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The Audi A8 has take the long road in becoming a legitimate competitor for the full-size Mercedes-Benz and BMW sedans. When it made its debut with an optional W-12 engine and its aluminum space frame, we were impressed--but it didn't yet have the allure for executive-class sedans built up over decades by vehicles like the S-Class and 7-Series.
But, it's the newest generation of A8 that truly stands out as a fully realized contender in the niche. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class still stands at the front of the line in the class, and the 7-Series isn't trailing far behind–but the A8 offers a set of interesting drivetrains and an abundance of technology to help sway shoppers toward the rings, rather than the star and roundel. It's a real player in the segment now–competing happily at virtually every level–and even winning some of the categories along the way.
For 2015, the A8 gains more attractive LED headlamps standard across the lineup, and more power with better efficiency amongst some of its drivetrains.
The A8 comes in standard-length A8 and extended-length A8 L models, depending on which drivetrain is specified. We'd recommend the A8 L and its five inches of additional wheelbase and overall length. Nearly all of it goes to rear legroom: you get a roomier rear seat, with easier entry and exit, and no significant sacrifice in maneuverability. Trunk space is abundant in both versions. Included in the W12 and available in V-8 models 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. We'd also recommend you spring for the two-panel panoramic sunroof as it brightens the interior without interfering with headroom.
The Audi A8 comes with the latest version of Audi's MMI system, which is completely redesigned versus the previous generation. Once again, you get a rotating controller to scroll through menus, but the special new feature is MMI Touch--a scratchpad that makes address or info entry much easier by simply scratching out individual letters. Steering-wheel controls also let you see an abbreviated list of options, and a new Google Maps–based navigation system uses its own data connection to get live-updated mapping and routing information. That system and an integrated wireless hotspot have been made standard, though the data is on subscription from T-Mobile.
Serious audiophiles will want to go for the top Bang & 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 20GB hard drive and two 10.2-inch screens, or—for the classic executive car need—a folding table.
With the A8, Audi's fielded a sedan with arguably less compelling looks than its own lissome A7 hatchback. But the job of a German full-size four-door isn't to draw stares, it's to avert gazes. The details do the talking: the LED running lights and taillamps are heirloom-quality, and there's not much other jewelry laid out for public inspection. It's inside where the Audi hides its wealth: the cockpit's lavish in a restrained way, with hides and wood and aluminum and even carbon fiber laid side by side, radiantly and so carefully, the sueded headliner takes some time to pick up.
The usual A8 lineup of V-6, V-8, and W-12 engines has been joined by a V-6 turbodiesel with outstanding economy and very good performance. It adds a useful dimension to the A8, a blast of 800-mile-per-tank, 36-mpg practicality to an $85,000 sedan that bolds and underscores Audi's commitment to diesels. All the other powertrains offer better acceleration and qualitative performance, outside of fuel economy: of them, we'd opt for the S8's revtastic twin-turbo V-8 and its 520 horsepower over the 333-hp supercharged six or the detuned 435-hp twin-turbo V-8 that both come in either wheelbase. There's also the patriarchal long-wheelbase W-12-powered car, with 500 hp, and it seems decadent in a car intent on being less conventional and more thoughtful.
A well-calibrated eight-speed automatic and all-wheel drive are standard equipment on every A8, and the combination accent its surefooted feel. It's light to the touch until you make it not so via Audi Drive Select, the electronically calibrated, driver-adjustable system that governs powertrain, steering, and suspension feel. Drive Select gives drivers the choice of Dynamic, Comfort, Auto, or Individual modes. Overall, it's an excellent setup that brings out the best in this big sedan, whether you're in tight switchbacks or cruising on the highway. The only letdown is that the steering feel (or lack thereof) leaves enthusiasts much to be desired.