Steve finds that driving the new Audi A8 proves there is more to it than the flashy gadgets...
The tourist Mecca of Malaga in Southern Spain is an uncompromised paradise. In peak season the streets of the Costa del Sol - scorched with Mediterranean sun and lined with bars selling cheap beer - all converge on a coastline of ‘clothing optional’ beaches.
Apparently it’s lovely. I’m not feeling that vibe today however, but it’s the middle of winter.
I am in the right car for it though. Dodging land slips, the area’s worst flooding in years and overturned Peugeots is no problem for Audi’s A8 luxo sedan. But you’d expect that, it’s designed for cliental more accustomed to easy living.
Buyers of a luxury sedan ala Volkswagen Phaeton - oops, scratch that - Lexus LS460h, BMW 7 series, Merc S Class and the Audi, know little of compromise, not at least in the material sense, which let’s be honest, is as good a measure of happiness as any. Great wine, heavy watches and the classiest of high-class escorts are all within arm’s length; take your pick of the top-end car companies and really any of their flagship products would suit the lifestyle.
Fill a room with competing luxury models and the reality is picking one over another won’t come down to any one car being a complete steamer, rather your personal favourite standing out for doing more things, slightly better than the rest.
Enter the new A8. It’s turned Audi’s Vorsprung Durch Technik up to eleven and though not quite as roomy as the 7 series, it’s a lot better to drive. It’s visually understated, but not hideous like an S Class. And while giving away refinement to the Lexus, at least the brakes work.
If it were my choice I’d have Ingolstadt’s best seat warmers grilling my buns.
But back to Malaga. In Europe’s fast flowing traffic, I’m wishing the A8 didn’t blend in so innocuously; at least that way maybe people would slow down enough for me to acclimatise to left hand driving at more relaxed pace.
Take away the distinctive full LED headlights and the A8 looks sort of like a scaled up A4. That’s not entirely a bad thing as the slender glass line gives a sportier look than the typically swollen luxury barge, but as Audi’s not turning heads with radical styling and I’m having to adapt to driving on the wrong side of the road in a $220,000+ car. With traffic travelling just a smidge under 200kmh.
Famed Audi interior quality puts me at ease with comfortable chairs that curl around you like a marshmellowy hug and the dash fit and finish is snug enough it could be all one piece. And here’s a trivia snippet to bore your friends with: much of the perforated and diamond stitched interior leatherwork has been sourced from New Zealand. Don’t worry, we get the steak.
Predictably for the brand, it’s tech rich too. Audi haven’t just trumped Merc and Beemer here, presumably they’ve future-proofed against Jag’s upcoming XJ also.
Naturally there’s driver aids. Lane departure warnings that vibrate the steering wheel should you colour outside the lines, and blind spot assistance which alerts you if you’re going to cut someone’s lunch on the freeway – I’m relying on that one quite a bit.
But the real points of difference boil down to full LED headlights and a handwriting recognition Multi Media Interface that allows you to scribble letters on a touchpad, telling the car where you want to go. Connected to the navigation system, the MMI plus function is also powered by Google, so your handwritten requests for oh, I don’t know, a N-A-T-U-R-A-L-I-S-T R-E-S-O-R-T, and you’ll get info on all said spots in the area, with accompanying images and pertinent information. Audi New Zealand has yet to confirm the MMI plus system for our market, here’s hoping they take it ‘cause it’s brilliant.
There’s good measures of soul and irony in the interior too, despite Audi technology leaving less and less for the driver to worry about, the stylish timber dash facia is lovingly sanded and varnished by hand.
With Audi’s intended drive routes closed from flooding, my co-driver and I detour heading instead for the famous road to Ronda and, climbing closer toward the monotone skies of the Spanish highlands, the A8 proves there’s more to it than some showy gadgets.
Sure, a sports car would be more fun, but factor in the A8’s longitudinal drive train configuration as per the latest A4/A5 and almost entirely aluminium space frame chassis it feels light and open to the driver’s suggestions. It’s sharper and more reactive than anything else I’ve driven in this category; no-one really touches it for cornering accuracy and stability.
The standard adaptive air suspension can be tailored via that snazzy multi-media system to suit any driver’s enthusiasm, and flipped to the dynamic setting it’s less jarring than you might expect. Even more impressively, the vehicle’s balance and the trick rear diff, which can multiply torque to individual wheels to help correct under/over steer makes it feel closer to a rear driver than other Quattros in slicker conditions.
Audi NZ will launch the V8 TDi and will hopefully tick the sporty diff option to accompany the eight speed transmission. Yes, eight speeds. Well, I did say it was tech rich. That’s an innovation that despite the V8 TDi’s awesome 258kW and - wait for it - 800Nm of torque, still affords a five metre luxury car fuel consumption of as low as 6.1 l/100km. Albeit on much slower moving highways than the ones I’ve sampled over the last couple of days.
To help put that economy achievement into perspective, the V8 TDi also accelerates from 0-100 in 5.5 barely audible seconds.
My time with the car in this winter-struck paradise makes me realise how unprepared I was for this trip. Even with my prior knowledge of Audi’s space frame and TDi technologies, I wasn’t expecting the A8 to be as rewarding to drive, or as quick as it is.
I could live without the eight speeder, a slick six speeder’s less frustrating when you’re pressing on, but that reflects Audi forward thinking philosophy I’d suggest. But considering I packed togs and jandels for two rainy days in the hills, I wouldn’t blame you for reserving judgement till June when the first Kiwi models land.
See the Audi A8 for sale.