First Drives

2019 Audi A8 L First Drive: Tomorrowland

We’ve driven the future. It’s quiet, comfy, and confident.

We’ve driven the future. It’s quiet, comfy, and confident.

Luxury flagships have always been about coddling and ego-stroking their wealthy owners, but the 2019 Audi A8 ushers in a new era of the luxobarge as faithful servant. No car we’ve experienced yet can match this Audi in terms of the new and unique tasks it has been engineered to perform for its owner/occupants (caveat: we’re taking the new S-Class for a spin next week, so stay tuned). We passed along the info Audi initially told us about the A8’s futuristic features last July and then got a bit more detail at a static preview shortly afterward, but experiencing them all firsthand filled us with the bewildering wonderment of a childhood visit to Disney’s Tomorrowland.

The car as chauffeur. Traffic Jam Pilot is poised to make this the world’s first honest-ta-goo’ness SAE Level 3 self-driving car. That means that when conditions permit, the Audi A8 will assume all responsibility for the safe operation of the car so long as the driver remains prepared to resume control within 10 seconds (the car makes sure you remain ready by keeping an infrared eye on you). TJP’s required conditions are those during which we all hate driving: a nose-to-tail traffic jam at speeds below 37 mph (60 km/h). The car must also be traveling on a limited-access highway with opposing traffic separated by a rigid barrier. In those loathsome conditions, a message signaling the system’s readiness comes up on the instrument screen, you press the AI button on the center console, the system confirms it has assumed control, and it turns the edges of the instrument cluster green. You are now officially off duty and free to do other things that leave your head facing mostly forward and unobstructed (unfurling the morning paper is out) and your eyes open. The technology doesn’t exempt you from local laws, so be coy about your smartphone manipulation if that’s frowned upon in your jurisdiction.

Acceleration, braking, and steering within the lane all happen with a level of smoothness that human chauffeurs would struggle to match. Steer at all or touch the pedals, and the system surrenders control to you instantly, acknowledging this with a screen message and reverting from green to white lighting around the cluster. If your traffic jam involves an obstruction in your lane, the system will signal for you to resume control because it is not programmed to perform lane changes. You’ll also get this signal as soon as the speed of traffic ahead exceeds 37 mph (60 km/h), if visibility degrades markedly, or if the road’s limited-access is ending. This signaling involves a message on the screen, a tone, and red lighting around the cluster. If you fail to resume control, the system tries to rouse you with more insistent tones, a sharp cinching of the belt, and a couple stabs of the brake, after which it assumes you’ve passed out, so it stops in the lane, sets the parking brake, unlocks the doors, turns on the flashers, and calls for help. Trust me, no healthy person will sleep through this.

Don’t grab your AmEx Black card and head for the dealership quite yet—TJP will launch in Germany as soon as EU regulations are amended to make it legal there. It will roll out to other countries thereafter, and although there are few legislative hurdles to clear in the U.S., Audi is still testing the system on our unique roadways and fine-tuning liability countermeasures such as the onboard event-data recorder. But the company is confident that this fourth-gen A8 will offer TJP in the U.S.

The car as valet attendant. Audi A8s will be able to park themselves right off the bat when equipped with Audi AI parking pilot and garage pilot. The former trumps the current crop of parking assist systems by always scanning for parking spots any time your speed is under 25 mph (40 km/h) and by handling all shifting and braking. Press the parking button, select parallel or perpendicular parking, and as soon as a spot is located, a message directs you to stop and hold the AI button. While your finger is on that button, the car maneuvers itself into the precise center of the parking spot, but if you release the button it jams on the brakes. Garage pilot works in a similar way, but by utilizing the A8’s forward-looking laser scanner (a production-car first), it is able to safely park itself in garages stuffed with obstacles such as bicycles. And if the space is too tight for you to easily climb out, you can park the car while standing nearby using a smartphone app. Here again you must keep your finger on the app’s AI button, or the brakes apply.

The car as virtual road-repair crew. Another futuristic technology is the Audi AI active suspension, which uses the forward-looking camera to scan the road 16 to 66 feet ahead looking for and measuring bumps and potholes. Using this information, 48-volt electromechanical torsion bars at each corner are able to lift a wheel (up to 2.4 inches) to climb a bump and then press it back down again (or vice versa for potholes) effectively erasing them from the road. If the bump is taller, the system can raise the car 2.0 inches before encountering the bump so that it can then lift the wheel 4.4 inches. This was demonstrated on a “sleeping policeman” speed hump of about that height. The car rose, glided over the hump, and settled down again almost imperceptibly. If the vehicle speed and/or bump frequency works out to more than four to six bumps per second, the system can’t keep up, and it feels like a passive air suspension.

The AI active cars available for road drives didn’t have the predictive feature enabled, but even without it, bumps and dips were tackled very smoothly with absolutely no rebound bounce afterward. These electromechanical gizmos also function as active anti-roll bars, and in the dynamic drive mode, they totally eliminate body roll. All U.S.-bound A8s will feature air suspension, with the AI active corners an optional addition. Two other cool features of this system: when you open a door, the car rises to a more ideal height for climbing in or out, and when an imminent side impact is detected, the suspension rises 3.1 inches (in half a second) on that side to direct the impact forces into the more rigid floor structure.

Car as personal drone photographer/guardian angel. A 360-degree overhead camera view itself is nothing new, but Audi’s offers a 3-D option that places a Gran Turismo-worthy HD image of your A8 in the photo (complete with spinning tires if you’re moving). You can then pinch to zoom or swipe to pan to observe any vantage point above the car. Practical uses of this feature include one that also leverages the vast array of sensors required for automation: When this screen is active, maneuvering assist will steer or brake the car to avoid hitting stationary or moving objects at low speeds. Steering or accelerating through one of these warnings disables the system. It’s not perfect—we grazed one padded obstacle and braked for another we weren’t in danger of hitting, but if it saves a single battle scar on this lovely but large bodywork, it’s worth having (this feature may not be available immediately at launch). A curb-warning feature also paints a wheel red when it comes within a foot or so of a curb to help prevent wheel damage.

And when you’re just driving it? At launch, the only engine available in the U.S. will be the 3.0-liter twin-scroll single-turbo V-6, signified by “55 TFSI” badging—numbers that mean nothing in relation to engine size or power. Its 335 horsepower are more than sufficient for graceful, stately executive transport. Engage dynamic mode, and press beyond the six- or seven-tenths level of exuberance, however, and you might wish you’d waited for the 453-hp 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 (badged “60 TFSI”). It sounds better, it’s considerably quicker, and its throttle mapping and transmission logic just work a whole lot better in dynamic drive and S-shift mode— anticipating downshifts, holding lower gears, and behaving more smoothly—than the V-6 does. The dynamic all-wheel steering system and optional torque-vectoring rear differential impressed us mostly by being unnoticeable. The driver remains blissfully unaware of the wide variability in steering ratio, but he or she will delight in the stable high-speed handling dynamics and astonishing low-speed turn-circle diameter (38.7 feet).

Of course, the A8 L is probably best enjoyed by leaving it in Comfort mode and delighting in its creamy smooth shifts and tomblike interior sound levels. Seriously, these cars are nearly silent inside at highway speeds—a perfect environment in which to set the adaptive cruise control (which can automatically decelerate when the speed limit drops or upon approaching a roundabout) and enjoy one of seven massage programs at one of three intensity levels (there’s even a foot massage option for the right rear seat, but again we managed not to sample this sybaritic feature). Sadly we will not be getting the 577-hp W-12, which accelerates as smoothly, silently, and strongly as an electromotive train engine. We will, however, eventually get the 3.0-liter plug-in hybrid e-tron variant.

Audi has been setting the benchmark for interior design and functionality for a decade or more, and despite having abandoned the MMI rotary control we have always loved, the twin haptic touchscreens seem to work quite well. Their icons, hard switches and knobs, and tablet-emulating functionality makes them easy to master with a vibration and audible click confirming each press of a virtual button. Connectivity is king these days, and Audi bests the industry with 5-GHz LTE Advanced Wi-Fi availability. Connected devices enjoy data transfer rates of 300 MB/second download and 50 MB/second upload—about three times the rate of today’s 4G systems. It even makes voice-over-LTE phone calls possible with sound quality akin to being in the same room.

We’ll only be getting the long-wheelbase car this time around, and U.S. pricing won’t be announced until closer to the fall 2018 on-sale date, but we’re told the increase will be modest. The vintage car enthusiasts among us fret about how some of this advanced technology and needless complexity (such as dashboard air vents that retract and get covered by wood panels controlled by haptic capacitive slider switches) will hold up in the decades to come. But for now, it all works brilliantly. Next week’s S-Class test drive has a mighty tough act to follow.

2019 Audi A8 L
BASE PRICE $90,000-$110,000 (est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD, 4-5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINE 3.0L/335-hp/369-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 24-valve V-6; 4.0L/453-hp/487-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4,300-4,500 lb (est)
WHEELBASE 123.1 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 208.7 x 76.6 x 58.6 in
0-60 MPH 4.0-5.7 sec (mfr est)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON Not yet rated
ON SALE IN U.S. Fall 2018

View more than 150 additional photos of the 2019 Audi A8 in the gallery below