Elegant. That's how we'd describe the A8 in a word, but elegant in a forceful fashion that's not at all prissy. The A8's distinct wedge shape features a short front overhang, a low hood-line and a high, powerful tail. The shoulder line rises to the rear, creating the impression of a crouched beast ready to spring. The A8 is expressive in an understated Audi way and people will know you know business when you fill their mirrors. The front end of the A8 4.2 sports Audi's traditional dual horizontal grilles with flush-fitted headlamps. Projector-beam fog lights sit below the well-integrated front bumper.
Nearly 17 feet in length, the A8 L is longer than the Mercedes S-Class and long-wheelbase BMW 7 Series models. Its wheelbase stretches 121.1 inches (116 inches on the standard A8), essentially identical to its European competitors and substantially longer than that of the Cadillac DeVille. Other things equal, a longer wheelbase offers more passenger room and increased stability at speed. The Audi is slightly wider than the Mercedes and comparable to the BMW. Its rear doors are long, allowing easy access to the rear seat.
All the doors open extra wide, making it easier to get in and out. The flush, lever-style outside handles are attractive, but we find them harder to use than the type you can put your hand through, such as those on a Mercedes.
The A8 4.2s feature seven-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels with 255/55R17 tires; these provide excellent handling and ride comfort and superb grip in the wet. The optional 18- and 19-inch wheels and tires more aggressively fill the wheel wells and provide a surprisingly smooth ride in spite of their short sidewalls. The 12-cylinder A8 L 6.0 gets the 19-inch wheel/tire package standard (20-inch wheels are optional).
The 6.0 features a tall, vertical grille the company calls "the new formal idiom of Audi design." The new grille connects Audi's familiar horizontally split grilles over the front bumper, emphasized with a chrome surround and chrome horizontal slats. It's similar in design to the grille on the all-new 2005 Audi A6. The 4.2 models feature Audi's traditional split grille.
The A8 L is the first car with LED headlights. Its low beams consist of five light-emitting diodes developed jointly with a California-based company. Audi says these lights draw considerably less current than halogen or xenon bulbs to deliver an equal amount of light. Less current draw means that the alternator, which generates a car's electricity, doesn't have to work as hard, and therefore robs less power from the engine. The A8 L 6.0 is the first car with daytime running lights that have virtually no impact on fuel economy, and full low-beam operation requires far less alternator draw than conventional lights.
The rear of the A8 models feature taillights that fit flush with the clean rear design. Turn signals use LED technology and feature side repeater lamps to signal your intentions to drivers alongside. Dual exhaust pokes from below the beautifully integrated rear bumper.
Audi also says the A8's aluminum space frame (ASF) saves about 300 pounds compared to a conventional steel frame, allowing more features without overburdening the car with weight. Still, an A8 L 4.2 weighs more than a BMW 745Li and more than an all-wheel-drive Mercedes S430 4Matic, both of which have more conventional steel-intensive construction. But the ASF offers other advantages. It uses fewer parts with fewer joints for increased rigidity. Increased rigidity means less flex, and the A8 feels as if it's milled from a single block of bar-stock aluminum. That improves just about everything else in the car, from ride quality to handling to overall smoothness.
All A8 variants come loaded with features, and each model is comfortable and luxurious. Interior design is clean and classic, but hardly spartan or stark. A choice of leather and three wood trims ensures a touch of individuality. Handsome Valcona leather seat upholstery comes standard, with attractive Alcantara (suede-like) door inserts. In the A8 L 6.0, virtually every surface that isn't carpeted is covered with leather, save the top of the dash and headliner, which is made of Alcantara. There's also a swath of aluminum around the dash and doors. The mix of wood and metal may sound like design schizophrenia, but it actually adds a sporting flair. In total, the A8 cabin is handsome and remarkably rich in appearance.
The seats are supportive and comfortable and adjust 16 ways. A memory feature keeps all the settings for four different drivers (or moods), including climate controls. Front and rear seats can be heated and ventilated. The center console provides generous storage, and the electroluminescent instrument panel adjusts brightness automatically according to ambient light. The A8 L 6.0 gets a unique, four-spoke wood steering wheel with a hub fashioned to replicate the shape of the grille.
A seven-inch color screen in the top-center of the dash displays Audi's Multi-Media Interface, or MMI. Four buttons and a dial on the center console do the adjusting. This system is designed to minimize distraction while consolidating most of the interior functions into one control center, giving the driver lots of options without filling the dash with buttons. Unlike the iDrive system BMW developed for its 7 Series sedans, Audi's MMI features a shallower menu structure, meaning you don't have to burrow as deeply through a maze of menus to get to the adjustment you want. A key difference between the Audi and BMW systems, in our opinion, is that Audi did not incorporate the climate controls into MMI. Heating and air conditioning have traditional controls mounted high on the center stack, so you don't have to call up a menu to change the fan speed. You simply twist a dial. The MMI screen matches the look of the controls, and a Return button takes you back to where you were, like the Back button on a Web browser.
Virtually everyone we've spoken too, from auto reviewers to consumers, rates Audi's MMI better than BMW's iDrive. But some rate the Audi system only minutely better, and don't like it much at all. Others prefer Mercedes' more conventional button-heavy interface. Or, easiest of all, Jaguar's elegant and traditional controls. The point? Designing controls to manage the ever-increasing number of performance, entertainment and communications systems in luxury cars traveling at high speeds remains a young, inexact science. BMW's and Audi's take effort and practice to learn. At times, we found the technology overwhelming, like when the radio came on every time we started the car. Try to familiarize yourself before you buy.
Beyond finish quality, attention to detail is one of Audi's greatest assets. A secondary heater in the A8 is designed to heat up the rear cabin quickly. Ambient lighting in the interior allows control of mood in the cabin. Mood lighting is good.
In luxury sedans, so is quiet. The A8's cabin is well insulated (the 12-cylinder 6.0 features double-pane side glass), and conversation is easy at any speed, even in the nosiest ambient conditions. There's no wind noise in this car and the ventilation system was acoustically tuned to make the climate control as quiet as possible, even when the fan is at full blast.
The audio system uses Bose noise compensation technology just like those fancy headphones you see people wearing in first class. It works terrifically well. Essentially, a microphone samples the sound and sends out sound waves to cancel out undesirable noise. The 12-speaker stereo sounds fantastic, with crisp bass and clear highs.