One could ask whether large, luxury cars still have a role in a society increasingly concerned about environmental issues. And one could query their relevance at a time when a display of ostentatious wealth isn’t exactly PC. But then, what would we give our ministers to drive? Fortunately, the new Audi A8 can count more than opulence among its many talents – and as flagship cars go, it’s pretty eco-aware too.
South Africans aren’t exactly sophisticated when it comes to choosing their cars. Instead of weighing up our real requirements against the available budget, and then selecting the package that best suits our transport needs, we tend to throw all caution to the wind and base our automotive purchase decisions almost solely on emotional grounds.
It’s the reason why many individuals spend more on servicing their monthly car nstalment sale agreement than on home loan repayments. In SA, you are what you drive. Our cars are not mere appliances: They are symbols of status, of achievement, of having arrived.
There are some mitigating circumstances, of course. This is a country of vast distances – endless stretches of tar (and gravel) between towns and cities, with very little in between. And our public transport network is all but non-existent, despite the Gautrain.
In short, we are heavily reliant on our cars to get us from A to B. And A to B can easily be 1,000km apart – something first-world citizens find difficult to comprehend, especially if you tell them that it’s a day’s journey.
So, yes, we are emotional about our cars. We spend a lot of time in them. And we expect them to keep us safe and sound on long and lonely journeys. They’re not mere appliances – they are part of the family and an extension of our persona.
All of these have made SA a happy hunting ground for luxury brands. BMW and Mercedes-Benz not only sell their fancy cars here, but also produce them here, and even export them from here. Audi only imports its cars, but relies on sibling brand Volkswagen to provide the export credits needed to keep pricing competitive.
These luxury brands sell the majority of their wares in the so-called compact premium sedan sector, populated by the BMW 3-Series, the Mercedes-Benz C-class and the Audi A4. But they showcase their absolute capabilities as far as technology, safety, quality and comfort are concerned, on a far higher, much more expensive plane: the large luxury car category.
Enter the new Audi A8. The four-ring brand has become a very real contender in the premium sector, and the A4 has even managed to outpace the C and the 3 in Europe. But in the upper league, the 7-Series and the S-class retain their dominance – a target too tempting for Audi to ignore.
The new A8 is, therefore, its weapon of choice in a battle of honour. In sheer volume terms, the A8 and its rivals aren’t nearly in the same category as the smaller luxury cars. But as a symbol of supremacy they’re considered vital – while, of course, also spotlighting just what their makes are capable of in absolute terms.
Given its dimensions – 5.1m long by 2.1m wide by 1.5m tall – it’s hardly surprising the A8 is an imposing sedan. The front, dominated by a large, single-frame grille and framed by the serious stare of tapered, clear-lensed headlights, appears stern and formal, but also mildly aggressive.
It’s the face of a car that demands to be noticed, if only to cut a path through slower traffic or to be waved past by intimidated security guards.
In profile, the high waistline and narrow glass aperture so typical of modern Audi’s have been retained here, creating a cocoon of security for its inhabitants and preventing lesser folk from peering into the cabin. Privacy glass is, of course, a given.
Large wheels ensure a planted solid stance – 19-inch alloys are standard, but the 20-inchers look better and more in proportion to the rest of the sedan. Although the overhangs are significant (just more than a metre in front, and 1.1m at the rear) the A8 looks surprisingly athletic, thanks in part to a low, streamlined stance that promises effortless dynamics.The big Audi has been criticised for lacking visual distinction, compared to, say, the more compact A4. But in the metal, the car is clearly an upmarket Audi, and a handsome one at that.
While its substantial dimensions may imply a substantial mass, the A8 is not as heavy as one might think. Aluminium has played a key role in the construction of Audi’s big sedan for a long time and this latest A8 is no exception.
An innovative (but expensive) aluminium space frame allows both reduced mass and exceptional torsional stiffness and rigidity, which in turn translates into better dynamics and improved efficiency. In this league, weighing less than two tons is quite an achievement. The A8 weighs in at 1,835kg.
For now, the A8 offers a single engine choice – a latest-generation 4,2-litre V8 producing 273kW of maximum power, together with 445Nm of torque. The powerplant is frugal by V8 standards, using advanced electronics, variable valve timing and direct fuel injection to limit its appetite without handicapping output.
Thus, the A8 can sprint from standstill to 100km/h in 5.7 sec, and reaches its governed 250km/h top speed with almost laughable ease. However, the combined cycle fuel consumption figure is an astonishing 9,5 litres/100km. And given its size and bulk, the CO2 emissions of 219g/km aren’t too shabby either.
Audi will also offer an even more frugal supercharged V6 petrol engine in the A8, together with 3,0-litre and 4,2-litre TDI turbodiesel derivatives, all of which will achieve lower consumption and emissions levels.
An eight-speed automatic gearbox is up there with the very best in terms of refinement, allowing a swift and seamless delivery of urge to the standard quattro all-wheel drive system. The latter, as Audi will tell you, ensures uncompromised levels of grip and the kind of composed handling buyers in this league take for granted.
That’s certainly the case. Driving the big A8 with some enthusiasm on some of the Garden Route’s finest mountain passes revealed a car with true poise and balance. It understates the sheer velocity attainable in a straight line, partly because of the very low noise levels, and because the ride is smooth and composed – but never soggy.
However, plunge into the sweeps of the Outeniqua Pass, or the bumpier, twistier turns of Robinsons Pass, and you’ll find the big A8 reacting like a smaller, more wieldy machine. The turn-in is crisp and accurate, the steering feel delightfully lively and communicative.
There’s no body roll to speak of either. Only the weight transfer under heavy braking serves as a reminder that this is a large and comparatively heavy sedan.
However, these dynamic talents don’t get in the way of the A8’s core role as luxury flagship. The air suspension is adjustable, and while those who like to waft may find it too firm, I find the confirmation of contact with the tarmac reassuring. Besides, refinement never suffers.
The A8’s real tour de force, however, is the interior – an aspect that the Ingolstadt marque has excelled at for some time now. If the exterior appears predictable, then the cabin is a startling mix of comfort and technology. And let’s face it, the interior is where the owner will truly experience the car.
The finishes are superb in both their aesthetic appeal and their palpable quality, tangibly underlining the regal status of the A8. Also, Audi’s Multimedia Interface – a control interface for most of the car’s systems – reaches new heights here.
What initially appears complex and even intimidating soon proves to be accessible and easy to use. There’s a bright high-definition screen, an intuitive rotary controller and even a touch pad. It’s advanced technology made easy, and useful, and it’s easily the best in the business.
Accommodation is predictably spacious front and rear, and comfort levels are top-class in every respect. The boot looks a little small for such a big car, although the spec sheet promises a 510-litre capacity, which is good enough.
The Audi A8 is an impressive machine in every respect – and one that lays down the gauntlet to its traditional BMW and Mercedes-Benz rivals. It’s certainly the most compelling car in this sector Audi has ever produced. There’s also the small matter of price: At R1,1-million, the A8 isn’t cheap, but it’s more affordable than all its rivals.
Will that be enough to sway purchasers in this league? That remains to be seen. Clearly, brand image becomes a key selling point here, and in that respect, BMW and Mercedes have a head start. There’s also no doubt that a buying-down trend, especially at company level, is favouring smaller alternatives such as the BMW 5-Series or Audi’s own A6.
However, those intent on a large, luxury flagship need to get in to drive the A8. This is a car that’s at its most persuasive from behind the wheel, or even while being chauffeured. When you bum’s in that super comfortable seat, when you feel the surge of power, it’s very hard not to be impressed.
We expect more than a few new Audi A8s to be parked outside the Union Buildings soon.
By Deon Schoeman
Audi A8 4.2 FSI
4 163 cc V8, direct fuel injection
273 kW @ 6 800 rpm
445 Nm @ 3 500 rpm
250 km/h (governed)
9,5 l/100 km (combined cycle)
R1 096 000
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