If the unregulated realm of the automated car is the Wild West, Audi could be the next Billy the Kid. Its all-new A8 luxury sedan is positioned to be the first vehicle to offer Level 3 self-driving capability. Like the actual Wild West, the highly autonomous version is filled with the unknown and uncontrollable, but here the threats are regulation and liability, not gunslingers. Accordingly, Audi still won’t say whether the first car with self-driving capability will actually be allowed to drive itself when it goes on sale in the United States in the fall of 2018.
Either way, the 2019 A8 poses a genuine threat to Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Cadillac. It is taller, longer, more isolated from the road, yet better controlled than the A8 it replaces. It is a cruise missile for the wealthy; it flattens mountains and straightens freeways with ease. And even absent Traffic Jam Pilot, the official term for the headline self-driving feature, it’s quite likely the most technologically advanced car in the world.
Hybrids, Mild and Otherwise
At launch, the A8 will be available with one engine, a single-turbo 3.0-liter V-6 good for 340 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque. Shortly thereafter, by the end of 2018, a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 with 460 horses will follow. Both powerplants get limited hybrid assistance, thanks to the use of an alternator that doubles as a starter (BAS, for belt-alternator-starter, in Audi lingo), an arrangement that powers a 48-volt electrical system. The alternator/starter is good for 16 horsepower during energy recuperation and 9 horsepower when assisting the gasoline engine. Its purpose, according to Alexander Kruse, the Audi engineer responsible for the development of the BAS system, is to assist the gas engines in achieving their most efficient operating rpm sooner, thus improving fuel economy. The BAS will add torque to the powertrain mix, but its contributions are at the low end—nowhere near the peak output of the engines.
Audi’s German planners tell us the W-12 engine will not come to the United States, despite its being offered in previous A8s, but U.S. representatives for the company aren’t yet willing to admit it. We’re not holding our breath. Both the V-6 and V-8 engines are paired with ZF’s paddle-shiftable eight-speed automatic transmission, and Quattro all-wheel drive is standard. EPA estimates aren’t yet available, but it’s safe to say that Audi didn’t make the A8 a hybrid so it could be less efficient than the car it replaces, which yielded a combined 22 mpg when fitted with the supercharged 3.0-liter V-6. For those with mileage at the top of their desires, a plug-in hybrid model offering 449 combined horsepower and equipped with inductive-charging capability will arrive in early 2019.
Big Car, Big Importance
Like the current A8, the fourth-generation sedan will be available in the United States only in the longer of the car’s two wheelbases, which this time spans 123.1 inches. It’s not yet determined whether the S8 to be spun from this new model will come in the shorter, 118.0-inch wheelbase, following the strategy used on the current A8/S8. Length is up by 1.3 inches and height by 0.7 inch, while width shrinks by 0.1 inch. As executive sedans go, the A8 is sized to compete with the other German megacruisers. Its wheelbase is 1.5 inches shorter than the Mercedes-Benz S-class and 3.3 inches shorter than BMW’s 7-series. It’s a segment built around the rear seat, and all three cars offer ample space to let riders’ Testonis breathe.
We drove the A8 in southern Spain over mountainous terrain lined with glass-smooth, ribbonesque two-lanes that lacked both shoulders and mercy. Our time behind the wheel came in relatively benign A8s equipped with the V-6 and lacking some of the machine’s most compelling features. We weren’t able to try Traffic Jam Pilot during this specific experience, but we had already driven a car equipped with it and found the system, while capable of relieving traffic-induced stress, was quite limited in scope.
Although the A8’s new chassis is good—there’s ample body control and isolation with the car’s standard air springs and adjustable dampers—the active-suspension models we drove weren’t yet fully baked. The optional Audi Intelligence (AI) active suspension, one component of a suite of intelligent features, includes an electric motor at each corner capable of raising or lowering that wheel via a torsion bar linked to the suspension. In effect, there are two springs on each wheel of A8s equipped with the active suspension: an air spring and a torsion bar coupling the wheel carrier to the electric motor. The motors and torsion bars eliminate the need for traditional anti-roll bars by enabling roll control as well as managing pitch and dive.
The active setup’s most promising feature, however, is the ability to float the A8’s body over road irregularities. The AI system scans the road ahead with a forward-looking camera (Audi calls the function Preview) and turns that data into wheel motions that follow the road’s shape. Before the front wheels encounter an elevated bump, the body is raised to provide the additional suspension travel needed to absorb the imperfection. Then, as the car passes over, the suspension is extended to trace the road’s topography. Dips and single-wheel events are handled similarly, with the wheels following the terrain while the body remains isolated. The system provides 2.0 inches of lift and 2.4 inches of drop at each wheel, enough to make speed bumps and manhole covers virtually irrelevant. Closed-course demonstrations of the Preview technology were convincing, but we didn’t get to experience it on the open road. Even though the active suspension was fitted to two test cars and performed as promised to limit roll, pitch, and dive, the Preview function wasn’t enabled on those cars. Audi’s Drive Select system is standard and offers three driving modes (Auto, Comfort, and Dynamic) and also integrates control of the AI suspension on cars so equipped.
The standard suspension is no slouch itself when it comes to comfort and control. Wheel sizes will start at 19 inches, with options up to 21 inches available. We didn’t sample the optional torque-vectoring Sport rear differential, which no doubt would have improved the handling. Still, we weaved the A8 up a road more appropriate for a Mazda Miata and were impressed with the big Audi’s grip and manners, although no one is pretending a car this large has any business attacking roads that tight. Steering feel, despite efforts to improve its feedback, remains as it is in most other Audis: laser-sight precise, but mostly numb. If Audi could elevate its steering system’s feedback to match its accuracy, it would possess the magic bullet sought by energetic pilots of every executive sedan.
The company has figured out that a sedan this long benefits from a tighter turning radius and so offers dynamic all-wheel steering as an option. The system operates over a wide latitude depending on vehicle speed and other factors, behaving as if the steering ratio varies between 9.5:1 and 17.0:1. It’s the inclusion of the rear wheels in the business of turning that makes the real difference. Below 37 mph, the rear wheels turn out of phase with the fronts at an angle of up to 5 degrees, making the A8’s wheelbase feel shorter and shrinking its turning circle by 3.3 feet relative to cars without the system. Above that speed, rear-wheel steering angle is in phase with the fronts and reduced to a maximum of 2 degrees. A cone-smashing parking-lot demonstration proved that you’ll either opt for the four-wheel steering or you’ll do a lot more sawing at the wheel in tight spaces.
Hit the Lot
Mercifully, the A8 is as well suited to parking-lot duty as Kylie Jenner is to Instagram. The remainder of its AI features are designed to enable low-speed maneuvers in tight spots as well as parking in lots, on the street, or in a garage. Parking Pilot and Remote Parking Pilot enable autonomous parallel or perpendicular parking, although this system, too, wasn’t quite ready for prime time during our demos. During one parallel-parking attempt, we stopped the car manually before it executed autonomous removal of its driver’s-side mirror on a concrete abutment. It was then unable (or unwilling) to extract itself from the parking spot into which it had wedged itself—the automotive equivalent of a toddler’s sit-down protest. Garage Pilot, which enables autonomous garage parking in facilities equipped with the right technology, fared better, centering the car in the spot and not attempting any self-mutilation. Both of these systems are touted to operate remotely via a smartphone app, but we saw this at work only during the Remote Garage Pilot demonstration. It worked as promised, parking the A8 as we sat shotgun.
Other low-speed assist features include a self-steering system that directs the A8 away from obstacles at parking-lot speeds and can apply the brakes to avoid collisions. Possibly the biggest bit of progress in this regard, however, is the 3D feature, which stitches images from the A8’s four exterior cameras into a composite 3D image on the infotainment screen. It’s like BMW’s remote 3D system in that it allows drivers an off-car perspective generated by on-car cameras, but this one works brilliantly and can be pinch-zoomed or rotated quickly to gain visibility of part of the car that is otherwise obscured.
A8s equipped with active suspension can be had with Audi’s Pre Sense Side crash mitigation, which will elevate the side of the car about to be impacted in a T-bone collision. In half a second, the suspension on the side about to be hit raises 3.1 inches, better distributing the crash load through the floorpan to protect occupants. Audi insists the feature doesn’t increase the opportunity for the impacting car to flip the A8, probably because most side-impact collisions are at relatively low speeds.
Consistent with all Audis of late, the new interior is a sober revision on an already businesslike theme. Although it lacks flourish, the materials and assembly quality are exquisite and complement the modern, if subtle, redesign. But it’s hard not to shake your head at some of its rich-folk gimmickry. With a straight face, an Audi representative unveiled the optional foot warmer and massager for the right-rear passenger that deploys from the front passenger seatback. Massaging, heating, and reclining functions can be had in the rear seats as well. More important, it’s utterly silent—so much so that it’s hard to imagine there are actual explosions of fuel and air on the other side of the firewall. We never heard the V-6 make meaningful noise while the windows were up. Active noise cancellation through the audio system’s speakers is included on the V-8, W-12, and plug-in hybrid models.
But it’s up front, in the infotainment system, where the big changes have happened. Centered on the dash is a 10.1-inch haptic-feedback touchscreen that acknowledges inputs with a pulse when tapped. Below that on the center stack is a second screen, which functions primarily to display HVAC controls but can be used for other operations, including Google or navigation searches via handwriting recognition. The move to haptics eliminates most buttons as well as nearly every knob from the A8’s cockpit; a lone volume knob remains. But the system is highly configurable, allowing owners to choose their own dedicated buttons on the lower screen while offering permanent buttons for navigation, weather, telephone functions, and radio on the left side of the upper screen. Even though you’ll need to look down to find the “buttons,” you will not get impatient with the system. Its response is immediate. Persuading us that haptic technology offers the speed, ease of use, and efficiency of a knob and a few traditional buttons will take longer. Otherwise, several fundamentally sound features come standard. Audi’s Virtual Cockpit high-definition configurable instrument cluster is included in every A8, as is Wi-Fi hotspot connectivity.
Pricing will increase for the new A8, but Audi representatives say the bump will be modest. Given that a V-6–powered 2018 A8 starts at $83,475, we expect the fourth-gen car to begin at less than $90,000. If comfort, ease, convenience, and technological features are the measures of a modern luxury sedan, it’s hard to call the 2019 A8 anything but a win. It’s as silent, effortless, and serene an environment as can be had on four wheels. Few cars offer an escape from the chaos of modern driving as effectively as the 2019 A8—even when it’s not driving itself.
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