24 Nov
Audi re-designs its luxury flagship with world domination in mind

All images taken exclusively for Lost In a Supermarket by Robert Kerian.

To celebrate the 3rd generation of its full-size luxury sedan, the A8, Audi essentially took over Miami’s Art Basel last December and hosted a series of opulent events to usher its unveiling. Taking over the Fountainbleau Hotel in South Beach with their Audi Pavilion, the grand occasions were hosted by Lucy Lui and gave their flagship luxury car its proper debut. And Audi had reason to celebrate, for it’s been on a very hot streak recently: 8 months in a row selling record number of vehicles in the US and this year marking the best third quarter ever in Audi U.S. sales history. The Green Car Journal also named the Audi A3 TDI as its 2010 Green Car of the Year, and the A6 was named GQ‘s Car of the Year. Long story short, Audi has been kicking all sorts of automotive derrière. Everything, that is, but its A8, which has been lagging in sales behind its nemeses Mercedes-Benz S550 and BMW 7-series.

With its 3rd generation A8, Audi aims to change that.

Now that the A8 is finally hitting press fleets in preparation for its arrival in showrooms, Audi was kind enough to deliver a brand new 2011 A8 to LIAS offices for a weeklong test. Needless to say we were eager to get our hands around the steering wheel, kick the tires, press the throttle a bit and take it out for a spin. As we greeted the obsidian vehicle gleaming by the sidewalk in the noonday sun, the first thing that struck us about Audi’s completely re-designed luxury flagship is its menacing grill. It’s big, it’s aggressive, and it’s bold — even moreso than the previous generation’s single shield grill spearheaded by Walter de’Silva when he took over the brand’s design. Shield is the proper term, as the car has the appearance of a lancing armored steed coming at you: it’s longer, wider and taller than previous A8 models, and also larger than the standard Lexus LS and BMW 7 Series. Truthfully, photos of the front fascia of the A8 do not do it justice; the car is much more attractive. Personally I was never a huge fan of the “check”-shaped LED running lights giving form to the headlights, I prefer more straightforward rectangle headlights. But without the daylights running, the headlights look much more square and much more attractive.

Combined with the aggressiveness of the grill, the front of the A8 is the most attractive A8 that Audi has made so far. The only flaw I can find is figuring out where to put the front license plate. Surely whoever owns this car will drag their feet as long as possible before attaching a front plate — it will simply destroy the car’s aesthetic flow. But in a state like California where front plates are mandatory, sooner or later some under-quota officer with a fix-it ticket jones will make the owner very, very sad.

Hit the Jump to continue reading Lost In a Supermarket’s review of the 2011 Audi A8…

“This Audi Braking Guard system will warn a distracted driver by issuing a warning tone and applying a braking jolt — just enough to wake you from your texting reverie…”

The 2011 A8’s 4.2L FSI direct-injection V8  generates 372-hp and 328 lb-ft of torque — a 22 hp and 4 lb-ft of torque boost over the previous iteration. However, it’s still the least powerful in its segment (BMW 7 Series’ 4.4-liter claims 400 hp, Mercedes S550’s 5.4-liter makes 382 and the Lexus LS460 has 380), which is significant given the Arms Race in power that constantly scores the luxury market. Mated to a ZF-supplied 8-speed tiptronic automatic transmission with paddle shifters, the A8 will sprint from 0-62 mph in 5.6 seconds, till it hits an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph.

Audi has always used an all aluminum space frame for its A8 since its launch in 1994, but now employs 13 alloys (as opposed to 5 in previous) and steel B-pillars for safety. This spaceframe is in large part what makes the 2011 A8 so damn lean — at 4400 lbs it’s considerably lighter than its counterparts, and if you put AWD on the Bimmer or Benz (as is standard in the A8) the car is comparatively even lighter. All this has several advantages, such as 15% improved fuel efficiency and acceleration. Unfortunately an aluminum spaceframe also has significant costs — both expensive to produce and to repair.

What the Audi lacks in power it makes up for in lightness and handling. Adjustable shocks, variable-rate air springs, variable-ratio steering and a torque-vectoring rear differential (which splits torque 40/60% between front/rear, as opposed to the old 50/50 setup), make for a much tighter and forceful ride. Switching between Comfort, Automatic and Dynamic modes on the A8’s Drive Select System alters the steering, suspension, throttle action, transmission and sport differential depending on your lust for speed. Which means when you want to light it up, the A8 is an impressively nimble car for its size — the sportiest in its segment. Taking the A8 up into the hills to test its handling, the AWD, dynamic steering and 25% stiffer suspension means the A8 really digs into corners and lessens a lot of the understeer from earlier A8s. It handles a lot better than its 202-inch length would suggest.

With all its systems working in concert, the A8 holds both safety and luxury at a premium

Although so many amenities are standard on the 2011 A8, an important box you surely want to check is its $3,000 Technology Package. This includes the Audi Pre-Sense System — a network of sensory systems engineered to make up for your lack of attention, skill or aptitude. With radars set where the foglights would be, the A8 combines lane-departure warning systems and cruise control to detect cars 660 feet in front and 260 feet from behind. And should it detect an imminent collision from either direction, the A8 jumps to action to protect its well-heeled inhabitants: slack on seatbelts is pulled taught, headrests rise, and sunroofs and windows are shut — all to limit injury. If the collision is coming from the front, the car will apply its brakes — lowering speeds by up to 25 mph. This “Audi Braking Guard” system will also warn a potentially distracted driver if he’s getting too close too quickly to a car in front by issuing a warning tone and applying a braking jolt — just enough to wake you from your texting reverie. It also features infrared night-vision camera to detect wayward pedestrians that might amble onto the street in front of you, displaying them on the 7-inch screen in the center console. With all these high technology systems working in concert, the safety is impressive — let’s not forget it was an Audi S8 that allowed NFL superstar Tom Brady to walk away from an accident that sadly landed a passenger in the other car in ICU. Brady attended practice 1 hour later, and shortly afterwards was spotted in a brand new 2011 A8. You think he was impressed?

While safety is clearly at a premium for potential customers, so is luxury. To surpass already high standards in the segment, Audi aimed for a “wellness lounge for the senses” for the interior — which besides wreaking of marketing speak also reflects the brand’s dedication to an overall luxury experience. Visually it is a fine orchestration of leathers, wood trim, aluminum and Alcantara, best exemplified by a distinctive “loop” that spans the length of the dashboard and unifies the cabin. A 14-speaker 5.1 surround Bose soundsystem comes standard to assuage all aural demands. For those seeking a bit more, however, Bang & Olufson offer a premier eardrum blowing, 19-speaker, 1400 watt surround sound package whose design and implementation they were heavily involved with from the ground up. Also experts in the use of aluminum, Bang & Olufson crafted the speaker grills from the metal, drilling grill holes to precisely target listening positions in the car. SDcard slot, MP3, Bluetooth and Sirius satellite also all come standard.

In all, the only real “flaw” of the Audi interior is its continued use of the MMI electronics interface, which has evolved significantly but still requires a heavy learning curve. Inexplicably Audi still does not offer any touchscreen capability — which really seems the most intuitive for any monkey with a finger. Its new MMI interface does feature a laptop-like touchpad with which you can write letters and numbers for addresses (it even understands Japanese, Korean and Chinese symbols), but it is rudimentary — often confusing an “S” with a “5”, for instance. But truly no manufacturer has gotten their multimedia interface completely right, leaving room for a luxury brand to really set themselves apart.

For a company that only sold around 200,000 cars worldwide in the early 90s, Audi is clearly making inroads with its growing fleet of vehicles — they’re on target to sell over one million cars in 2010. Now the #1 luxury brand in Asia by a large margin and the #1 luxury car in Europe, Audi still trail their German nemeses here in the States. With this new completely redesigned A8, Audi is aiming straight for their flagship jugular. And till Benz and Bimmer release their latest volleys, Audi is holding court.

Prices for the 2011 A8 will start at $78,050 (excluding $875 destination charge, taxes, title, options, and dealer charges) for the normal wheelbase version and $84,000 for the just-announced A8L long-wheelbase.

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