Audi's A8 has long been the big saloon to choose if discretion and understatement work for you. Is that still the case? Jonathan Crouch checks out the latest revised models.
Ten Second Review
This improved Audi A8 faces some tough rivals, but there's an argument that it's as good as any of its competitors, even Mercedes' mighty S-Class. Efficiency has improved, power has crept up across the board and those famously cool interiors are now better trimmed than ever. Unfortunately, it might all be a little too understated for those who want to flaunt their status.
Audi is used to winning. It's got extremely good at it, continuing to push technological boundaries wherever it can to stay a step ahead of its rivals. And the best place to see Vorsprung Durch Teknic at work? Well it has to be here doesn't it, with the brand's top A8 large luxury saloon, in this guise further improved in revised third generation form.
This much improved MK3 model was launched early in 2014 and more recently, the diesel models have been made cleaner and more frugal and some of the slower-selling petrol units have been dropped. Plus there's a fresh 'Sport' trim level that borrows styling cues from the top S8 super saloon variant. As ever, it's the technology that will sell this car. It isn't only quattro 4WD that marks this car out from its rivals. It's also things like Cylinder-on-Demand technology and hi-tech Matrix LED headlights that set fresh standards. Will it all be enough in a segment where every major rival is either completely new or substantially improved? Let's find out.
The array of engines you get in the latest A8 has been rationalised in recent times but is still pretty mouth-watering. Most will want a diesel, probably the V6 3.0 TDI unit that's now been increased in power from 258 to 262PS. There's also a 4.2-litre V8 TDI option which retains its prodigious 385PS output. These two powerplants come with either short or long wheelbase bodystyles. If you're prepared to limit yourself to the longer shape, then there's also the possibility of considering the brand's highly effcient perol-electric hybrid drivetrain. Plus the 6.3-litre twelve-cylinder 500PS W12 petrol unit continues on at the top of the range.
Another formidable petrol engine - the 4.0-litre TFSI unit - continues under beneath the bonnet of the sporting S8 version, a variant only offered in short wheelbase guise. This version continues to feature Active Noise Cancellation, there to ensure excellent acoustic comfort by using precise anti-phase noise to combat intrusive noise in the cabin. Plus there's efficient Cylinder-on-Demand technology. It's clever. It's an Audi. What else did you expect?
We tried the 4.2 TDI diesel, a car boasting a truly impressve 850Nm torque figure. Let's put that figure into perspective. A Ferrari 458 Italia makes 540Nm, a Lamborghini Aventador V12 688Nm and a Bentley Continental GT Speed W12 800Nm. We're talking serious muscle here. If you prefer hybrid power to sheer muscle, the efficiency-focused A8 hybrid combines a 2.0 TFSI engine and electric motor to produce a combined output of 245PS and system torque of 480Nm.
Design and Build
The length (5.14 metres), wheelbase (2.99 metres), width (1.95 metres) and height (1.46 metres) of this latest A8 remain unchanged and this also applies to the A8 L models with their additional 13 centimetres of wheelbase and body length added in the interests of rear passenger space. If you're not familiar with the updated post-2014 model year design, you'll spot the subtle re-sculpting of the bonnet, the revised single frame grille, the sleeker front bumper and the shapelier lower edge of the headlight units. You might also notice that the design of the LED tail lamps has been revised and the bumper in all models bar the S8 incorporates two rhomboid tail pipes. Chrome detail elements, gloss black window surrounds and an extended palette of paint finishes were also added as part of the 2014 model year updates.
Audi interiors rightly remain the envy of many class rivals. There's a wide choice of different leathers, trim inlays in wood and metal, with fine grain poplar brown-silver making its debut alongside fine grain ash brown-gold natural. There's also a natural-looking, soft and breathable Unikat leather trim that's sure to prove popular. A 510-litre boot should hold more than enough luggage. The latest version of the excellent MMI control interface marshals the ancillary controls on a colour display screen that glides out from the dash. It helps the A8 do a better job than any of its rivals of keeping the dreaded button clutter to a minimum.
Market and Model
Prices start from around £60,000 for the 3.0 TDI quattro that most will want and there are three main trim levels - SE, SE Executive and Sport. You'll need a £63,000 budget for the petrol 2.0 TFSI Hybrid models and around £80,000 for the potent S8. Sport models are now more distinctly marked out visually by a dynamic exterior package featuring front and rear treatments reminiscent of the flagship S8, combined with pronounced 'S' style side skirts and 19-inch alloy wheels in a seven-parallel spoke design.
Audi's rightly proud of the lighting technology on this latest A8, with optional MatrixBeam LED headlight technology available. The high-beam function in these uses 25 individual LEDs per unit that can be switched on and off or dimmed individually when the on-board camera detects other vehicles ahead. The lighting system in the A8 uses predictive route data from the navigation system with MMI Touch to adjust the distribution of light in response to the current driving situation and can recognise and act on route data, such as corners and road classifications. There are even indicators with a progressively expanding strip of light that show that the vehicle is turning even more clearly to other road users, even at long distances and in poor visibility.
Whichever spec you decide upon, equipment levels shouldn't disappoint. Safety-wise, there are eight airbags, stability control of course and Audi's clever pre-sense system, which automatically activates the hazard warning lights, closes the windows and tightens the seatbelts if it thinks an accident is unavoidable. Pay more and in such a situation, it'll automatically brake the car for you if it thinks you haven't done so sufficiently, with cruise control that notices other cars indicating in other lanes and adjusts itself to suit.
Cost of Ownership
We'll open with the most relevant model in the A8 line up, which for most UK buyers is the A8 3.0 TDI, which now returns up to 47.9 mpg, corresponding to 149 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre. There is one model in the range which does even better on emissions and that's the rather expensive A8 Hybrid, netting 147g/km, although fuel economy is down on the diesel car at 44.8mpg. The 4.2 TDI diesel we tried manages 39.2mpg and CO2 is 189g/km. Go for a big petrol engine and the Cylinder On Demand technology starts making big improvements. At the very top of the line is the mighty A8 L W12 quattro, which displaces 6.3 litres and produces 500PS. It nevertheless manages to return 24.1mpg and emits 270g/km. The sports flagship is the 520PS S8 which features a supercharged 4.0 TFSI engine that'll blast it to 62 mph in 4.2 seconds, yet with a lighter right boot, it'll average 28mpg and emit to 235g/km.
Depreciation in this sector is traditionally severe, especially where the more expensive models are concerned, but Audi residuals are class-leading and the less expensive front-wheel drive cars top their class. What's more, insurance is three groups lower at the front-wheel drive entry level compared to its quattro counterpart.
This A8 is an impressive achievement. Every car in this segment is. As it should be, this is a showcase for Audi's best and most advanced technologies, aluminium construction and quattro all-wheel-drive now joined by astonishingly clever industry-leading headlamp technology and Cylinder-on-Demand efficiency. Add in classier design and a range of engines that are pokier yet cleaner and more frugal and you've a formidable luxury saloon.
But is it one that you can bond with, a luxury conveyance you'll love as well as admire? The answer depends upon the owner of course. Some may still see this A8 as being a little remote compared to a wood-panelled Jaguar, a status-conscious Mercedes or a proudly opulent BMW. I'm guessing though, that a significant number of boardroom buyers might now find this Audi a surprisingly complete all-round choice.
Hugely capable, innovative, beautifully built and able better than any rival to alter its dynamic character to your driving mood, this is the car that rivals always feared Audi would build. And if you're in this market, it's one you need to try.