Beyond being symbols of luxury, automakers use their flagship sedans to trot out the latest in technology. Such is the case with the 2011 Audi A8, sporting an innovative cabin tech interface, LED headlights, a raft of driver assistance features, and integration between Google and its navigation system. Inevitably, these types of tech features trickle down to lesser cars, but the well-heeled get first crack at them.
And though the A8 may be an electronics-filled luxury barge, performance technology also makes it a stunningly good driver over the kinds of roads that sports cars love. In this case, its adaptive suspension, all-wheel-drive system, and sport differential trickled up from models lower in the lineup, such as the 2009 Audi A4.
The A8 underwent a major change for the 2011 model year. Rebuilt from the ground up, Audi uses an aluminum cage around the cabin, which saves weight while retaining safety and rigidity. The latest version of Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system includes, optionally, a rear differential that pushes torque from left to right. Just about the only holdover from the previous generation is the direct-injection 4.2-liter V-8, which is already a very advanced engine.
In keeping with current car design principles, the body looks smoother, with less ornamentation, than the previous generation A8. Despite criticism of its big, open grilles, Audi emphasizes that element even more for 2011, including using more geometrically pronounced cross members.
But what really make the car stand out are the LED headlights, which follow a dipping line previously pioneered by Audi in its parking lights. These headlights have the advantages of lasting much longer than incandescent or HID lights and using less electricity. Audi says the light temperature resembles that of daylight, causing less eyestrain, although in our driving we did not particularly notice this quality.
Audi also did good work on the interior of the new A8. In previous models, we had complained that there was too much ugly plastic for a car that costs close to $100K, but Audi has fixed this problem, for the most part, in the 2011 model. Wood, leather, metal, and soft plastics are much more prevalent in the new A8, although many buttons remain plastic. However, we do like the finish on the plastic, which has a more quality look than in the previous generation.
Our car did not come equipped with the driver assistance features we would like to have seen, but they are available. Audi keeps up with Mercedes-Benz and BMW by offering night vision. An adaptive cruise control system can bring the A8 to a complete stop when there is traffic ahead. And the car can warn the driver of lane drift or vehicles in the blind spot.
A luxury feature our vehicle did come equipped with was massaging front seats. With an easy-to-use lever and directional control on the side of the seat, we were able to choose from a pounding to a wave-like massage. This same control also let us fine tune the seat shape, changing headrest angle, bolster inflation, and lumbar support. Along with the usual forward/back, up/down, and recline, there are five areas of the seat that we could adjust.
Another feature not available until spring of next year is navigation integration with Google maps. During a demonstration, Audi showed us how satellite imagery from Google maps would fill in the navigation system's own maps, showing much more realistic detail of the car's surroundings. More importantly, the system will allow local search through Google, making it easy to find points of interest based on general search terms, rather than the specific terms required currently.
We were able to test the new cabin tech interface, which includes a revolutionary touch pad for tracing letters. Putting the navigation system into destination entry mode, we were able to bypass Audi's inefficient rotary alphanumeric input and trace letters on the touch pad. We found it very easy to keep our eyes on the road while entering letters and numbers, with the system offering verbal confirmation for each input.
Audi also changed the main menus in the system--for navigation, phone, and audio--to an ellipse style. These aesthetically pleasing menus are very easy to read at a glance, and present a substantial amount of information.
Unchanged are the very rich maps in the navigation system, which uses an Nvidia graphics processor to render buildings in certain downtown areas with particular detail. The system even uses textures on some landmark buildings--the concept being to make it easier to correlate the map to the outside world. These maps are stored on a hard drive, giving Audi the space to use very rich graphics.
The A8's navigation system comes with the usual advanced features we would expect, such as text to speech and traffic avoidance. This latter feature did not always work optimally in our testing. In one instance, it advised us to get on the freeway into stop-and-go traffic rather than travel about four blocks on surface streets. Unlike some competitors, Audi has not added data sources such as weather or local gas prices.
The A8 is the kind of car that could be chauffeur-driven--and Audi will most likely release a long wheelbase version, as it did with the previous generation--but we preferred sitting in the driver's seat, usually with the car set in Dynamic mode.
Audi fits the A8 with its Drive Select system, which sets steering, suspension, throttle response, and transmission between Comfort, Automatic, Dynamic, and Individual modes. Piloting the big A8 around the city, we left it in Comfort mode, where the adaptive suspension did an excellent job absorbing the bumps without letting the driving experience feel sloppy.
Comfort mode also builds some slack into steering and throttle response, but the A8 never seems loose or sluggish. The direct-injection V-8, with 4.2-liters of displacement, cranks out 372 horsepower and 328 pound-feet of torque (that former number up by 22 horsepower over the previous generation A8). The car gets to 62 mph in 5.7 seconds, according to Audi.