Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: June 14, 2019
Quattro defines Audi just as much as Audi is defined by quattro. All-wheel drive is their pride, heritage, and backbone for marketing material and lunar rover spinoffs. This posed a problem for Audi back in the 1980s when they were designing a full-size luxury sedan (which would eventually become the A8) to compete against the rivaling Jaguar XJ, Mercedes-Benz W126, and BMW E32 7 Series. All three were rear-wheel drive and Audi knew that an extra driveshaft with its paraphernalia would add a significant amount of weight and unbalance an already large vehicle. Unable to accept that fate, Audi partnered up with the Aluminum Company of America to develop an unprecedented all-aluminum chassis to compensate for the weight penalty of quattro all-wheel drive.
The A8 was finally launched in 1994 and was the first mass-market car with an aluminum chassis, 40% lighter than an equivalent one made out of steel, according to Audi. More importantly, it was quattro all-wheel drive. Fast forward to today, and much of these successful elements still hold true with the fourth-generation Audi A8. It’s much larger than the original, which is only the size of the current-gen A7, but the new A8 is still made from lightweight aluminum, 58% of it in fact, is undoubtedly quattro all-wheel drive, and comes with an array of technological wizardry like four-wheel steering, semi-autonomous driving features, and a 48-volt mild hybrid system.
Despite the added batteries, wiring, and load of tech, the Audi A8 L is lighter than a country mile than its direct competitors, weighing 196 kg less than the BMW 750Li xDrive, 150 kg less than the Mercedes-Benz S 450 short wheelbase, and a whopping 425 kg less than the Lexus LS 500 AWD. To put that last delta into perspective, you will have to put three adult female lions into the trunk of the Audi for it to weigh the same as the Lexus. The only long wheelbase luxury sedan that is lighter than the A8 L is the Jaguar XJ L, which uncoincidentally enough also uses an aluminum-intensive chassis. Furthermore, the Audi undercuts them all in price and is the only one that starts under $100,000, but the list of pricey options can make the final price balloon up to $130,000. We’ve put together a small list of comparative metrics of the competition, listed below according to price:
Weight is not typically an element of consideration when buyers are cross-shopping between brands, but it’s the invisible component that can drastically affect handling, acceleration, and fuel economy. Horsepower doesn’t dictate performance alone. Instead, it’s the power-to-weight ratio that paints the bigger picture. The A8 L is only available with a 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 paired with a 48-volt mild hybrid system, the same powertrain used in the A6 and A7 sedans. Under the rear cargo floor is a 10 Ah lithium ion battery system that acts as the vehicle’s alternator and start/stop system. The hybrid system does not add power but it enables the engine to shut off for up to 40 seconds when coasting between 60 - 160 km/h, and ensures the start/stop transition to be nearly imperceptible. Audi suggests that it will save an average of 0.7 L/100km.
The trick powertrain is good for 335 hp and 369 lb-ft, and instead of a dual-clutch transmission, the A8 routes that power via a more traditional 8-speed automatic. Audi has suggested a 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 pairing down the pipeline, as well as a beefed up S8 performance variant. While mid-300s isn’t exactly a power output to get excited about, we should once again stress the importance of Audi’s lightweight mission. Thanks to significant weight savings from a light structure, the A8 never struggles to get up to speed, and provides more than enough overtaking power for the average driver. The V6 is a buttery smooth companion when pushed hard but it clearly prefers to lay back and spend most of its time on the left side of the tachometer. The 8-speed may not be as quick as the dual-clutch and both are incredibly effective at going unnoticed behind the scenes, but the former is slightly smoother during low speed engagement, and feels better suited to the A8’s character.
The A8 is a gentle giant when it comes to ride comfort, wafting and hovering over bumps in typical Audi fashion, but it’s not the same kind of cushioning that you would get in the comparative BMW 750Li and Mercedes-Benz S 560, both of which feel softer and better damped on the road. We noticed more vertical movement in the Audi, and the suspension doesn’t seem to absorb undulations with the same kind of grace and relaxed manner even with its 20-inch wheels shod with Goodyear summer rubber. The S 560 clearly has the better suspension but the A8 does feel stiffer and more connected to the road. It gives us an A6 mid-size sedan vibe with its four-wheel steering, effectively shrinking the A8 around us as we finessed our way around corners.
Audi is all about fine craftsmanship and molecular attention to detail, and their expertise in this field pays off in spades with their new interior. Everything feels premium and special, from the soft-closing frameless doors, the seat belt buckle that lights up at night for ease of location, and electrically operated shutters that cover the air vents when they’re not being used, to the two choices of fragrances that are pumped through them.
Replacing the outgoing pop-up screen and rotary dial are a pair of touchscreens that use both touch and audio feedback to positively acknowledge inputs. The transition from a rotary dial to touchscreen proves to be an effective way to add more accessible features, buttons, and prompts onto the display without it getting clogged and messy within a slew of submenus. You can also run your finger along the bottom screen to manually scribble words for inputs.
We’ve been driving the latest Audis (A7, A6, Q8) and now the A8 for a few consecutive weeks now and while we initially despised the touch unit, it’s grown on us, and our memorization of button locations and prompts make it easy to find our desired features. We still prefer a rotary dial, as it doesn’t defeat the fact that we have to take our eyes off the road to hit the intended button but the action time has dropped significantly. The screen is still prone to fingerprints, but it only takes a few wipes from a dry cloth to remedy.
The A8 also sports a few differences from the A6 and A7 cabin: the door handles are a different shape and are flush with the panel, the gear shifter is padded with thicker leather at the top, the fan vent openings are controlled by a touch-sensitive slider beneath them, the center console is made up of separate, dual, adjustable armrests as opposed to a single panel, and the steering wheel doesn’t look like a Golf’s.
Despite most Canadians preferring to drive their vehicles rather than being chauffeured in them, the rear seat accommodations in the A8 L, when equipped with the right options, transform the back cabin into more of a first-class lounge than a car interior, enough to persuade even the most zealous of driving enthusiasts to give up the wheel and hop in the back for some pampering.
The A8 L has grown 32 mm in length compared to the outgoing model, much of it gifted to rear seat legroom, and it’s cavernous even for my six-foot stature. The king’s seat is the rear right, as they have the ability to control the seat in front for even more legroom. Canadian models don’t get the footrest massager for some reason like other markets, or the fold-out tables, but it does have reclining massage seats, fluffy headrests, vanity mirrors, individual LED reading lights, and sunshades on both rear windows and windshield.
Rolling down the center armrest reveals a removable smartphone-sized OLED tablet and much like the BMW 7 Series, it allows passengers to control almost every cabin feature: lights, seat position, massage, etc. The center armrest panel that houses these controls is even hinged on a springed soft-close mechanism, something I haven’t seen before. Lamborghini Urus owners will find familiarity with the rear entertainment screens attached to the front seatbacks, which are removable and can also display the trip computer, adjust temperature, and the audio.
The A8 L doesn’t water the eyes with sex appeal like the sleeker A7. Instead, it takes the A6 design approach with a mature and understated demeanor. I don’t think the A8 could crack a joke even if it wanted to. It’s all very serious and statesman-like. The massive hexagonal grill, largest of any Audi that we’ve seen, takes up most of the frontal real estate and unlike the A6, the array of cameras and sensors are mounted underneath the grill so it doesn’t ruin like the fluidity of the horizontal lines. The rear wears a full-width OLED light bar that creates a three-dimensional effect and will illuminate in a choreographed light show when you lock or unlock the vehicle at night. Sadly, the A8 is yet another offensive example of fake exhaust trickery with phony exhaust “holes” mounted to the rear bumper but truth be told, I don’t think the targeted audience would mind or even care to notice. They will be too busy in the back seat enjoying their massage.
In isolation, the A8 is a tech-savvy, accommodating, and pampering luxury sedan with all the bells and whistles to leave you content and satisfied over kilometres of tarmac. Making the safe choice in dress code doesn’t hurt the overall appeal but there’s something about a grand flagship sedan that the A8 is missing. It’s lacking the pizzazz, composure, and road presence that make the rivaling S-Class and 7 Series so appealing. So in a way, the A8 successfully sets itself apart from its German rivals by flying under the radar and staying out of the rubbernecking spotlight. But I’d argue that Audi’s biggest accomplishment here is how they have managed to retain the lightweight, tech-driven, and quattro elements that made the original A8 such a monumental hit, and wrap it up in a modernized package fit for the elite.
Model: 2019 Audi A8 L
Paint Type: Glacier White
Base Price: $97,800
Price as Tested: $131,100
Length/Width/Height (mm): 5,302 / 1,945 / 1,485
Curb weight (kg): 1,945
Engine: 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 with 48-volt mild hybrid system
Horsepower: 335 hp @ 5,000 - 6,400 rpm
Torque: 369 lb-ft @ 1,370 - 4,500 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway ) L/100km: 12.5 / 8.6
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 12.4