Today’s luxury cars are in a tough spot. Buyers expect the very latest in advanced convenience, safety and semi-autonomous technologies. Developing these systems is challenging enough, but just as daunting is the task of making them user-friendly.
Each of the world’s premium automotive brands is approaching this challenge with their own spin on how customers should interact with their cars, and some are notably more successful than others.
In this arena, the latest move has been made by Audi with its new flagship sedan, the 2019 A8. Competing with the older but stronger-selling BMW 7 Series, Mercedes-Benz S-Class and Lexus LS 500, the fourth-generation A8 sets out to deliver a combination of sophisticated but simple-to-use technology and super-refined ride, handling and performance. It delivers a luxury lounge-like interior and an overall air of serene competence.
As such, the A8 has set itself lofty goals, but judging by a recent California launch test-drive, the Audi succeeds in most departments. Priced at $84,795 for the V-6-powered A8 (the first model to hit U.S. showrooms), this Audi is less expensive than its main German rivals but still offers a competitive suite of technologies and even some systems the others lack.
At first the A8 feels intimidating. Its sheer size is a challenge to position confidently in the corners. But once you learn to trust the car’s sophisticated steering system (four-wheel steering is an option), it becomes easier to thread a path through twisting back roads.
This is just one of the surprises in store when driving the A8. The car is literally a rolling demonstrator for advanced technology, from active suspension, to laser and OLED lighting, to level-three autonomous driving (not yet fully activated in the U.S.).
The car’s design is imposing and elegant, but not exactly progressive in the same sense as other more avant-garde Audis: think TT, R8, A7 and lately, the A5 Sportback. On the plus side, as exterior designer Daniel De Jong says, the car “keeps the promise of the Audi Prologue concept” from 2014, in that the car’s all-wheel-drive quattro drivetrain is communicated by its pronounced wheel arches and "planted" visual stance.
Stepping inside the A8, especially one finished in light-colored leather trim, the progressive aspect of the Audi design ethic reasserts itself. The cabin feels expansive, light and modern. The atmosphere is perhaps not quite as plush as a Mercedes S class, but it also projects a more contemporary, less baroque feel than its Stuttgart rival. And multi-adjustable, heated, cooled, massaging seats make it hard not to be comfortable in the front or back of the A8.
For the driver, the new multi-screen, mostly glass instrument panel is more like the cockpit of a latest-generation executive jet than a car. I am wary of touchscreens, which have been plagued by problems in some other brands’ vehicles. And I do miss the big rotary knob from previous Audis that makes control of map scaling and radio station selection so easy. But Audi’s latest stab at infotainment management seems to be have been thoroughly thought-out, with an emphasis on logical progressions and as few steps as possible. This is more than can be said for the 2018 Lexus LS 500, which has an exquisite interior let down by one of the most flawed infotainment interfaces on the market.
Driving the 340-horsepower V-6 A8, the overall impression is of silky smooth, quiet power, with 0-60 mph taking a claimed 5.6 seconds. Performance is decent, but there are times, particularly in mid-range acceleration, when it feels like the extra 100 horsepower on tap from the coming V8 version would do a better job of motivating the A8’s substantial 4,751-pound mass.
The new A8’s standard adaptive air-suspension system is enhanced by optional, active electromechanical actuators on all four wheels. Enabled by the 48-volt electrical system, the actuators can raise or lower the wheels to smooth out bumps or dips in the road. Rivals like Mercedes have hydraulic systems that can lower, but not actively raise, the wheels. My test vehicle was not equipped with the wheel actuators, but a demonstration model running over parking-lot speed bumps was convincing. The system also controls body roll in corners and body dive under braking, which makes for smoother ride quality, especially for passengers.
All elements considered, the new A8 succeeds in its main mission: providing an exceptionally quiet, refined and low-stress driving experience. Crucially, Audi has made the driver comfortable with managing a highly technical machine, which may be the car’s biggest achievement.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at email@example.com.