By Jonathan Crouch
The A8 is Audi's largest luxury saloon and the D4 series model which launched in 2010 was the brand's interpretation of full-Luxury motoring for the 21st century's second decade. In 2013, this design was substantially revised and it's this enhanced third generation D4 model that we're going to be examining here as a potential used car buy, it being smarter, more efficient and full of technology. Better established badges in this sector may be tempting but they can't offer many of the almost unique things this car brings to this segment: 4WD, V8 diesel power, Cylinder-on-Demand efficiency and cleverer Matrix LED headlamps are just a few examples. Potentially, there's enough here to please the most demanding boardroom buyer.
It's hard to remember now, but prior to the A8 saloon's original launch back in 1994, Audi wasn't really considered a fully-fledged prestigious brand. Its cars generally languished in the corner of your local Volkswagen dealer's showroom and appealed to those who couldn't quite stretch to the products of the smarter German makers. The first generation A8 changed all of that, a car the like of which the luxury segment had never seen before. Aluminium spaceframe technology from NASA. 4WD quattro technology from the World Rally Championship. And exquisite standards of build quality that redefined what boardroom buyers could expect from a European luxury car. At a stroke, it put posh rivals on the back foot - and Audi has never looked back since.
With the standard set, Ingolstadt turned its attention to smaller more profitable models: the A8, it seemed, had had its turn in the limelight. We got a second generation version in 2003 and a MK3 model in 2010, both promising (and delivering) a further refinement of the original recipe - but it wasn't quite enough. Jaguar's XJ was still seen as more dynamic: Mercedes' S-Class as more luxurious. And BMW's 7 Series as a compromise between the two. The world largely forgot the A8's still unique set of attributes, its aluminium spaceframe and quattro cleverness. It wasn't, we were told by those who were supposed to know about these things, a car you could really fall in love with. It wasn't a car that would say enough of the right things about you. But it might be in this form.
An improved version of the MK3 'D4'-series model was launched in late 2013, offering styling that delivered a slightly more overt statement of quality. And Euro6 engines that were both more powerful and efficient. But as ever, it was the technology that sold this car. It wasn't only the provision of quattro 4WD that marked this car out from its rivals. It was also things like Cylinder-on-Demand technology and hi-tech Matrix LED headlights that set fresh standards. This improved 'D4' design sold until late 2017, when it was replaced by a completely new fourth generation model.
What You Get
Never one of the luxury saloon sector's most ostentatious players, the A8 tends to maintain a cool studied elegance in its design and in that respect, little changed with this facelifted MK3 design. In this guise though, this model got a touch more personality. Four creases run down the sleeker bonnet to the upper edges of a more sculptured and richly detailed hexagonal singleframe grille, its horizontal double bars underscoring this car's class-leading width: it's longer and lower than its direct competitors from this era too. The headlights are also flatter and wider than those of the original MK3 design, functioning with a brilliant crystal shine from optional Matrix LED technology that sets new standards in this segment. Further down are air inlets in the redesigned lower apron that in this revised model, extend all the way across the width of the front and are framed in chromed clasps.
All this careful detailing created elegant alternative in a sector over-populated by bourgeois status symbols. In pictures, you'd be forgiven for dismissing this A8 as little more than a larger A4: much larger, in the case of the optional long wheelbase bodystyle, which adds 130mm to the length of a shape that follows the usual Audi pattern, with the body accounting for two-thirds of the vehicle's overall height and the glasshouse the remaining third. In profile, there's also the brand's familiar 'Tornado' line that runs tightly above the wheelarches, creating a more powerful stance. View this car in the metal though - or perhaps we should say in the aluminium - and it's a much more individual piece of design, with a sinewy tautness about its lines and subtle nuances that impress themselves upon you the closer you look and the more time you spend with the car: the chrome that defines the lower body profile, the fine strips embedded in the door handles, the high-gloss black window frames - we could go on. All add a level of finesse and quality that also defines the smarter rear end with its sleeker spoiler, dual trapezoidal tailpipes and flatter LED lights visually connected by a chromed bar.
But, as ever with an A8, it's what's underneath all this tinsel that really ought to command your attention. Namely the hi-tech aluminium Audi Space Frame, which is 40% lighter than a corresponding steel body, something no one ever seems to realise because that weight saving is disguised by the fitment of the 4WD system most rivals don't bother to offer. Is the Space Frame approach better than the simpler aluminium monocoque structure favoured by the rival Jaguar XJ from this era? Well, the Jag isn't significantly lighter, despite not hauling around quattro 4WD: draw your own conclusions.
In fact, everywhere you look on this A8, the technology keeps on coming. Take the boot, which, depending on specification, either flips up from a keyfob button, rises electrically or, if you approach the car laden down with bags, can rise in response to a wave of your foot beneath the bumper. The trunk, once revealed, is huge, provided you don't opt for a Hybrid model with batteries to lump around that drop its capacity to 335-litres: it's a mark of Audi's embarrassment at this figure that it threw in a tailor-made luggage set for Hybrid buyers. Otherwise, with the rest of the range, you get a 520-litre total that's un-bettered in this class and easily enough for, say, four golf bags. Unfortunately, the through-loading facility required to further extend it was an optional extra.
But a car of this kind is more about prestige than practicalities. How will it make you feel once inside? Let's start with the rear, accessed through doors 13cms longer in the long wheelbase model and in this variant fitted out with electric sunblinds also retractable across the rear window for shade and privacy.
Once inside, you're ensconced in a world of measured elegance, beautiful ambient lighting and hand-sanded and varnished wood panels reminding you how much you've paid. Standard A8s get the usual three-person rear seat that rather emphasises the slight narrowness of the cabin in comparison to obvious rivals. Better then, if you've opted to go for the longer bodystyle with its extra 120mm of rear legroom, to find a car that was originally fitted with the Individual rear seat package which did away with the middle berth entirely. Here, the chairs are heated and power-adjustable with deliciously soft 'comfort' head restraints in a package that also includes four-zone air conditioning and a front passenger seat that can be adjusted from the rear so you can stretch out more comfortably using the optional footrests. Better specified long wheel base models include a leather and veneer-clad centre console extending back from the front, seat ventilation with a massage function, seatback multimedia screens, a cool box and the kind of even more decadent reclining luxury seat that'd be fitted to a private jet.
Up-front, there's the same luxurious blend of craftsmanship fused with technology, with a wrap-around dash fashioned in a wide arch that spans the cabin, encircling the slim, low instrument panel. You view it through a leather-trimmed electrically operated multi-function steering wheel that reveals large black-faced dials featuring clear, classic graphics and red needles. Not that you'll need to look at these if your A8 is fitted with a head-up display that projects key driving information directly into your line of sight at the bottom of the windscreen.
The MMI control interface marshals the ancillary controls on a colour display screen that glides out from the dash, helping this A8 do a better job than most rivals from this era of keeping the dreaded button clutter to a minimum. And special mention must go to the gorgeous aeronautical gear lever than makes you feel like you're bringing a 747 in to land. We also liked the clever touch pad on which drivers can trace letters with a finger to input destinations to the satellite-navigation system. A pity you have to do it with your left hand. And the superbly supportive 12-way power adjustable seats trimmed in lovely breathable Unicom leather, with 110 separate pieces that have been cut, placed and stitched by hand.
What to Look For
Most A8 owners we surveyed were very happy with their cars but inevitably, there were a few issues reported. One owner reported suspension noise. Another reckoned that a vibration set in at between 1,200 and 3,00rpm. Tyres won't be cheap; owners told us they'd be paying anything between £145 and £240 for each tyre. Audi's quattro 4x4 system should prove reliable and the engines have all been used extensively in other Audi models so there should be little cause for concern there. Look out for interior scuffs and alloy wheel scrapes. Otherwise, you shouldn't have much to fear, even from a high mileage example.
(approx based on a 2014 A8 3.0 TDI - Ex Vat) An air filter costs around £58, an oil filter costs in the £10 to £15 bracket and a fuel filter costs in the £17 to £22 bracket. Front brake pads sit in the £156 to £168 bracket for a set, while rear brake pads cost around £66 to £105 for a set. Brake discs cost around £50-£63, though we also found pricier branded ones in the £103-£140 bracket. You'll pay around £140 for a water pump and in the £232 bracket for a headlamp bulb. Wiper blades cost in the £10 to £19 bracket. The wing mirror glass is priced in the £30 to £35 bracket.
On the Road
Would you believe that a two-tonne diesel-powered limo would be capable of accelerating from rest to sixty two mph supercar-style in under 5s? That's exactly what this A8 can deliver - at least in its desirable 4.2 TDI guise. For this revised MK3 A8 model, this engine delivered another 34PS, with output boosted to 385PS and torque up to a thunderous 850Nm.
Even the lesser 258PS 3.0 TDI variant that most A8 buyers choose can happily uproot trees with its 580Nm of pulling power, so sixty two is just 5.9s away, which is quite as fast as you'd want to go in this class of car. Even if you ignore their efficient fuel figures, both these diesel variants feel more flexible than the similarly-priced petrol options, a 3.0-litre TFSI V6 that uses a supercharger to achieve its 310PS (20PS more than the pre-facelifted model) and an even less justifiable 4.2-litre FSI V8 variant with 435PS (15PS more than was offered by this original 'D3'-series version of this variant). You can't fault their levels of performance though. The supercharged 3.0-litre unit makes 62mph in 5.7s, while the biturbo V8 manages it in 4.6s, with both, like virtually all A8s, needing to be artificially restrained at 155mph. That V8 is also used in uprated 520PS form in the S8 sports saloon, which for this revised range, continued on much as before, powering to 62mph in just 4.1s. Captains of industry meanwhile, could order the mighty 500PS 6.3-litre petrol W12 flagship model.
A glance at the spec sheet in every case might suggest this third generation A8 to have lost the significant weight advantage the pre-2010-era MK2 model used to have over its rivals, courtesy of its aluminium spaceframe underpinnings. But that's to ignore the way that this Audi is almost unique in this class with its standard fitment of quattro four-wheel drive. The only variant that does without this tractional cleverness it is the rare front-driven Hybrid version which mates a 211PS 2.0 TFSI petrol engine with a 40KW electric motor for a combined output of 245PS, enough to get you to 62mph in 7.7s en route to 146mph. You can drive for up to a couple of miles on electric power alone too - for what that's worth.
For us though, an A8 without quattro traction isn't really a true A8. This system pushes 60% of power to the rear and 40% to the front during normal driving, but if grip is lost at either end, the majority of power instantly goes to the other axle. On any road, in almost any conditions at almost any speed, this A8 feels better the harder you drive it, solidly planted and reassuring in a way that no rival can better and few can match. Once you've used quattro 4WD throughout a rainy, icy British Winter, you'll take a lot of persuading to go back to life without it.
You could say the same about the pillowy adaptive air suspension. It's not as magic carpet-like as the rival Mercedes S-Class's set-up at slower speeds on poorer surfaces but pick up the pace and the set-up really comes into its own, automatically lowering the car at high speeds or when you're pushing on. The system works through the same self-explanatory five modes of the 'drive select' electronic chassis tuning system - 'Comfort', 'Dynamic' and 'Efficiency' being the main ones, with 'Individual' if you want to tailor the set-up yourself and 'Auto' if you can't be bothered to choose. These appropriately alter throttle and gearchange responses to suit relaxed, performance-orientated or efficiency-prioritised styles of driving. Steering feedback too, though that's still a bit vague, even if get a car whose original owner paid extra for the Dynamic Steering option.
That'll be of interest to keen drivers but we don't think there'll be too many of those wanting mainstream versions of this A8, most customers likely to prefer simply sitting back and savouring the whisper-quiet double-glazed refinement as the standard eight-speed tiptronic transmission fitted to all models slurs effortlessly through the gears. Hybrid, V8 and W12 models all get clever ANC Active Noise Cancellation which broadcasts a special antiphase sound through the speakers which somehow cancels out intrusive cabin noise: don't ask us how it works but it does. Typical A8 buyers will love all of this - and never realise what a dynamic side this car can have to its character, especially when fitted with the clever Sports differential on the rear axle. This feature, standard on top trim levels and on the S8, distributes power optimally between the back wheels during tight cornering, literally pushing the car through the corner.
The rest of the A8 experience is luxury personified, with almost everything programmable to your mood. Though this isn't quite the most rewarding driver's car in its sector, there are so many factors that contribute to its status as arguably the most complete one from the 2014-2017 era. Highlights? It's hard to pick one thing, but if we had to choose, we'd go for the achingly clever optional Matrix LED headlamps. Here, the party trick is the way they can stay on high beam all the time while using a camera mounted at the top of the windscreen to react to other traffic by dimming or turning off individual LED clusters. That means other motorists won't be dazzled but the both sides of the road around you and the oncoming way ahead will still be completely full beam-lit. The system can even detect animals and also pedestrians who get a pulsing LED flash alerting your approach. Once you've driven regularly at night with this system, take it from us, you won't want to be without it.
This facelifted MK3 model A8 was an impressive achievement for its time. It was a showcase for Audi's best and most advanced technologies from the 2014 to 2017 period, aluminium construction and quattro all-wheel-drive here 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. We're guessing though, that a significant number of boardroom buyers might find this Audi a surprisingly complete all-round choice.
Hugely capable, innovative, beautifully built and able better than any rival from this era 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.