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2018 Audi A8 50TDI Quattro (European spec)

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Price $NA + orc Warranty 3 years/unlimited km Engine (tested) 3.0l turbo V6 diesel Power 210kW at 3750-4000rpm Torque 600Nm at 1250-3250rpm Transmission 8-speed auto Drive four-wheel drive Body 5172mm (l); 1945mm (w exc mirrors); 2130mm (w inc mirrors); 1473mm (h) Turning circle 12.5m (without four-wheel-steering), 11.4m (with 4WS) Towing weight 2300kg (braked), 750kg (unbraked) Kerb weight 1975kg Seats 5 Fuel tank 82 litres Spare Space saver Thirst 5.8 l/100km combined cycle Fuel Diesel

THIS IS THE FOURTH full generation of the A8, Audi’s top-end luxury saloon. Through all the A8’s history, it’s been living in the shadow of the Mercedes S-Class. Which is a bit unfair because across the whole Volkswagen Group, this is really the car that bears the standard for technology. Even more so than the Group’s Bentleys and Porsches.

This new one is a major re-boot. It rings in a whole bunch of technical firsts. We’ll summarise the boffinry in this introduction. It’s worth knowing about even if you’re not in the six-figure car market, because over the years much of the technology will trickle down through the range. The interface and the mild hybrid powertrains especially.

The cabin reflects the digital age. Almost all buttons, switches and dials have been replaced by a set of three screens. Their definition and touch feedback is unmatched.

Later on, full plug-in hybrids will also be offered. But for the moment all versions of the A8 are some kind of hybrid anyway. It’s a mild hybrid system, running at 48 volts, fed by a motor/generator unit connected by belt to the engine. Mostly it feels pretty much like an ordinary unassisted engine, but is enough to reclaim useful energy to help consumption, and can even push the car along with the engine off at highway coasting speed.

Because 48V power is available in the car, other systems benefit. For instance from mid-2018 there will be the option of an active suspension. A camera reads the road ahead for bumps, and then a processor makes a map of the bumps and potholes upcoming. It in turn instructs a set of 48-volt motors connected to actuators on each wheel’s suspension. The wheel is then lifted to dropped at the moment it hits the bump or pothole, to keep the ride smoother. The same actuators combat body roll in corners. And if the side-view cameras detect a crash, the suspension is instructed to lift that side of the car so the crash is taken by the strongest part of the body.

The final bit of electronic boffinry in the A8 is that it’s been developed with self-driving in mind. That’s such a big and contentious point I’ve given it a separate article. But right now this doesn’t actually affect the A8’s character at all because lawmakers haven’t caught up.

Ever since the first A8 in 1992, the A8’s USP has been an all-aluminium shell, but now it uses 58 percent aluminium, plus a high-strength steel safety cage, plus a magnesium front strut brace. Then there’s a huge and complex carbon-fibre panel that embodies the rear bulkhead and parcel shelf, adding substantially to the body’s resistance to twisting.

It’s a traditional plush limo, but full of ultra-modern and twists. Like the vast OLED TV in a five-star hotel suite. Fortunately because Audi’s idea of plush is more minimalist and sharp-edged than say Mercedes’s, the intrusion of the tech isn’t visually jarring.

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Up front you’ve a pair of huge armchairs. As standard they’re electrically adjustable adjustable, so much so that in a four-hour drive I never really managed to get them to suit me. Switches in the seat itself control the slide, recline, height and lumbar and height motors. Then screen-based options control the clenching of the side bolsters, the pressure of the shoulder pads, plus massaging.

The driver’s footwell on the right-hand-drive version is shaped around the transmission and slightly pushes the pushes your left foot towards the centre. I found myself feeling twisted, but colleagues who’d driven the same car hadn’t been upset by it.

In the back, even the normal wheelbase version has more than enough legroom, but if you plan on taking up residence back there, go for the long-wheelbase A8 L version. That devotes 13cm extra wheelbase to the job, and adds electrical recline for the rear seats. That’s usual in this class, but the A8 L has an extra sizzle in the form of a ‘relaxation seat’ in the rear-left. This comes not only with heating and massaging, but with a heated foot-sole massager built into the back of the left-front seat. Can you imagine a time you’d actually use that, beyond the first try-out? Your decadence amazes us.

Everything about the furniture and dash feels super-solid, made of lovely materials, and precisely finished. Attention to detail is pretty marvellous. All the touch-switches, for instance, need exactly the same firmness of touch to operate, and make exactly the same synthesised click, and are lit in the same colour with the same intensity.

The test car had a super-expensive Bang and Olufsen hi-fi. Sorry, didn’t like it. My ears have had the same trouble in previous B&O Audis. The sense of space and tight bass are great, but the mid-to-treble sound is far too metallic and harsh.

Audi’s operating system for infotainment has changed a little for the new touch interface, and there were times when I missed the old click-wheel controller. Even so the total effect is pretty intuitive and in some ways magical. If you can’t face learning the Audi menus, then just switch to Apple Carplay or Android Auto.

This, by the way, puts the A8 leagues ahead of its rival, the brand-new Lexus LS. That has an awful inbuilt system with a terrible touch controller and ugly graphics, and no way of using phone mirroring.

Audi’s three-screen layout is reminiscent of the one Range Rover launched in the Velar. But it has some little refinements.

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The two in the centre of the dash are touch-sensitive, emitting a neat little click, and a slight ping on your fingertip, to confirm you’ve made a selection. Audi was already a leader in graphics, but these ones have a definition to match any tablet.

Even the things that look like switches aren’t. The headlamp switch, the sliders to control face-level vent output, they’re all the same sort of touch-sensitive panel. They all need a significant force to activate by the way. Which is right, so you won’t brush them by accident.

The default climate screen does nothing the buttons didn’t do before. So you wonder why they bothered to make it a screen. Answer is that you can wipe away the climate icons and use the panel as a handwriting input tablet for navigation search and so on.

The launch range is three-litre V6 engines, a 250kW V6 petrol or the 210kW diesel driven here. Not enough? A V8 diesel and W12 petrol are almost out of the oven.

From a cold winter overnight, the diesel starts with a little bit of clatter, but it settles down after a few kms have warmed it through. Then there’s the usual big-hearted dieselly torque spread shoving you down the road. It’ll punch to 100km/h in under six seconds.

The eight-speed automatic box keeps things smooth when you’re surfing predictably along. But as I drove it more vigorously I found myself over-riding it quite often – the automatic shifts didn’t aren’t too smartly programmed.

You nearly always can tell by the noise that it’s diesel not petrol, but it’s not so loud it’ll interfere with the stereo. On the highway it’s a superbly quiet car, with noise from the wind and tyres pushed into the background. Lift off the pedal and the engine will sometimes switch off entirely if the electric motor has the gumption to do the job alone. It’s a seamless on-off cycle you won’t notice unless you look for it.

Another economy aid is a brief little tingle of the accelerator pedal as you approach an intersection – even if it’s a way off and out of sight. The car gets this info from the navigation. When you feel the tingle, you’re supposed to lift off and coast down.

The suspension and steering have the usual adjustment parameters – damper programme and steering weight. I found myself using the ‘auto’ suspension but ‘dynamic’ (heavier) steering. In the lighter mode it doesn’t have quite the self-centring that usually makes big German barges so brilliant for long-distance work spearing down endless highways with rock-solid stability.

The test car had the optional four-wheel steering system. On tighter country roads, it does a great job, making this massive barge dance like a smaller sportier saloon. Theres also terrific Quattro traction of course. But not much sensation through your hands.

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The standard-fit air suspension is adept at keeping the car tied down when you’re working it hard through corners. yet even under the duress of a bend  it retains enough suppleness to absorb bumps as it goes. It’s like a BMW 7-series in that regard. Which is praise.

Of course most of the time that’s not how a big saloon will be proceeding. Fear not, when the A8 is mooching along a main road or dealing with slow-speed city roads, the suspension cushions you very nicely.

In a city, the A8 feels as big to drive as it looks from the outside. Big equals cumbersome in some ways. If you need want a car with this kind of broad spacious interior, there’s nothing you can do to negate the exterior length and width. Parking in short spaces and squeezing down narrow streets between other vehicles can stretch your nerves.

To an extent, technology again comes to the rescue. That optional four-wheel steering cuts the turning circle and helps the A8 swing easily into 90-degree parking spots. Every corner of the car bristles with sensors, every side with cameras, so you are given all possible help in close-quarters manoeuvring.

If you’re going to have a crash, having it in a big German saloon is usually a good bet. But much beyond that we cannot yet go because NCAP hasn’t tested it. However, it is related to the Q5 in some ways, and the Q5’s safety cell and child protection and autobrake functions all performed well when it was tested.

Collision mitigation – warning you if you miss a vehicle or pedestrian, and then braking if you don’t – is standard of course. So are cameras and sensors for manoeuvring.

The cruise control uses a radar sensor, laser scanner, front camera and ultrasonic sensors as well as info from the navigation. It’s supposed to follow the car in front, follow lane markings, follow barriers if the road narrows for road works, and slow down when a junction is approaching to save fuel.

But like all these systems it can lose the plot. Keep your eyes on the road. That’s made easier by a superb high-resolution head-up display, a standard fit.

The bright LED headlamps adapt their beam pattern to put masks in front of other road users, but keep main beam elsewhere in your field of vision. They’re fabulous, but an option sadly. Thermal night-vision is another option to help you spot stray roos.

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It’s a great luxury car, and has a lot of new tech that’ll show up in cheaper smaller cars in the range (and VWs) before long. It’s quiet, comfy and eats up long trips. Yet it’s also surprisingly tidy to drive on an interesting lonely road. Just don’t believe the autonomous driving hype eh?

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