First Drive: 2019 Audi A8

VALENCIA, Spain – Arriving the third quarter of 2018, the all new fourth-generation 2019 Audi A8 flagship sedan has its unblinking laser eye on the future and ice in its veins. It’s an uber-cool technocrat in a no-nonsense suit that blends supreme luxury with enough computing power to dim the lights at Hydro One. Its signature space frame, now 24 percent stiffer, is a mélange of aluminum, steel, carbon and titanium, and North America will see only the long wheelbase version.

The 2019 Audi A8’s real calling card will be its bragging rights as the first series production car to offer “conditional” Level 3 automation. This is enabled by an army of sensors (ultrasonic, radar, long-range radar, and laser), several cameras and the zFas processor that handles 40 different functions.

This writer’s first impression of the new A8 came from the back seat while being chauffeured to an evening press event. As would be expected, the A8’s cabin is exquisitely rendered. The supple leather and reclining seat offered up various massage functions while we cruised in imperious comfort and serenity. The LCD screen was crystal clear, and a removable tablet allows control of all HVAC, massage, and entertainment functions, including the spectacular Bang and Olufsen 3D surround audio. This car did not have the optional foot warmer/massager however, and that was enough to make me want to launch my loafer. Ahem…

The new A8 will initially be offered in Canada with two gasoline engines – and a new naming structure that furthers the recent German trend of having numbers on the trunk that provide no clue as to engine displacement. The A8L 55 runs with a single-turbo 3.0L V6 that makes 340 horsepower and 369 lb-ft from 1,370 to 4,500 rpm. Moving up to the A8L 60 nets Audi’s stellar twin-turbo 4.0L V8 that kicks out a silken 460 horsepower and 487 lb-ft of torque.

Both engines are mated to a ZF eight-speed automatic, and Quattro all-wheel drive is standard. They also get assistance from a mild-hybrid system that incorporates a belt-driven starter/alternator dubbed BAS. It recoups energy during deceleration and applies about 9 horsepower at lower speeds to aid with the car’s acceleration. A 48-volt electrical system keeps thing humming.

The new A8 is long and lean, but save for the gigantic single-frame grille and a continuous light bar across the trunk, it’s hardly a daring design statement. And don’t look for warm and cuddly in the dash architecture either – it announces its intentions with a serious, horizontal aesthetic that ditches almost all tactile buttons and controls for a pair of central haptic-feedback touchscreens – or “black panels” in Audi-speak. Factor in the standard 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit that sits ahead of the driver, and you have acres of digital display, and a whole new way to interact with your Audi.

The upper 10.1-inch screen deals with infotainment while the lower, slightly smaller panel controls vehicle functions. It also acts as a writing tablet for inputting navigation info and the like. The haptic buttons provide a modicum of feedback, and generally the system is easy to negotiate, offering the de rigueur pinch and swipe operation. It’s configurable, display resolution is astoundingly clear, and with a processor fifty times faster than the outgoing unit, response time is instant. Wi-Fi hotspot connectivity is standard.

The 2019 Audi A8’s real calling card will be its bragging rights as the first series production car to offer “conditional” Level 3 automation. This is enabled by an army of sensors (ultrasonic, radar, long-range radar, and laser), several cameras and the zFas processor that handles 40 different functions. This pint-sized brain has more computing power than was contained in the entire previous-gen A8. Are we starting to get a picture here? Dubbed AI (Audi Intelligence), the system’s three pillars are Parking Pilot, Remote Garage Pilot, and Traffic Jam Pilot.

Granted, Level 2 cars like the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class will steer, start, and stop on their own under certain conditions, but driver involvement is required, and the system tells you when to get your hands back on the wheel. The Merc will gradually bring itself to a stop if you don’t. With Level 3, the vehicle takes full responsibility of its operation, freeing the driver to do things like watch a movie on the centre screen, eat a hoagie, or just take in the scenery. In theory, of course.

Traffic Jam Pilot will function only on a divided roadway and in slow-moving traffic (up to 60 km/h). But more pertinently, Audi can only ship an A8 with TJP to a jurisdiction where Level 3 is legal, and at the time of this writing, that short list includes a few places in Germany and maybe Florida. So, both hands on the wheel, please.

What we can get is the very clever (and optional) AI active suspension that takes road surface information from the front-facing sensors, and via instant electric actuators at each wheel, has the A8 gliding over positive (speed bumps) and negative (pot holes) imperfections with relative impunity. It also reduces body roll, pitch and dive, and will instantly raise the side of the car 3.1 inches in the event of a T-bone hit, better distributing energy through the floor pan to protect occupants. Another cool feature – when opening a door, the system raises that side of the car 4 cm for easier access.

This is not to say the standard air suspension with adaptive dampers is any slouch when it comes to comfort and controlled comportment. Although I would recommend going for the optional active rear steering which dramatically improves maneuverability in tight spots. At speeds up to 60 km/h the rear wheel will steer up to 5 degrees counter to the front, shaving 1.1 metres off the turning circle to 11.4 metres. Above that, the rears work in tandem with the front wheels, aiding in high-speed stability.

While negotiating some tight, winding mountain roads, it was quite uncanny how the A8L managed to feel considerably shorter than its considerable length would suggest. In typical Audi fashion, the steering is accurate, light, and numb, but that minor gripe aside, the new A8 will eat up sinuous blacktop with unflappable poise. As with most Audis, the driver can chose between various drive modes – Comfort, Auto, Dynamic, and Individual. Granted, engagement is not this sedan’s m. o. – it’s an aloof maiden. The BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class are more organic and inclusive when it comes to driver involvement.

My first outing was in the A8L 55, and its 3.0 V6 proved plenty pokey and nicely linear – it can launch the big sedan to 100 km/h in just 5.6 seconds. Ah, but the V8-powered A8L 60 has a better soundtrack and provides effortless urge from any speed.

As noted earlier, this new A8 constantly maps its surroundings and dishes up every conceivable active safety system to protect its occupants. There’s a new one though that city cyclists will surely appreciate as it eliminates the dreaded “door prize” (running into an opening door of a parked car). If the car sees a bike coming when parked, mirrors will flash a warning to the driver (or passenger) and the system will actually delay the opening of the door momentarily if the handle is activated.

It’s unlikely Canada will see the excellent diesel engines offered in Europe, but the twelve-cylinder W12 will be a special order. There is a 449 hp V6 plug-in hybrid version too, which could come early 2019. Look for pricing closer to launch, and if you do dive into Audi’s vision of the future, be prepared to spend several evenings curled up in front of the fire reading the manual.

Next-level handsfree. 10/14/2017 7:00:00 AM