Thumbs Up: Solid, fast and unbelievably comfortable
Thumbs Down: None; I wouldn’t change a single thing about this car
Buy This Car If: You want a truly exceptional luxury sedan that also doubles as a sport sedan
Audi has a clear and stated goal for the North American market: by 2015, they want to be the number one luxury brand. I can’t think of a better way for them to achieve this goal than by building cars like the 2011 A8L; on the surface, the car is a conservatively styled, long wheelbase luxury sedan. Once you begin to peel back the layers and look into the design and construction of the car, you begin to realize that one thing the A8 isn’t is conventional.
Conventional wisdom says that luxury sedans are front engine and rear drive, and aren’t particularly entertaining to drive when the road gets twisty (especially in long wheelbase models). They’re heavy, which limits both performance and fuel economy, and are often purchased solely because of the manufacturers name and status. Nothing tells your neighbors that you’ve had a good year quite like a new BMW 7 Series or Mercedes S-Class.
Unless, of course, your neighbors are truly car savvy. Those in the know would be be more impressed if you drove up in a new Audi A8, which thinks outside the box in engineering to achieve some truly impressive numbers. On paper, it’s easy to pass by the A8; after all, it’s 372-horsepower V-8 engine surely can’t be powerful enough to move the largest luxury sedan on the market today with any authority, especially if it’s sending power to all four wheels. Or can it?
Thanks to an aluminum spaceframe construction (pioneered by the A8 in 1994), the long-wheelbase version of the A8 weighs in at just 4,453 pounds, compared to 4,718 pounds for a BMW 750i equipped with all wheel drive or 4,609 pounds for a Mercedes Benz’s S550 4Matic. That lower weight makes the Audi A8L feel more athletic than you’d expect, and it also translates to some fairly impressive fuel economy for a car of the A8’s size: the EPA rates the A8L at 27 mpg highway.
Luxury car buyers don’t want flashy style, and the best word to describe the A8 is “tasteful”. The car’s lines are instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the Audi brand, and the car’s most distinctive feature may be it’s bold and prominent grille. LED running lights give the car a near-sinister appearance, and I suspect that A8 drivers have little problem with slower traffic yielding the left lane on Germany’s Autobahn. Chrome trim is kept to a minimum, used to define the trademark grille, front vents, rocker panels, greenhouse and rear fascia only. Even the car’s 19-inch wheels are refined, befitting a car of the A8L’s dignity while adding to its performance capabilities.
As nice as the outside is, the cabin is a testament to style, form and function. The 22-way climate controlled seats (part of the Premium Package) are, hands down, the most comfortable I’ve ever experienced. Everything you an possibly imagine is adjustable on these seats, via an intuitive on-screen menu. Both driver and passenger get heating and cooling, as well as numerous choices for back massage. Buy an A8, and you may find yourself moving farther away from work, just to enjoy the seats (and the car’s driving dynamic).
Rear seat passengers forgo the massage, but get jaw-dropping amounts of legroom and heated seats. If you want the full limousine effect, Audi offers the A8L with an “Executive Rear Seat” package, which includes power adjustable rear seats, footrests, a center console with refrigerator and a dual-screen DVD entertainment system. The package also gets you upgraded leather, but I’m not even sure how that’s possible; the leather in the standard car is quite impressive.
Almost anything you can imagine is configurable in the Audi A8, via a superbly-designed multi-media interface. Menus displayed on the car’s retractable LCD screen allow you to dial in everything from climate through suspension settings, and I found the system to be perhaps the most intuitive on the market. That’s not to say it’s easy, since the car has so many variables that can be changed to an owner’s preferences. Still, a few hours behind the wheel is all it takes to get intimately familiar with scrolling through menus and changing settings, which is perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Audi’s designers. I’ve struggled with interface systems on cars that had far less adjustability, and I believe that Audi has a near perfect design.
Like the exterior, the dash and the interior of the A8 define understated luxury. The dash top appears to be hand-stitched leather, and both wood and aluminum trim are used to add character. The A8’s instruments are an ideal blend of tradition (like the analog tachometer and speedometer) and technology (like the LCD temperature gauge and the LCD fuel gauge), and the panel includes a comprehensive, user-configurable information display. Any manufacturer contemplating a switch to high-resolution LCD instrumentation would be well-advised to examine the A8’s display; for a high-end automobile, it’s exactly what I expect to see.
Under the A8L’s hood lies the only engine choice, a 4.2-liter V-8 rated at 372 horsepower and 328 foot pounds of torque. Critics may pan Audi for not offering a V-10 or higher output V-8 (at least until we get the new Audi S8), but I’ll be the first to tell you it isn’t needed. Thanks to the A8L’s relatively light weight (for it’s size, anyway), the 4.2 liter V-8 will get the car from zero to sixty in under 6.5 seconds, and will run the quarter mile in 13.8 seconds. If you need a frame of reference, that time is on par with a 2010 Dodge Charger SRT-8, which came with a 6.1-liter Hemi V-8 good for 425 horsepower. Despite the A8L’s quattro all-whee-drive system, the car is rated at 17 mpg city and 27 mpg highway, and I saw an actual 20.8 mpg in a mix of city and highway driving.
And driving is really what the A8L is all about. Even in Comfort mode, the car never exhibits noticeable body roll in corners, despite the pneumatic suspension’s elevated ride height. Set the car to Dynamic mode, and it’s easy to forget you’re driving a luxury sedan; the pneumatic suspension lowers the ride height, the steering gets substantially heavier and the eight-speed automatic transmission seems to hold gears just a bit longer, for quicker acceleration. If you want the best of both world’s simply set the car to Auto mode, and it will adjust suspension settings based on your driving style.
Behind the wheel, it’s easy to forget how big the A8L is. Despite it’s size, the car is utterly confidence-inspiring and easy to drive fast. In fact, it may be too easy to drive with enthusiasm, and owners would be advised to keep an eye on their speed. The big Audi never really conveys a sense of speed to driver or passengers, but that’s exactly what you want from a luxury sedan. In case you need reminding, Audi allows you to set a speed warning to alert the driver when a speed threshold has been crossed. This could really come in handy when traversing states like Virginia, well-know for their enthusiastic enforcement of speeding laws.
My Audi A8L tester had a list price of $84,875, including a destination charge of $875. The sole option on my car was the $2,000 Premium Package (22-way adjustable, climate-controlled front seats, wood trim on front seatbacks), which yielded a sticker price of $86,875. For comparison, a comparably equipped BMW 750i xDrive would sticker at $93,425 and a similarly appointed Mercedes S550 4Matic would list for $104,205. If you’re in the market for a full-size, premium luxury sedan, don’t overlook the Audi A8L; a few minutes behind the wheel is all it will take to turn you into a believer, too.