs 372 horsepower and 328 pound-feet of torque (up from 350/325). When filtered through the eight-speed transmission, 5.7-second sprints to 60 miles per hour are drama-free and easy on the senses. This really made it great for covering distance on the highway, with its easy speed and low level of intensity making for quick, comfortable commutes, leaving driver and passenger without the feeling of fatigue after long hauls (the five different massage programs for the front seats definitely being partially responsible for the feeling of well-being upon arrival at each destination.

According to the folks at Audi, the suspension was tuned more for handling, rather than for compensating for body flex. Audi managed a 25 percent increase in rigidity in the aluminum structure of the body. Aluminum also means weight savings, which also helps its driving dynamics. The key ingredient, however, is Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive (which comes standard on the A8), a system with which we are already familiar, but nonetheless always impressed by. In the case of the A8, the four-wheel grip really helps the 202-inch car rotate. A Mini it is not, but it’ll bend around a curve with a lot more balance and agility than one can get from a lot of shorter cars. It stays stable over its wheels, too, and doesn’t toss the occupants around inside the cabin. Although it seems unlikely that the A8 will be driven with such gusto in the twisties, it’s good to know that it is capable and composed when pushing the limits of practical driving.

The A8 does a good job of catering to different driving styles, beyond its inherent sense of balance and general fortitude. Via the multimedia interface (which is really cool, and we’ll discuss more in a moment), one can select between three different programs controlling the car’s behavior and feedback. Comfort mode softens the suspension and throttle, and lightens the steering. Dynamic mode, of course, adds more weight to the steering, gives a bit firmer ride (though still not outside of the realm of anything we’d call comfortable or pliant), and adds a bit of sharpness to the throttle. Auto mode adjusts intelligently to your driving style at the given moment, and affects these dynamics based upon current needs. The driver can also program a custom mode, wherein one can select the settings for these characteristics individually. For normal driving, Auto worked out quite well for most normal situations. We preferred Custom, though, with everything set to Dynamic save the steering, which has just a bit too much of an artificial feeling to the weight when in Dynamic mode. Ideally, the steering could have more setting choices between the extremes.

We mentioned earlier that a focus on technology is part of the momentum that carries the brand forward. This can definitely be seen in the multimedia interface. It does everything one would expect, and to a great degree of depth. Customization of sound, electronics, lighting, and a myriad other aspects are all part of the package. The really cool feature, though, is one that actually comes in quite handy; the new haptic touch pad allows one to write with a single finger to input data (such as spelling out a destination for the navigation). It may seem like a bit of a parlor trick, but it’s a cinch to use (once you learn how to access it), and is damn nigh foolproof. It can read even sloppy inputs with accuracy, with a surprising number of symbols in its alphabet (really, it even recognized the “ç” symbol).

Be sure to stay tuned, as Audi has good things on the horizon. The long-wheelbase version of the A8 releases at the same time as the normal-wheelbase car. Coming in spring, too, is the W-12 engine for the A8L, with 500 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. The BMW 760Li had better be prepared for a showdown.

2011 Audi A8

Engine: V-8, 4.2 liters, 32v
Output: 372 hp/328 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 5.7 sec (est)
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 17/27 mpg
Base Price: $78,050
On Sale: November 2010