Test Drive: 2019 Audi A8

The flagship is packed with future-proof technology in an understated-yet-thorough new design

Autonomous vehicles are an inevitable future, but how long we’ll wait for them to be part of our everyday lives remains to be seen. As usual, technology is advancing faster than humanity and when it comes to self-driving cars and how they handle collision scenarios, it’s a matter of both legislation and basic moral principles that need to be solved for. Case in point: the all-new Audi A8 will be available packed with sensors and software under the new “Audi AI” umbrella that allow it to achieve level three autonomous driving—it can drive itself in traffic jams for an unlimited time without needing to have your hands on the wheel at all, but customers will have to wait for the ability to use these new features until they’re essentially “unlocked.” In the meantime, however, there are several simple conveniences these technologies afford that make it worth buying in to anyway. We had a chance to test these and more as guests of Audi in Valencia this week.

Regarding the design of the all-new flagship, it’s truly an exercise in simplification. The A8 isn’t an overt statement piece but to the well-informed it says a lot about the sensibility of its owner. The form is unassuming and easy on the eyes, continuing the reduction of shut-lines and superfluous body forming we saw first on the new A4. Looking at the front of the vehicle, a single-frame, wide mouth grill and headlights with a confident squint stare back at you. Larger wheels are emphasized by arches that extend above the shoulder line with gently bulging arches that remind us it’s a Quattro all-wheel drive car. The tail-lights feature a full-width continuous LED bar combined with segmented LED lamps and OLED highlights—these all work in concert to inform onlookers through clever animations that more accurately communicate the driver’s intent. Overall it’s a design that’s present without presence.

The wrap-around exterior lines are mimicked inside, giving a more spacious feel. Trim lighting emphasizes the form in the cabin, but is nested tightly in the seam between the open-pore wood and leather dash surface. While the A/C vents are set in the wood panel, they recede and are covered for a continuous look when not in use. And the vent controls are small, flush-mounted touch-sensitive screens that behave like old-school mechanical dials. The biggest step forward for the interior, though, is the use of two large touch-screens in the center stack. These screens clearly simplify the look, but don’t compromise usability given the integration of visual, audible and haptic feedback for the controls within. Further, all the things you want within reach and behind a single click are, but with improvements only screen-based interfaces can afford. For example, adjusting the temperature can be handled precisely by pressing up and down icons or more generally by swiping up and down on the colored control. Voice commands are also improved with the system understanding more natural statements like, “I’m warm,” and adjusting the environment accordingly.

Driving the new Audi A8 is a delight. There will be multiple engines to choose from, all performing as you’d expect for their specs. But it’s the features that leverage all of the car’s sensors and controllers that make the experience so special. Our favorite Audi AI feature is its active suspension. Basically, the forward sensors analyze the oncoming road conditions and raise or lower the suspension on each wheel in anticipation of a bump or a dip. The net result we experienced was remarkable as we truly couldn’t feel the bumps we drove over while the system was on. The A8 also features four-wheel steering with the rear wheels turning up to 5%. Like other systems, they counter-steer at low speeds to help with agility and follow the direction of the front wheels at higher speeds to achieve smoother lane changes. We were driving the long wheelbase version and were able to test the four wheel steering on and off; with the system on the car felt as nimble as an A4.

Audi AI also affords parking and maneuvering assistance. At slow speeds the system is always scanning for parking spaces so when you’re ready to park it’s a matter of pressing one button and letting the car do the rest. If there are a few options nearby the choices will be visualized on screen and you just tap on the one you want. And for tight spaces you can get out of the car before pulling in and use an app on your phone to command the car to park itself. (And un-park itself when you’re ready to leave.)

Another handy tight space feature is the maneuvering assistant. Essentially, when navigating a challenging space, like an underground garage, the car will take your steering inputs and control the exact degree of the turn to ensure you clear an obstacle. And if you’re going to run in to something it won’t let you by stopping the car automatically instead. All the while you can monitor the space around you onscreen with the birds-eye-view or new 3D surround view created by the four cameras outside the car.

Exact pricing and spec options for the new Audi A8 are not yet available for local markets, but the base price has been announced at $106,000 for the A8 and $110,000 for the A8L long wheelbase. Deliveries will begin later next year.

Images by Josh Rubin