Audi A8 (2018) review: Hands-on with the most tech-laden car Audi has ever made
What’s the most common type of driver you’ll see behind the wheel of a 2018 Audi A8? Keen driver? Boy racer? School run dad? Answer: none of the above. In fact, you’re most likely to see a professional driver behind the wheel of Audi’s most stately of automotive carriages; a chauffeur ferrying celebrities from party to party, or transferring their kids from the 20-bedroom family home to prep school and back.
That’s why cars such as the A8 tend to be big, luxurious and packed with toys, from screens and detachable tablets in the rear to individually controllable air-conditioning and seats that administer reviving massages.
But the big luxury car manufacturers are also increasingly using their top-end luxury limousines to showcase the latest advances in technology: the Volvo XC90, BMW 7 Series and Mercedes S-Class are all packed to the gunnels with it, and 2018’s Audi A8 looks to be the most advanced yet.
Audi A8 review: In the front
This is a car that’s bristling with so much technology – from its 40-plus driver assistance aids to the TV screens at the back – that it’s hard to know where to start with a review like this. I’ve only had a few hours with the Audi A8 and it feels as if I’ve hardly scratched the surface. My first impressions, though, are pretty darned positive.
It hits you as soon as you slide into one of the car’s ever-so-supportive, supportive seats. There are screens absolutely everywhere inside the Audi A8. There are three at the front: one for the digital dashboard, one for the main infotainment system, a nav and settings panel in the centre, and another just below that for the car’s climate control system. And one more thing, the car’s climate control touchscreen also doubles up as a touchpad for the car’s incredibly clever handwriting recognition system.
It’s worth pointing out at this point that, as Audi moves to touchscreens at last (most of its previous cars have eschewed the technology in favour of seven-way control dials and touchpads for handwriting recognition), it has removed most of its previously physical control architecture.
Unlike the Mercedes E-Class, which is doggedly hanging on to its awkward dial and weird touchpad interface, Audio has eradicated most of its physical controls. Only the volume/mute knob, the steering wheel buttons and stalks have survived the purge.
But the A8 doesn’t abandon tactile feedback entirely; far from it. In fact, the centre screens in the A8, unlike the touchscreens in many rivals, give you a choice of audible or haptic feedback modes, with a light click or buzz indicating if you’ve pressed a button or changed a setting. And the handwriting recognition is a true revelation, too.
It’ll be slightly less easy to use for the majority in the right-hand drive UK car when it arrives in the UK next year, but if you form your characters clearly enough, the panel will recognise text quickly and efficiently. It’ll even do joined up writing.
My only complaint here is that you can’t enable both types of feedback simultaneously and that in haptic mode, the button press action is slightly different: you can’t lightly tap the screen as you can in audio feedback mode – you have to apply physical pressure instead. Still, it’s nice to have the option and, in an extra luxury touch, the audio feedback also works with the touch-sensitive adjustment sliders for the car’s air vents.
Before I move onto the rear cabin, which is just as lavishly appointed by the way, a word about the A8’s voice control. It works well for the most part, and in specific circumstances it shows the way for in-car voice systems, combining cloud-based server analysis with in-car processing to deliver Alexa-style free-text query recognition. Hit the steering wheel button and you can ask the car to “find me nearby petrol stations” or even state “I’m hot” at which point the car asks what you’d like to set the temperature to. For the record, I asked for 17.5˚C – it was a hot day, okay?
However, anyone used to talking to an Echo or Google Home speaker, or interacting with the Google Assistant or even Siri will quickly winkle out the system’s foibles, and it won’t be long before you’re cursing its inability to enable a massage via the A8’s implausibly comfortable seats. You can choose to use either of those digital voice assistants by connecting your phone to one of the two USB ports within the centre console storage box: both Android Auto and Apple Carplay are supported, and you can access either voice system with a long press of the voice button on the steering wheel.
Finally, if you can just tear your eyes away from those screens for a moment, you’ll see strips of softly glowing mood lights wrapping around the cabin subtly inlaid at upper arm level. These are colour-coded to match the car’s drive mode and also glow red if one of the A8’s many safety systems are called into action. More on this later, though.
Audi A8 (2017) review: In the rear
At the rear is a pair of quick-release large video screens mounted to the rear of each seat. These provide access to the car’s entertainment features, including music and TV and sound settings, and they double up as full-blown Android tablets as well.
A swipe to the right from the main Audio control interface brings you to an Android homescreen, complete with Google Apps and access to the Google Play store, and both units are remarkably responsive in operation. I didn’t have time to benchmark the rear tablets, simply because there was so much else to try out, but it would be interesting to see what sort of scores they gain in Geekbench and GFXBench.
Look down and to the right or left, and you’ll see a third rear screen above a set of adjustments for seat position. This screen is a smaller AMOLED unit, also removable from its position in the centre console. You can’t watch TV on this screen, but you can access individual controls for the rear seats’ heating, cooling and massage systems, and tweak the achingly clever matrix reading light system. In practice, it’s incredibly simple to use – drag your finger around the schematic of the rear cabin on the touchscreen, and the light follows your finger like a cat chasing a laser beam.
Audi A8 (2017) review: Ease of use
Coupled with soft, colour-coded mood-lighting that wraps around the interior, illuminating footwells and door handles alike, sitting in and driving the Audi A8 can feel a little overwhelming.
With so many lights, screens and touch surfaces glinting and gleaming everywhere, the interior of the Audi A8 feels more like the bridge of the USS Enterprise than a sharp, business-focused luxury car.
But it didn’t take me too long to find my way around the car’s various screens and settings and connect both my test OnePlus 5 and iPhone 7 Plus via Bluetooth and USB cable.
You don’t even need to rely on your phone’s cellular connection, either. The Audi A8 is equipped with an embedded SIM card and LTE Advanced 4G support, with download speeds of up to 300Mbits/sec and uploads of up to 50Mbits/sec. Naturally, the car’s Bang & Olufsen audio system is a killer, too, featuring motorised tweeter “lenses” that rise slowly from the dashboard, a multitude of woofers and subwoofers, plus 3D audio that surrounds and envelops the driver. There’s a huge amount of power and scale on offer here, but not an enormous amount of sweetness; I felt it sounded a touch hard-edged in places.
Audi A8 review: AI driving and parking assistance
Completely autonomous cars may be some way off being a regular sight on our roads, but all the big car makers have some form of semi-autonomous modes available on their most technology-laden models.
So far, it’s the system in the Mercedes E-Class that has impressed me most. Not only does its automatic parking modes work brilliantly, but its various motorway and traffic assist modes are among the most mature and elegantly implemented I’ve driven, and that includes the Volvo XC60 and XC90.
The Audi A8’s AI package of driving assistance technologies aim to go further, completely taking over the driving in heavy traffic on roads where the carriageways are separated by a physical barrier. Audi says it will be the first production car in the world to offer what’s known in autonomous driving circles as “level 3” automation, and it enlists a battery of sensors that wouldn’t look out of place on a NASA Mars Rover.
The car is dripping with sensors, seemingly positioned at every possible vantage point. A quick tour around the outside of the A8 reveals 180-degree cameras mounted on the front, rear and the underside of the wing mirrors; four mid-range radar sensors (two at the front, two hidden behind the bumper at the rear); 12 ultrasonic sensors for parking and object detection; a long-range forward-facing radar and high-resolution camera, plus a night vision camera; and finally – in a world first – a forward-facing laser scanner, used to map out tight garage parking spaces so you can park the car remotely.
When I drove the car on the motorways and mountain roads around Valencia in Spain, the full AI suite of self-driving aids wasn’t installed – and it won’t be until summer 2018. When it is, the car will be able to effectively drive itself in traffic, keeping to its lane automatically, following the car in front, accelerating, decelerating, bringing the car to a stop when necessary, restarting and moving off as well.
The full suite of assistance extends to a couple of other modes as well. The most interesting of these is manoeuvrability assistance. This mode, which is intended to help out in tight situations – an over-subscribed car park, for instance – gives steering “advice” by moving the steering wheel and will slam on the brakes if it detects that you’re in imminent danger of hitting a wall, post or nearby vehicle. It’s uncannily effective.
The car’s Parking Pilot mode will automatically park in parallel or vertical bays – just press a button onscreen then drive slowly past the space, stopping just beyond, then hold down the A8’s AI button and the car completes the manoeuvre with no further input from the driver. That’s not all, though. You can park the car from outside by using an app on your phone, while Garage Assist allows you squeeze the car into the narrowest of spaces using the forward-facing laser sensor.
Audi A8 (2017) review: Safety and driver assistance
The Audi A8 isn’t all about automated driving and parking, though. The German automaker has also spent lots of time thinking about how to improve safety as well, and among the frankly mind-boggling number of driver aids on show in the A8 are a couple of standout new features.
The first employs the car’s active suspension and sideways-facing sensors to anticipate a side impact and lift the chassis up and away from the impact, allowing the car’s floorpan to take the majority of the force, and limit injuries to both driver and passengers. The idea here is that the floor, being far stronger than the doors, should resist and absorb the impact more effectively.
Audi’s demonstration graphically drove this point home, whizzing a heavy block on a trolley towards a barrier right next to the test car with three journalists sat inside, the car took no time at all to tilt up on its side; it also raised the windows for good measure.
The second is a feature designed to prevent passengers and drivers from opening their doors into the path of cars and cyclists approaching from the rear – and this is a bit more clever than the usual blind spot sensing technologies you’ll see in most modern cars. In addition to sounding a warning and blinking an orange light, the A8 will also physically delay the door opening by 0.8 seconds, potentially avoiding a nasty collision – and damage to your expensive new Audi.
It works, too: as a hapless Audi employee on a bike rode past, I attempted to open the driver side door on him, and on each pass the door steadfastly resisted.
Audi A8 (2017) review: Chassis and drive
The seemingly endless stream of innovative technologies extends to the car’s clever active suspension and steering systems. As standard, the A8 is available with adaptive air suspension, but it’s when you opt for the fully electromechanical setup that you get the full suite of toys.
There’s predictive suspension that uses the front camera to scan the road in front and smooths out low-lying sleeping policemen. All-wheel, progressive steering translates that to an uncannily light and responsive feel on the road. The two-ton Audi A8 is never going to stick to the road like a Porsche 911, but it’s far more nimble than you might expect for such a large car, and whipping it around the hairpin bends in the hills north of Valencia felt truly effortless.
In terms of the drivetrain, there’s technology in abundance. Whether you go for the 282bhp three-litre turbo diesel or the 335bhp 3.0-litre TFSI, there’s still what Audi calls a “mild” hybrid element to it, which enables the car to coast when it needs to at motorway speeds, potentially saving fuel.
Also worth noting is that four-litre TFSI and top-end 577bhp W12 engines will come further down the track and Audi will also have a plug-in hybrid with wireless charging next year. Both the three-litre petrol and diesel engined models I drove had plenty of power on tap and whether driving around the streets of Valencia, the motorways or the twisty mountain roads to the north of the city, the A8 proceeded with serene calm and quiet composure.
Audi A8 (2017) review: Early verdict
You’ll need plenty of money to land a new 2018 Audi A8 – the standard wheelbase version costs from €90,600, while the long-wheelbase car starts at €94,100 – and once you’ve added options such as the motorised electronic suspension and massage seats, that price is likely to drift well north of €100,000. But if you can pay six figures for a car, with the A8 you’ll be getting one of the most technology-laden, luxurious vehicles on the road – with one caveat. I’d wait until the Audi AI level 3 driver assistance systems are all in place before you splash out, or you’ll be missing out on some of the car’s most innovative features.