The Audi A8 is a highly capable and desirable luxury saloon that's very easy to live with, despite its flaws

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The journey to this third-generation Audi 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.

The Audi A8 is one of the most understated cars in its class

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 Audi 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 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, but almost dare you to say it isn’t actually a damned sight better. Inglostadt's hastiness to facelift the A8 in 2014, was done with sound rationale in mind, as Stuttgart giant Mercedes-Benz was readying its new Mercedes-Benz S-Class - which we now know is the benchmark for any car claiming luxury pretensions.

Most A8s will be seen on the chauffeur circuit with diesel badges on their boot, either a 3.0-litre V6 or Audi A8 4.2-litre V8. There is also can opt for the boombastic Audi S8, which comes with a 4.0-litre TFSI engin. Then there are either SE Executive, Sport or Black Edition trim levels and long or standard wheelbase models, while special trims are reserved for those opting for the W12 or S8 variants. Every version currently gets quattro four-wheel drive.

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To achieve its aims, this Audi 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. Thinking about the current generation Mercedes-Benz S-Class, it needs to be good in all areas if it wants to snatch its crown or keep the technological brilliance of the BMW 7 Series at bay.


Audi A8

The A8 continues to plough a lonely furrow as the only luxury car to be constructed around an aluminium spaceframe, the argument from Audi being that it’s lighter than conventional steel but easier to manufacture than the aluminium monocoque arrangement preferred by Jaguar. However, maybe others have taken note as the new 7 Series is built predominantly using a mix of aluminium and high-strength steel laced with a carbonfibre polymer.

For this generation, Audi has focused on using aluminium alloys whose extra strength not only makes the A8’s structure 25 percent more rigid than before but, despite its extra size, also very slightly lighter because less of the metal is needed. The entire car is around 50kg heavier than what went before, a modest increase given its added content.

The A8 remains Audi's showcase for the latest technology

It sits on multi-link suspension at each end with standard air springing and electronic damper control. So-called ‘dynamic’ steering, which can vary its ratio according to need, is an option and came fitted to our test car.

Horizontal chrome strips that dominate the grille and radar sensors that look like front foglights are intended to emphasise the A8’s sporting credentials by giving an impression of low-slung width. A low-level chrome strip goes around the car and adds a welcome touch of class to the exterior styling. Although the S8 gains a wealth of black exterior styling features, giving it a mean stance and presence.

Among the tech highlights, Audi is following BMW’s and Mercedes’ lead by offering a night vision camera with pedestrian recognition, but it’s another pricey option. Similarly, solar panels in the optional sunroof provide the power to circulate cool air even when the engine is switched off. These gadgets emphasise the car's top-end status - but they are also expensive, and retain a fraction of their value in time.


Audi A8 interior

On first acquaintance, an important role in the long-term success of the A8, and the way it marries technological know-how with traditional materials so comfortably merits special praise.

A pity for Audi, then, that Jaguar ’s XJ has moved the goalposts to the other side of the field, before BMW and Mercedes-Benz decided to pick them up and take them with them. For all of its comfort and luxury, the A8 interior still feels like a place where you pass the time waiting to be somewhere you’d rather be. It's rivals interiors are destinations in themselves, cabins you might actually not want to leave

The optional B&O audio system is pricey but has the wow-factor - speakers rise out of the dashboard when the system is activated

Expect the A8 to come with a wealth of standard equipment, especially as it has had its mid-life facelift, but also expect the options list to be extensive and expensive. There are three key trims - SE Executive, Sport and Black Edition, with the entry-level trim the only one available on the long-wheelbase versions.

SE Executive A8s come with adaptive air suspension, 18in alloy wheels, a sports differential, LED headlights, parking sensors, reversing camera, double-galzing and cruise control as standard on the outside, while inside there is Valcona leather upholstery, 22-way electrically adjustable and heated front seats, climate control, LED interior lighting, and Audi's MMI infotainment system complete with an 8.0in display, sat nav, DAB radio, Bluetooth, media player connectivity and 20GB of HDD space. If you opt for the long-wheelbase model then you'll find outer heated rear seats, 4-zone climate control, and a sunroof included in the package.

The mid-range Sport models gain 19in alloy wheels, sports seats, a Bose sound system, Matrix LED headlights and sporty exterior details, while the range-topping Black Edition model adds 21in alloy wheels, sports air suspension and numerous exterior black gloss detailings.

For those wanting the barmy 6.3-litre W12 A8, expect to find all the equipment on the SE Executive L model plus 14-speaker Bose sound system, Matrix LED headlights and dynamic indicators, a CD/DVD changer, electrically adjustable rear seats, laminated windows and windscreen, and added leather upholstery. While those wanting a sporty large saloon will be well catered for with the S8, with the standard wheelbase car gaining a sport tweaked adaptive air suspension set-up, sports differential, and dynamic steering, Audi Sport bodykit, a 360-degree camera, a Bose sound system and active noise cancellation.

The S8 Plus is only available in long-wheelbase, and gains amore aggressive body kit, Alcantara and leather upholstery, adaptive cruise control and electric sunblinds. The S8 and S8 Plus both use the same 4.0-litre TFSI petrol engine, which produces 512bhp and 596bhp respectively, with the latter having an overboost function which produces an extra 37lb ft of torque - taking it to 553lb ft, as they aim to take chunks out of the AMG Mercedes-AMG S 63 and S65, along with setting the gauntlet for the impending M760Li.


4.2-litre V8 Audi A8 diesel engine

For a diesel-powered limo weighing substantially over two tonnes as tested, the best-selling Audi A8 4.2 V8 TDI’s performance is frankly preposterous.

Making full use of its all-wheel drive system, that 590lb ft of torque and its army of tightly stacked gear ratios, it hits 60mph in 5.0sec flat and 100mph in 13.0sec, numbers you’d have needed a supercar to match 10 years ago. It is the fastest-accelerating diesel car we have tested, and by a huge margin.

The A8 is stunningly refined, especially at a motorway cruise

Yet the figures themselves aren’t half as impressive as the manner in which they’re delivered. A slight grumble at idle is the only way most occupants would ever twig which fuel feeds this engine. It’s whisper quiet at a constant cruise, with just a hint of a snarl when it gets down to business. Truth is, if you never did more than 2500rpm, the A8 would still provide all the performance you’d ever really need.

We love the way it interacts with the ZF gearbox, too. It’s quick to leap down a cog or two when you call for it, but the rest of the time it’s happy letting the engine’s torque do the work, keeping the revs low and the changes so smooth that they’re noticeable most from the repositioning of the revcounter needle.

Our only concern is an occasional and slight awkwardness around town if you almost come to a halt but then have to set off again.

The 3.0-litre V6 diesel is similarly refined and packs quite a punch combined with impressive smoothness. Plus, with eco measures such as stop-start, it’s reasonably fuel efficient. For most drivers (or owners) most of the time it delivers more than sufficient performance.

The diesels more or less match the acceleration figures of their similar-sized petrol brethren, but it’s the extra torque (combined with economy) that makes the petrol cars redundant – especially the W12-powered car. We'd only recommend the petrol route if you cover very few miles and must have the absolute last word in refinement.

The W12 as you would expect packs a punch and is far more soulful than its diesel compatriats, while the snarling 4.0-litre V8 under the bonnet of the S8 turns this limo into a 2.0-tonne bullet.


Audi A8 cornering

The Audi A8, like most Audis, rides best on standard wheels and suspension. Although we can see some benefit to the handling if you choose a combination of sports suspension and bigger alloys (and to the styling), the first priority of any car in this class should be to provide occupants with a superlative ride quality, which, especially in Sport trim, the A8 does not.

But we need some perspective here. Even in this trim, the A8 does not ride badly and there has been a clear improvement over the mediocre standards set by its predecessor, but what remains is still not what we’d have hoped for from a car like this.

The A8 isn't as engaging to drive as a Jaguar XJ

Like other air-suspended cars, the A8 pitter-patters its way around town, and even when you’re fully up to speed there is a determinedly firm edge to your progress. And that is even with the suspension in its Comfort setting. Unless you are really pressing on, Dynamic is best avoided.

One benefit of this is that primary ride quality – the car’s ability to maintain its ride height on difficult roads – is actually very good. This attribute couples with precise steering (which we prefer when left in its Comfort setting) and exceptional grip and traction to make the A8 indecently fast point to point for such a large and luxurious car.

But that does not make the A8 a fun car to drive. The steering may be accurate, but so too is it lifeless, meaning that even driven hard the A8 fails to interact with the driver in the same way as a Jaguar XJ does on the smallest journey. Its handling appears as something to be admired from a distance, not savoured as an integral part of the driving experience.


Audi A8

The A8 is expensive even if you don’t get carried away with the seemingly endless options list. It’s also not going to be cheap to run, even though Audi claims its fuel consumption is 19 percent better than the outgoing model’s: diesel or not, you don’t give a car the ability to accelerate two tonnes of metal to 60mph in five seconds without paying a price at the pumps.

We put the 4.2 TDI through its paces on our test route and managed 26.3mpg overall, which is likely to be representative of what can be expected over a tankful of varied driving conditions and about 10mpg shy of Audi’s claimed average. We'd expect that sort of margin from the official economy figures to be true across all engine configurations.

Keep your fingers away from the options list if you don’t want to get them burned; our test car came with £23,445 of goodies

Depreciation is never kind to this class of car. However, the Audi A8 is forecast to be hit harder than its immediate rivals. In its first year alone, a 4.2 TDI SE Exec will lose a shocking 51 percent of its list price. That’s better than any of the petrol cars, but the smaller diesel will fare much better. It should also improve your economy by around 6mpg, while emissions are usefully lower at 174g/km for the short-wheelbase car.


4 star Audi A8

Audi has achieved many things with this broadly impressive new A8. In every configuration it is quick, conspicuously well built, handsome, clever and quiet. It now competes at the highest level, even if Jaguar has taken a slightly different route and Mercedes-Benz and BMW have decided to lift the bar higher once again.

But so, too, is the Audi flawed. Our issues with its ride quality might be resolved by choosing standard suspension and wheels, but the lack of rear room can be fixed only by the purchase of a long-wheelbase version. We’d also have liked a bit more attention paid to how the car feels in the driver’s hands rather than seeing just how quickly it can get down a given stretch of road.

Its a shame the A8 doesn't move the game on, but there's still much to like

Much as the Audi cabin is a supreme example of craftsmanship, style-wise it leaves us a little cold, while the sheer number of controls to fathom is hardly the work of ergonomic genius. It’s impressive from the back seat, but the driver won’t enjoy it as much as in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or 7 Series.

The Audi is marginally cheaper than an Mercedes-Benz S-Class, while there’s a much broader choice of engines. However, the Audi will also depreciate faster than its rivals, something that only time in this class will help cure; Audi is a relatively new player in the luxury field.

Overall, though, the A8 is a welcome player in the class — flawed, sure, but hugely capable, innovative and, once you’ve figured out how it all works, easy to live with. It’s not going to bust the class apart, as Audi might have hoped, but anyone in line for the keys to an A8 will surely be delighted by the prospect, especially if the S8 is factored into their thinking.

Audi A8 2010-2017 First drives