In Style + Design

Test Drive: Audi A8

This will sound like unforgivable whinging, but stick with me because I honestly am a bit annoyed about being forced to drive Audi’s luxurious new A8 limousine.

It is, in fact, a wondrous and effortless experience, like gliding across the road on a hover craft made of marshmallows, but the fact is I was told, nay promised, that I wouldn’t have to drive this new-generation A8, because it would be able to drive itself.

Back at the Paris Motor Show in 2016 – a very serious occasion in a frivolous location – I was told that the next A8 would, by the end of 2017, be capable of providing Level 3 autonomous driving. Which means, specifically, “hands-off, eyes-off; you can read the paper, check your phone, read a book, and the car will do everything”, as a senior executive put it to me.

audi a8 automatic carThis absurdly futuristic tech would work only in cities with well-marked roads, and only at speeds of up to 60km/h, but was clearly going to revolutionise the most boring parts of driving, aka commuting in turgid traffic.

The problem, Audi assures us, is not that it didn’t come up with the necessary combination of super-precise maps, cameras, radars and connectivity to make such a feat possible, it’s that nobody was willing to let them use it on public roads.

The company’s initial prediction was that America and China would sign up to its new autonomy offering very quickly, and that it would work best in places like Japan, where driving is orderly, and predictable, but the fact is that not a single country on the planet has thus far given Audi the approval to turn the system on.

audi a8 automatic carAustralia, to be fair, was never high on the likely list of early adopters. Possibly because we’re afraid of change, but more likely because we’re not very good drivers and we might have been too unpredictable for the tech to cope.

So, here I am piloting an Audi A8 that could drive itself (a local spokesman tells me most of the sensors and servomotors are already on board, they just can’t be activated), and I must say the more time I spent in it, the less disappointed I was.

To be fair, this new Audi – a luxuriously quiet, almost decadent place to spend time, particularly if your’e in the back – can do some things autonomously. Its traffic assistant allows you to set a speed and take your feet off the pedals and it will speed up, slow down and even come to a complete stop with no input from you.

audi a8 automatic carIn certain conditions, it can also steer for you, by following road markings, but you have to leave your hands at least lightly resting on the wheel, or the system will beep at you and turn itself off.

All of these systems, in every car we’ve tried them, take some serious getting used to, because it is so counterintuitive to let a machine brake for you.

They are also far less smooth than a human, although Audi’s latest software is pretty good, and when someone suddenly does something illegal, like cutting you up on the inside and swerving in front of you, the car tends to either not react fast enough, forcing you to take over anyway, or reacts so harshly it scares you, and your passengers.

audi a8 automatic carIt’s still better, then, to enjoy the languorous experience of driving this A8 yourself, with its light and easy steering, magic-carpet-like ride quality and superlative massaging seats. And better still to sit in the back, where each occupant in our test vehicle got their own detachable tablet (hooked up to the car’s own on-board wifi, of course) plus a pop-out, phone-sized remote to run the many features, including the type and intensity of your back massage.

While you can watch live TV back there, or stream Netflix, it’s tempting to do neither and just luxuriate in the sound of the amazing Bang & Olufsen sound system, which is made even more concert-hall like by the car’s incredible sound-proofing. It’s almost tomb like in there, and you feel entirely removed from the outside world.

Even the grumble of the big six cylinder diesel engine we were driving sounded like it was being wafted in from a different suburb.

Legroom and everything-room is vast, of course, particularly in our long-wheelbase version, which measures more than 3.1m in length.

All this luxury is even a bit of a bargain, because Audi claims its A8 prices have dropped by almost $6000 with this new model – to just $192,000 for the base version – despite the inclusion of some $36,000 more standard kit over the last model.

There are still plenty of options with which you can make it more expensive, of course, including the nifty $13,200 laser headlights, which are not only more effective than LED ones (doubling your visible range to 600m), but flash on like little laser blasters when you approach the car at night. That 3D Bang & Olufsen sound system, wth 23 speakers, turns out to be a $12,100 option, too.

Price really is no object at this end of the market, of course, and very soon you’ll be able to pay more for a limousine that drives you around, even when your chauffeur takes the day off.

Published 10 August, 2018