T3 Drives: The Audi A8 is an AI-powered super saloon with more gadgets than a Bond car

But it's not quite finished...

A few weeks ago, in sunny Valencia, T3 got behind the wheel of Audi's brand new fourth-generation A8. 

Not only is the new A8 a seriously impressive saloon-cum-limo, all-but fully self-driving, festooned with touchscreens inside, boasting new suspension/steering, it's also a glimpse into the future, a showcase of the technology which will start to filter down to smaller, more affordable cars in several year's time.

 These are our initial impressions.

Design

The Audi A8 is every bit the ice-cool, uncompromising, and ruthlessly efficient as you'd expect from Audi.

The standard car is 37mm longer than the outgoing model (now 5,172mm). The long-wheelbase model has grown by the same amount, and now measures a little over 5.3-metres long.

In terms of design the A8's styling is evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

The design language has been updated, bringing it more in-line with Audi's facelifted models. The body features more angular lines making it more sporty, yet it still remains understated.

Perhaps you'll notice the biggest change at night, with HD Matrix LED headlights with 'laser lighting' at the front, and a never-ending OLED light strip that does a little animated dance as you lock and unlock the car, around the back.

It's a successful redesign, but doesn't look quite as dynamic as the Mercedes S-Class or BMW 7-Series. It's like the iPhone, sleek and sophisticated, not flashy in anyway.

Interior

We'll start in the back because that, realistically, is where most A8 owners will be sat, while the help gets on with driving. At least until such time that laws and technology allow the A8 to fully drive itself.

In fact, maybe for the first time ever on a press trip, we were fighting over who would travel in the rear first, rather than drive.

The rear left (in the UK, right everywhere else) is the place to be in the A8. That's thanks to an optional 'relaxation seat' with four different adjustment settings and a heated footrest-cum-foot-massager. 

It's a nice idea, if you don't mind your smelly feet being placed right next to the driver.

The rear seats can be controlled by a remote in the centre armrest which has an OLED display 'as large as a smartphone'.

It's an intuitive way to control the seats, as well as manage ambient lighting, the new HD Matrix reading lights and seat massage, and even phone calls, without cluttering the place with buttons. The result is a relaxing environment to travel in.

The A8 has a 'resemblance to a lavish, spacious lounge,' Audi says, adding, 'the range of equipment and materials is extensive, with every detail radiating superlative bespoke quality – from the perforation in the seat upholstery to the electrically opened and closed shutters on the air vents.'

Having traveled in the back for a fair amount of time, we can confirm, it is indeed incredibly comfortable.

Yes, your chauffeur is also well catered for in the Audi A8. 

A masterpiece of spendthrift minimalism, this luxury sedan’s interior has 'a strictly horizontal orientation' and everything just drips with quality. 

This kind of luxury car interior and infotainment system finally feels modern, where for years it lagged behind what we've all grown used to from flagship smartphones.

Gone are knobs and dials, crappy capacitive touchscreens and tone-deaf voice recognition. In come touch panels for everything, gestures, swipes and, voice control that actually works (some of the time).

The centrepiece is a 10.1-inch 'black-panel' touchscreen that's all but invisible when deactivated, but pings into life as you open the A8's door. This controls the radio, navigation and other infotainament, with easy gesture control and a satisfying mix of haptic and sonic feedback – this also applies to the touch 'buttons' that control the other dash functions. 

A second touchscreen on the centre tunnel handles air con, seat adjustments and text input. At last, the car feels like an extension of your phone, instead of a poor relative. 4G and Wi-Fi connectivity come as standard, natürlich.

The all-touch controls take some getting used to while driving, it feels a little more cluttered than the Range Rover Velar's similar system.

Navigation is 'self-learning', providing you with intelligent search suggestions based on traffic and other hazard information crowd-sourced from other Audis and, presumably, the web. 

Best feature of all? Air vents close seamlessly with a brush of your hand. That's not very useful, but it is very cool.

Specs

Top Speed: 155 mph
0-62: 5.9 seconds
Engine: 3.0-litre 6cyl diesel
Gearbox: 8-speed Automatic
Power: 282bhp
Torque: 600Nm
Fuel Consumption: 50.4mpg
Carbon Emissions: 145g/km

Price: from £69,100

Driving and Technology

Initially the UK will have the choice of 3.0 TDI diesel and 3.0 TFSI petrol engines, badged A8 50 TDI and A8 55 TFSI. The diesel develops 282bhp with 600Nm of torque, while the petrol makes 335bhp and 500Nm.

All engine options are 'mild hybrids', enabling the car to coast with the engine switched off, and to restart smoothly in order to cut emissions and increase economy. 

Both models are sufficiently nippy, but the petrol's extra refinement puts it slightly ahead.

Audi has also focused on how the car rides, the AI-powered fully active suspension can raise or lower each wheel separately, to make bumps and potholes in the road vanish. This won't be available at launch, but will be an option at the beginning of 2018. We tested out an pre-production model on a course designed by Audi and the results are seriously impressive – we can't wait to try it in the real world.

There's also dynamic all-wheel steering so it can turn on a penny, with the rear wheels turning in or against the direction of steering to a degree dependent on the speed you're driving. 

The change is dramatic, and will makes it significantly easier to perform tight maneuvers versus the outgoing model.

It also raises at 'lighting speed' if the onboard sensors detect an impending side collision (another vehicle hitting your doors). This would result in the oncoming car hitting the strong sub-frame of the A8, rather than the squishy doors, thus, in Audi's phrase, 'reducing the potential consequences of the accident for all occupants.'

Traffic Jam Pilot appears for the first time in the new A8. Subject to local laws, this is able to drive in traffic at up to 60 kph (just over 37 mph, so really, anywhere in town).

The only caveat, and it is a fairly major one, is that it can only do this 'on freeways and highways where a physical barrier separates the two carriageways.' 

Once deployed, Traffic Jam Pilot handles starting, accelerating, steering and braking, while you 'focus on a different activity that is supported by the car, such as watching the on-board TV.' 

The system alerts you once the correct parameters for self-driving no longer apply, and you resume driving the old fashioned way.

Described as 'Level 3 Autonomy', this is really just two one steps away from full self-driving. It relies on a central driver assistance controller that is constantly 'looking' at the car's surroundings via an arsenal of sensors including radar, a front camera, ultrasonic and a laser scanner. 

Needless to say, this is totally illegal in the UK, and most of the world, or as Audi puts it, 'the statutory framework will need to be clarified in each individual market.' As a result, Traffic Jam Pilot will lie dormant in production models until awoken via a firmware update, until then, it's Level 2 Autonomy only.

Also on board are app-controlled Remote Parking Pilot and Remote Garage Pilot, so the A8 can park itself, while you watch on your phone via the car’s 360 degree cameras. It's unbelieveably cool.

Verdict

Ultimately, in its current guise the Audi A8 feels half-baked.

Don't get us wrong, it's still a stunning, luxurious saloon, with a classy interior festooned with technology, but it'll really come into its own when the autonomous technology gets switched on in 2018… we've had a glimpse of things to come, and it's seriously impressive.

When it is finally switched on, the Audi A8 will become the pinnacle of vorsprung durch technik, it's a showcase for the latest car technology, and offers an exciting sneak peek into future of slightly more affordable cars.

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