There’s nothing like a little versatility in a luxury sedan. And if cinematic representations are to be believed, then few such cars are more versatile than the long running V-8 equipped Audi flagship. Is it good for a spirited exchange of gunfire through the twisting and narrow streets of some anonymous French village? Check. Can it do a 360 degree turn in midair? Check. And is it still comfortable enough to chauffeur around a billionaire mogul who moonlights by wearing a flying metallic suit to fight bad guys? Check on that one, too.
Of course Hollywood films are all about willing suspension of disbelief, but when Audi’s A8 engages in these acrobatic displays, the car actually manages to make them appear plausible. OK, maybe not Jason Statham’s airborne move in the Transporter 2, but in director John Frankenheimer’s 1998 De Niro picture Ronin, and in the recent Iron Man films, the 8-cylinder Audi performs with sporty élan while still maintaining the regality expected of a highline luxury sedan. So as a resident of America’s movie capital, I felt obliged to test an A8, myself, to see if the car is really pure transporter, or just mere transportation.
As in recent years, Audi’s all-wheel drive flagship sedan is available in two wheelbase lengths, the normally sized A8, and the long wheelbase A8L, which adds over 5 inches of space to the rear portion of the cabin. In the interest of testing the hautest luxury experience, I opted for the A8L, though my test car, sadly enough, did not come equipped with the executive rear seating package, which includes a plethora of electronic goodies such as dual 10-inch DVD screens, electronic seats with power footrest, and even a refrigerator for the Cristal.
Despite this unfortunate omission, the A8L still features some pretty impressive new technologies, including a touch interface (similar to the touch pads on a laptop computer) that can be used to choose radio presets or set Navi destinations, adaptive cruise control that senses other vehicles on the road, an adaptive air suspension, and a long-legged 8-speed Tiptronic transmission that can be actuated from wheel-mounted paddles. Of these features, the suspension is particularly effective, providing a lush and smooth ride that is only barely interrupted by the most determined potholes or speedbumps. In combination with buttery-smooth steering, the suspension provides peerless ride quality at this price point, easily matching similar offerings from BMW or Mercedes-Benz.
That being said, the A8 does suffer a little on style points. Any upscale luxury sedan is bound to some degree of formalism in its appearance, but a slightly swoopier beltline, a la Audi’s A5 or the now ubiquitous VW CC, would have gone a long way. Instead, we once again get the staid stodginess of a perfectly straight beltline, which can’t but help impart the straight-laced character of the A8. The massive front grille does get a lot of looks from passersby, especially at twilight, when it’s complemented by the wonderfully expressive LED headlights (big thumbs up). Unfortunately, this dynamic fascia treatment doesn’t quite extend to the rest of the car, which remains endemically tied to its substance-over-style Teutonic roots.
And not surprisingly, much of this character transcends to the driving aspects of the car, as well. Is the A8 fast? There’s no question about it. Stand on the accelerator and you feel the car lurch forward as the 4.2 liter V-8 fills the ears with tones of growling urgency, anxious to reach a governed top speed of 164 mph. Audi has been winning all kinds of awards lately for various engineering feats, and all of their recent engines have been lauded for the efficiency of their direct injection fuel delivery. But with competent-if-not-overwhelming power figures of 372 hp and 328 lb-ft of torque, it isn’t surprising that the A8 requires 5.7 seconds to reach 60 mph (though independent tests have bested this manufacturer figure by at least half a second). A promised W-12 equipped version figures to improve on these numbers, but shouldn’t that car be called the A12?
As if proving that the new A8 really has taken a lean to the luxurious side of the driving experience, the Tiptronic transmission isn’t nearly as manual as its paddles would suggest. Sure it kicks in upon command when summoned, and ably so, but 5 seconds or so of static rpm later it reverts to automatic mode. Furthermore, I struggled to figure out how to launch the A8L in manual mode from stop. Not that most chauffeurs will be drag racing from stoplights in this car, but it would have been nice to manually shift through the entire range of gears from 1st, rather than jumping in at 2nd gear to finish the job.
Minor sporting quibbles aside, the A8 is a pleasingly balanced and tractable car, never imposingly large like a Bentley or Rolls can be, and surprisingly luxurious for a car that stickers just below $100,000. And with its well-engineered 8-speed transmission, the A8 gets class-leading gas mileage, with an estimated 17 mpg in the city, and 27 mpg on the highways, where the tall 7th and 8th gears can really make their presence felt. OK, so it may no longer be the best car for Euro-style car chases as per Ronin or The Transporter, but for sunset cruises down PCH like Tony Starks, the A8L definitely deserves a Golden Globe.
2011 Audi A8L 4.2 FSI Quattro Auto Tiptronic Sedan
Base retail price: $84,000
Price as tested: $86,875
Well equipped: $113,387
4.2 liter FSI direct injection V-8
All-wheel drive 8-speed Tiptronic automatic gearbox with optional paddle shifting
Max Power 372 bhp at 6,800 rpm
Max Torque 328 lb-ft at 3,500 rpm
Acceleration 0 – 60 mph in 5.7 seconds (manufacturer estimate)
Max Speed 164 mph (electronically governed)