Paul Horrell22 October 2013

First drive: the new Audi A8

Can Audi’s luxury flagship stand up to the mighty new S-Class? Paul Horrell reports

In the face of the extraordinary new Mercedes S-Class, Audi's small round of faceliftey updates to the A8 seem like a bit of a feeble effort. The S-Class has just kicked the whole luxury-boat class onwards by an entire generation. The A8 is what it always was, plus a few tiny upgrades.

The bonnet now has a couple of extra creases, and it wraps a little further down the nose to meet the top of the new shallower grille. Wheels, bumpers, tailpipe trims - that sort of fiddling is evident in all the usual places. But in few unusual, or surprising places.

More usefully, all the engines get a few more powers and torques, while emitting a few fewer carbons.

The main innovation is in the headlights. The optional Matrix Beams (a new sci-fi-sounding trademark) consist of arrays of powerful LEDS, all focussed in different places. If the on-board camera sees a set of headlights or tail-lights, it will dim or extinguish the relevant LEDs to stop that car being dazzled, but keeps the others going at full brightness, so you can see past the other car. It can actually aim its lights around up to eight other vehicles at once.

At night on a country road, you can go faster, safer. It's probably worth a couple of hundred bhp. It will even take info from the satnav and aim the lights round corners, and focus them wider in towns.
But by daylight, is the A8 still competitive? Well, it goes strongly. The revised version of the supercharged petrol V6 is torquey at the bottom, sweet and revvy at the top and crisp everywhere.

Its 310bhp feels like quite enough. But there's now a 4.0 twin-turbo V8 in two strengths: fabulously quiet but very urgent, or in the S8, burbly and ridiculously hilariously urgent. Plus a pair of diesels, a decently suave V6 and an unstoppable V8.

I missed out on trying the W12. Sharper-elbowed Russian road-testers got in first, but I guess it's relevant to their more monied buyers. Audi sells only half a dozen in the UK each year, so you're more likely to see a Koenigsegg.

The A8 always feels light for car so vast, and changes direction keenly and without much roll. Its lightweight aluminium body helps offset the weight of its four-wheel-drive. So it feels like something from the sportier end of the big-barge scale. All the cars I drove had the 'active' steering with electric assistance. It changes gearing as speed increases, but it is always too low-geared for me, and unpredictably so too. And it's got no feel. Meh.

If I was driving a big luxo-barge down an interesting road on a dry day, I'd want it to be a Jaguar XJ. If it were slippery and dark, Matrix Beam and Quattro would incline me to the Audi.

But back to that first question. Is there still a place for the A8 in a post new-S-Class world? Maybe. Its clean, simple design contrasts with the ornate Benz. Especially in the interior, a nicely-specced Audi is lush but modern and built with zealous craftsmanship. And the attention to detail is mighty impressive - how about the new soft velvety matte leather option? It's tanned with strawberry leaves and urfa biber, the Turkish kebab spice.

And down the road, the A8 feels taut and buttoned-down, something approaching a driver's car. Mercedes has instead aimed the S-class at absolute pillowy comfort, and making things so easy for the driver he or she can all but doze off.

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