- Elegant, statesman styling
- Divine interior finishes
- All-day comfortable for four
- Strong and efficient engine
- Excellent, responsive transmission
- Surprisingly tight back-seat space
- Artificial, too-heavy steering feel
- Too many confusing ways to control audio
Suave styling, an impeccable cabin, innovative cabin tech, and a lean, athletic driving feel earn the 2011 Audi A8 a spot in the top tier.
With an all-new Jaguar XJ also entering the fray for 2011, the fourth generation of Audi's big, luxurious A8 sedan has tighter competition than ever. The new 2011 Audi A8 gets a new set of aluminum body panels and revised space-frame structure, a broad spectrum of drivetrain choices, and a new MMI system that goes the iPhone route for fingertip navigation. And with a new version of Audi Drive Select electronics, Audi hopes to bring luxury shoppers who like to drive enthusiastically, sometimes, the best of both worlds.
Although some might find the rather conservative exterior...well...quite conservative, the interior is worth gushing over. The Audi A8 has one of the most stylish luxury-vehicle cabins we've tested or seen, ever. It's been upgraded with wood, leather, aluminum and plastic trim, a sueded headliner and rich colors—and trimmed with a hazy, glossy-matte metallic surface that's used throughout in accents and in the dash's center beltline. Figuring in just as much as a styling expression as a functional element in the A8 are the two tweeters that rise almost silently from the dash upon startup. Even the shift knob for the automatic transmission is significantly different than what's used in other Audi models; Audi says it's modeled after the throttle in yachts and powerboats, but we see golf putter.
In the tightly competitive class of large, high-tech luxury sedans, the 2011 Audi A8 is different in one key attribute that affects, for the better, how it performs: At about 4,400 pounds, it's quite likely the lightest of any large luxury sedans—especially those with all-wheel drive. Just as its predecessors, the A8 is built on an all-aluminum space frame that helps keep the heft down—which in turns makes the 372-horsepower, 4.2-liter V-8 feel a lot peppier than you'd think when you put your right foot in it. Audi simply nailed the calibration of the eight-speed automatic transmission.
The previous A8 was no stranger to electronic vehicle controls; this version gets an even better system that controls powertrain, steering, and suspension feel—together or separately. Called Audi Drive Select system, is offers Dynamic, Comfort, Auto, or Individual modes, but we think most of the time this system does a great job in Auto. Audi also tuned the feel of the steering just right for high-speed cruising, and it's a responsive setup that shines on high-speed sweepers. While the A8 is surprisingly deft at quick changes in direction and can be flung around tight hairpin corners with ease, there's very little steering feel.
The 2011 Audi A8 comes in standard-length A8 and extended-length A8L models; and without hesitation we'd recommend the A8L to nearly all U.S. shoppers. Why? Simply because the 'L' is a lot more comfortable and accommodating for those in back. The A8 L is about five inches longer in both wheelbase and overall length, with nearly all of that extra stretch going to back-seat legroom. Back doors are also larger, for easier entry and exit. And although price doesn't matter that much to these shoppers, the A8L costs only about six grand more. The extra length might slightly affect maneuverability a slight bit, but it's a positive for ride.
Plus, available on the A8L (and included in all W12 versions) are lavish individual seats in back that might just be cause to get someone else to do the driving. Four-zone climate control keeps everyone comfortable, the rear seats are power-adjustable, and the right-side one includes a footrest while the left-side seat includes massage and recline functions. Also on offer in either model is a two-panel panoramic sunroof that makes the interior considerably brighter without interfering with headroom. In either case, the A8 has plenty of trunk space, and the rather long trunklid allows a wide opening.
A lot of real estate—maybe too much—is still devoted to knobs and buttons, though many drivers will be happy for the level of redundancy. Directly in front of the driver, in the gauge cluster, is an abbreviated screen based display that's easy to scroll through with the steering-wheel controls, then more extensive screens are on offer through the main multi-media interface (MMI) screen, which still takes a little while to get used to, but it's been completely redesigned and reconceived here compared to the previous model. The eight-inch touch monitor is beautiful and easy to read from a wide range of angles, and a new Google Maps–based navigation system uses its own data connection to get live-updated mapping and routing information.
Although a Bose sound system is standard on the A8, both true audiophiles along with everyone else who simply wants to have the best will go for the Band & Olufsen Advanced sound system, which has 19 speakers, including small tweeters at the front of the cabin that emerge at startup, along with more than 1400 watts of power. Also on offer in back is a rear-seat entertainment system with its own 20-gig hard drive and two 10.2-inch screens, or—for the classic executive car need—a folding table.
Late in the model year a new direct-injected, 6.3-liter version of the company's 'W12' engine will be available in the A8, now making 500-horsepower and capable of getting the A8L to 60 mph in less than five seconds.