Audi’s journey to this third-generation A8 began in 1988 with the Audi V8, the world’s first pure luxury all-wheel-drive saloon.This unlovely and glacially slow-selling car was, bravely, replaced by a car boasting an aluminium spaceframe and body. The new A8 had looks and technology on its size, a combination that proved sufficiently powerful in the marketplace to ensure an eight-year model cycle, and it was replaced by the outgoing A8 in 2002.

You need very little time in Audi’s latest A8 to confirm the scope of its ambition. Just as Audi itself is throwing model after model at the market in its drive to establish not just credibility amid its more established BMW and Mercedes rivals but something closer to superiority, so too can you detect a change of aspiration for its flagship. 

If the original A8 can now be seen as an admirable first effort and the second a plausible alternative to its opponents, the third has the looks, specification, technology and very demeanour that no longer meekly suggest it might be as good as a Mercedes S-class, but almost dare you to say it isn’t actually a damned sight better.

Most A8s will be seen on the chauffeur circuit with diesel badges on their boot, either a 3.0-litre V6 or 4.2-litre V8. There are also 3.0 TFSI, 4.2 FSI and whopping 6.3-litre W12 petrols to choose from. Then there are either SE or SE Executive trim levels and long or standard wheelbase models. Every version currently gets quattro four-wheel drive.

To achieve its aims, this A8 needed to avoid the trap that snared its predecessors; these were cars whose strongest suit was their styling, meaning you’d savoured the best of it before you set off. This A8 needs to be even better than it looks.

First drives

Videos

Find an Autocar car review

Explore the Audi range

Driven this week