Meet Audi’s new tech flagship: The 2018 A8 sedan
Audi provided flights to Barcelona and two nights’ accommodation for this trip.
BARCELONA, Spain—In one of the most elaborate new-car reveals the industry has seen, Audi has revealed its new technology flagship to the world. The big three German luxury brands (Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz) are locked in a constant battle of oneupmanship when it comes to these four-wheeled standard bearers. As each brings out a new super-sedan, it leapfrogs its rivals in terms of features and technology, and the fourth-generation A8 is no exception.
Arriving in the US in 2018, the A8 is packed with Audi’s latest-and-greatest gadgets and gizmos. All-wheel steering. Adaptive air suspension that uses optical cameras to read the road ahead. A lidar, radar, and camera-enabled level 3 autonomous driving mode for highway traffic jams. An all-new “black panel” cockpit with a new version of the MMI infotainment system. The rear seats can even give you a foot massage.
Rather than launch the new flagship at a traditional auto show, Audi brought in journalists from around the world to the “Audi Summit.” This technology expo in Barcelona showcased plenty more besides the new A8. We got our first look at the new car atop a multi-axis robotic arm—a beefed-up Kuga machine that’s related to the riveting robots in its factory. A massive array of 4K displays blazed behind the car. Coupled with some very clever light projection onto the A8 as it swiveled and moved, the Audi Summit was an automotive son et lumière of the first order. (It was also bloody loud for those of us sitting in the front row.)
A sleeker, sportier shape
As with all previous A8s, the new car is built around a spaceframe architecture, in this case using VW Group’s MLB Evo platform (which is also used by the A4/A5 family, as well as the Q5, Q7, and Q8 SUVs). And like those earlier A8s, aluminum is the dominant material, although there’s some high-strength steel (in the roof pillars among elsewhere), a smattering of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (the rear bulkhead), and even a little magnesium (notably the brace ahead of the cockpit).
According to lead designer Marc Lichte, the freedom to design a new car starting from a clean sheet of paper is “an emotional moment.” The new A8 is lower and wider than the one it replaces, and it is visibly more elegant. In part, that’s thanks to a more coupe-like roofline at the rear. However, don’t think that means space in the back has been compromised (à la A5 Sportback); there’s actually more headroom for rear-seat passengers than the outgoing model.
Lights are LEDs all round. At the front, those are HD matrix units that tweak their beam shape to avoid dazzling other road users, as well as the laser spotlights that we think should come to the US now that Audi has received the OK from the US Food and Drug Administration. (Lasers are regulated by the FDA as medical devices, and, for the US market, the laser headlights won’t illuminate as far down the road as EU-spec cars.) The rear of the A8 is dominated by a horizontal full-width OLED lightstrip, with a nifty 3D effect.
We’ve had a couple of run-ins with Audi’s “Black Panel” interior concept before now, but this marks its debut in a production car. When the infotainment system is off you’d be hard-pressed to tell where the screens actually live; with the system on, there’s no mistaking the two vertically stacked HD screens. The lower of these is for functions like the climate control and seats, the upper home to most of the tasks you’d expect from Audi’s excellent MMI system. But the jog-wheel and touchpad are gone; this is MMI Touch now. A few buttons still remain: a volume knob on the passenger side—the source of lengthy arguments in the design process apparently—as well as a button marked Audi AI, on which more later.
We spent quite a while playing with the system, and it’s about as responsive and snappy as you’d want for a touch interface. The screens are capacitive. There’s a pleasing level of haptic feedback (similar to what you get with an iPhone 7) as well as audible clicks, something even other very good systems from Volvo and Tesla lack. One note of caution though; those shiny black panels are fingerprint magnets (as well as being a devil to photograph under bright light).
Virtual Cockpit (the main digital instrument panel in front of the driver) has had an upgrade, too, with an even higher resolution (1920×720) and crisper display than before. The driver can access almost every MMI function from this display instead of the one in the center of the dash, controlled via the buttons that adorn the steering wheel. Both Virtual Cockpit and MMI Touch are powered by Nvidia Tegra K1 processors.
Backseat passengers don’t have it too bad, either. The US will only get the long-wheelbase version of the A8, and it can be specced with fancy reclining buckets that see the opulence of BMW’s 7 Series and raise things by a few chips. So you can have a wireless tablet that docks in the center arm rest and lets you control the MMI system from the rear. In addition to massaging your back, it can also do the same for your feet.
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin
Meet Audi’s new tech flagship: The 2018 A8 sedan