Sift through some sensational shots from this year’s rally as Stephane Peterhansel secured his 14th win
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The Top Gear car review: Audi A8
What is it like on the road?
…the 4.0-litre V8 petrol Audi won’t sell over here. It’s so smooth and eerily silent you’ll land yourself in jail before you even have the chance to say “sorry Officer, in this thing 30 really does feel like 130. Honest”. But you mustn’t covet what you can’t have – it’s unhealthy – so sensible money buys the petrol V6. Both petrol and diesel V6s are the same engines offered in the last A8, albeit heavily revised. The diesel’s OK, but the tell-tale grumble lets it down. It’s not as modern or complete an engine as Merc’s new inline six. The petrol loses a bit of twist but subtracts noise, so it wins. All work well in tandem with the standard-fit eight-speed auto, and all get the 48-volt electrical system we mentioned earlier.
Audis/VWs/Porsches have done the whole coasting thing – where the engine is effectively decoupled from the transmission to save fuel – for years, but the 48V system in the A8 gives enough juice that the engine can switch off completely for up to 40 seconds when you let off the gas, saving even more fuel and regening energy back to the battery in the boot. As soon as you get back on the accelerator the engine refires and you’re away again. It works – but the car is picky about when it lets you do it, and that this qualifies the A8 as an MHEV is, we reckon, slightly misleading. Because it isn’t really a hybrid at all.
But the 48V system gives other advantages. All A8s get adaptively damped air suspension as standard with selectable ‘Comfort’ and ‘Dynamic’ modes, but you can specify something cleverer – a system that, with the help of a camera, can ‘see’ potholes, speedbumps and so-on. Because the car knows the obstacle’s there, it can prepare itself accordingly. Rather than anti-roll bars A8s thusly equipped get an electric actuator at each corner. These actuators ‘pick-up’ individual wheels (or even lift the whole car) – stressing or relieving corners as necessary to dampen body movements. Audi let us test the system on a super-smooth closed course with mock speedbumps and manhole covers, and the effect is quite uncanny. Aiming for a speedbump then passing over it as though it were never there is as odd as it is excellent. But there’s a caveat.
You can’t actually spec the predictive suspension until “early next year”. So to placate journalists on the car’s launch, as well as the off-road demo Audi laid on a couple of cars with a “foretaste” of the system for us to drive on road. These cars had all the hardware and pitch/roll stabilisation, but couldn’t see/predict what was ahead. And these A8s simply didn’t ride as well as the ones on standard air suspension. The normal A8 is smooth, really well-damped and a bit less ‘floaty’ than an S-Class. Proper comfy. With this other system onboard there was a slight tremor even on flat, smooth surfaces. As though its wheels were an inch or two too big or it was stuck in Dynamic mode. If it’s like that when it comes to market, and only offers good speedbump/manhole/pothole absorption rather than consistently better ride quality, we’d be tempted to skip it. Especially as it’s likely to be a pricey option. Time will tell.
The Traffic Jam Pilot and parking/garage pilot systems are even further away. Audi says their introduction is “wholly dependant on the clarification of statutory framework in each individual market”, hence the wait.
Early A8s are still capable of level two autonomy – like the Audi A4 or a Tesla – but because Traffic Jam Pilot, which is a level three system that enables the driver to effectively take his eyes off the road and do something else altogether (so long as it’s supported by the car, e.g. watching a movie on the infotainment screen, not flicking through Instagram on your phone), legal frameworks need to be put in place before Audi will offer it for sale. Bad news because since the A8 is offered with more than 40 driver assistance systems, it’s those that dominate the driving experience.
So until sometime next year, the A8 will have to do without some of its signature technologies. And it’s not like you can have them retrofitted – there will be no Tesla-style over-the-air update for eligible cars because most of the systems require extra hardware, not simply a few more lines of code.
Four-wheel steering, on the other hand, is available now and well worth having because it gives the A8 – especially the LWB – a silly turning-circle and, at low-mid speeds, makes it feel usefully shorter and more manoeuvrable. Competent and comfy (suspension permitting), but not thrilling. This is a good thing.