Audi A8 — Worthy of a headline billing

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Audi set a new U.S. sales record in 2010 and the all-new flagship A8 exemplifies the German carmaker’s success in North America. Audi is building outstanding vehicles across the lineup and people recognize quality when they drive it.

The fourth generation A8 is loaded with performance, technology and comfort. In the stratospheric world of high-dollar sedans, which includes the Mercedes S-Class, BMW 7-Series, Jaguar XJ and Lexus LS 460, the new Audi has gained real status.

It certainly is no stretch for us to say the new 2011 A8 is among the best of the best. All the ultra-luxury cars are top-rate or people wouldn’t be paying near-six-figure prices or more for them.

But the newest Audi stands out. Its precision execution, outstanding performance and impeccably executed cabin left us yearning for more. Whether the fourth-generation A8 can make a dent in the sales of its competitors remains to be seen.

Our estimation of the luxury sedan was echoed by the on-line web site early in January when it awarded the A8 its annual Technology Breakthrough Award presented to vehicles that “set the standard for intuitive, practical and affordable technology that enhances safety and convenience for drivers and passengers.”

Doug Newcomb, senior editor, technology, for Edmunds said, “The 2011 Audi A8 debuted with two groundbreaking in-car technologies: the use of Google Earth to provide navigation-system mapping, and Audi’s MMI Touch, a touchpad interface that allows drivers to trace characters using a finger to enter destination information into the navigation system or to find contacts in a connected Bluetooth phone.”

The all-new Audi A8 also includes technologies such as a Bang & Olufsen audio system, a rear-seat video system with twin 10.2-inch monitors, night vision with pedestrian detection, and a navigation system that scouts a route and then adjusts the car’s adaptive cruise control and headlights accordingly.

From a styling standpoint, the A8 conveys a sleek profile, flowing gracefully from front to back, imparting a rich, luxury appearance. We realize design is subjective and it’s up to the individual to determine if the big-mouth grille however is a turn-off or an attractive standout feature.

We are talking BIG here, the mother of the popular styling exercise — an eight-slatted trapezoidal fixture that fills up the front end. Flanking LED headlights — the only car currently offering this feature — complete the statement set off by slashing LED running lights that are one of a kind. We might wish for something a little less in your face, but the grille is not so objectionable to dismiss this excellent sedan.

The sedan’s standout feature — the cutting-edge technology not withstanding — to us is its velvety performance, so smooth and silky as to be intoxicating. It comes from a 4.2-liter V-8 making 372 horsepower and 328 pound-feet of torque mated to an eight-speed automatic — with a Sport setting and manual mode with paddle shifters — driving all four wheels. The all-wheel drive system directs 60 percent of the power to the rear wheels and 40 percent to the front giving the big car outstanding handling traits. The A8 is outfitted with a four-setting Drive Select feature that includes Comfort, Auto, Dynamic and Individual. The settings — accessed through the A8’s Multi-Media Interface — vary throttle response, shift points, steering feel and suspension stiffness.

The power comes in a steady flow with imperceptible transmission shifts. Zero to 60 time of 4.8 seconds as measured by automotive publication Road & Track — Audi lists a more conservative 5.6 seconds — feels just right and is spot on for the segment. Quarter mile time has been measured at 13.4 seconds at 105 mph. Stopping performance is equally impressive at 113 feet.

The performance comes with eye-opening gas mileage of 17 mpg city and 27 mpg highway, a commendable engineering feat.

We found simply leaving the transmission setting in Auto yielded commendable driving dynamics. The A8 is a pure joy to drive. It’s a big car that drives small; it eases in and out of traffic with imperceptible inputs. In this case you do get what you pay for.

Perhaps more important to the average A8 owner is the interior execution. The polished walnut wood-trimmed horizontal dash layout, with touches of brushed aluminum, is conservative and handsome. The main gauges are widely spaced allowing for a large information screen in between.

We had one small problem with the switchgear — the A8 retains the old-style stalk cruise control and it makes using the adaptive cruise settings awkward. Steering wheel controls as found on many cars would be a better option.

The seating is plush and comfortable for long rides. Rear-seat space is adequate in the short-wheelbase version (starting at $78,925) and limo-like in the long-wheelbase format (beginning at $84,875).

Several packages are available, some options are almost irresistible. To us, the 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen 1,400-watt sound system would be a must. It commands an extra $6,300.

One of our short-wheelbase test cars came with the premium and convenience packages, LED headlights, and driver assistance package (adaptive cruise), bringing the bottom line to $87,062. Another came with the B&O Sound package plus $15,350 of additional extras, all very tempting but bringing the bottom line to $100,575 including destination charges.

The new A8 is the epitome of what a modern luxury sedan should be delivering outstanding performance, cutting-edge technology, impeccable fit and finish and exceptional gas mileage.

If you’re able to shop in this price range, the A8 is a must see.

Base price, $78,925; as driven, $87,062
Engine: 4.2-liter V-8
Horsepower: 372 @ 6,800 rpm
Torque: 328 pound-feet @ 3,500 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 117.8 inches
Length: 202.2 inches
Curb weight: 4,395 pounds
Turning circle: 41 feet
Luggage capacity: 13.2 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 23.8 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 27 highway, 17 city
0-60: 4.8 seconds (Road & Track)
Also consider: BMW 7-Series, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Jaguar XJ

The Good
• Excellent power with outstanding fuel economy
• Advanced technology
• Well-appointed cabin
• Standard all-wheel drive

The Bad
• Big-mouth grille can be distracting

The Ugly
• Options can run into five figures