Things are heating up at the top end of the luxury car market. Mercedes-Benz is blazing a new trail with it’s latest S-Class and BMW is planning to introduce the next 7 Series in 2015. All that might have something to do with Audi’s decision to refresh the A8 with a mid-cycle redo that includes subtle changes to the bodywork, more power and torque for almost all available powerplants as well as some technological updates.
Unfortunately, North American buyers will not be able to order an A8 equipped with one of the most significant technological advances brought forth by the German carmaker in the form of the new Matrix LED headlights that automatically adapt the shape of the beam of light they generate so as not to blind oncoming drivers. From a technical standpoint, Audi’s new setup is much more advanced than the current auto-dimming headlights that recognize oncoming traffic and automatically switch from high to low beams. Instead, each of the Matrix LED headlights is composed of 25 individual LED units that can be turned on or off to “shape” the high beam so as to light the areas around an oncoming vehicle enabling the A8 driver to see well ahead without blinding the driver of the oncoming vehicle all the while adapting the light beam to the closing range. From a safety standpoint, this is a significant achievement but we won’t benefit from it owing to outdated North American legislation that stipulate that high beams can only be switched on or off with a stable light beam that can’t be altered or shaped. This is another classic case of legislation not keeping up with the latest technological advances and explains why A8s delivered to European buyers will feature this latest piece of high-tech, which will be denied to North American drivers. A crying shame.
Refined, understated elegance
All right, what about the rest of the car? Styling-wise, the latest A8 does not break new ground and casual observers may not spot the subtle alterations such as the lowered singleframe grille, new air intakes, the two grooves that now grace the hood or the subtle chrome strip that now links both taillights. Understated, almost restrained elegance is what the A8 has always been about and the new car stays true to that pedigree. It’s the same story inside where top-quality craftsmanship and attention to detail is the norm, as always, but the new A8 adds more in the way of beautiful wood inlays, to which a paste of silver pigments as been applied, as well the new Unicum leather tanned with agents produced from European leaves and herbs to create the soft and supple leather upholstery. New to the A8 is a very useful head-up display, but the night vision system disappoints owing to it’s small display located between the tachometer and speedometer.
Choose your weapon
On the road, the A8 never feels like a two-ton sedan. The handling is sharp, especially so on models equipped with the sports differential, which transfers torque to the outside rear wheel when cornering, and the brakes are strong. The weight transfer under braking or acceleration is well managed and the ride is very pleasant. The only downside is that the steering always feels a bit too light and somewhat remote so you lose some road feel. The supercharged 3.0 liter V6 now delivers 310 horsepower (20 more than the previous model) as well as 325 foot-pounds of torque and it does a very decent job in most circumstances. If you need more oomph, the turbocharged 4.0 liter V8 will provide 435 horsepower and 442 pounds-feet and is very quiet even when pushing the car along at a high rate of speed. Also very torquey is the 3.0 liter V6 turbo-diesel, but the real star of the lineup is the 4.2 liter turbo-diesel V8 which is rated at 385 horsepower and 626 pounds-feet of torque. With this engine, the A8 really shines as torque is always abundant and instantaneous but, unfortunately, that engine will not be available for the North American market. The long-wheelbase A8L with the 6.3 liter W12 engine is still part of the mix, but that is a special-order model for us, and the S8 is also on offer with it’s uprated version (520 horsepower) of the turbocharged gasoline-powered V8.
Compared to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the A8 is not as flashy or ostentatious and that can be a good thing. Also the Benz provides a very comfortable ride for rear-seat passengers whereas the A8 is a little bit more of a driver’s car. The new A8 will arrive in Canada in the third quarter of 2014 as a 2015 model with pricing to be announced closer to the market launch.