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Review: 2011 Audi A8


Up Front

Audi has been gaining market share steadily in the U.S., but in one segment—arguably the most important—the German automaker is decidedly weak: The A8, Audi's (NSU:GR) big luxury sedan, lags way behind its competitors. Through the end of August, Audi sold a paltry 568 A8s in the U.S. market this year. BMW (BMW:GR) sold 8,963 of its 7 Series models, Mercedes-Benz (DAI) 8,016 of its S-Class, and Toyota (TM) 7,575 of its Lexus LS during the same period.

It's hard for Audi to argue that it's on its way to becoming the world's leading purveyor of luxury cars (which is the goal of Volkswagen (VOW:GR), Audi's parent company) if its flagship is stuck in the doldrums. So, the company is trying to put wind in the A8's sails with a significant redesign that makes the model bigger, more fuel-efficient, more feature-laden, and nicer-looking, both inside and out. However, how popular the A8 will be in horsepower-hungry America is an open question.

The Audi still has less raw power than its rivals. The standard V8 in the new A8 is rated at 372 horsepower, 22 hp more than before, but less than the 2011 BMW 750i (400 hp), the supercharged Jaguar XJ (470 hp), and Mercedes S550 (382 hp). Only the Lexus LS 460, rated at 357 hp, trails the Audi. The torque rating of the A8's engine (a measure of the oomph available for acceleration) only rose 4 lb.-ft., to 328 lb.-ft., which trails all of its rivals, including the Lexus.

The A8's new transmission, on the other hand, is one of the smoothest on the market: a high-tech eight-speed automatic with a manual shifting function and steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

The efficient transmission, relatively small engine, curb weight, and an ultra-sleek exterior help give the new A8 the best fuel economy in its class, with a rating of 17 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the highway, for an average of 21. That beats the all-wheel-drive versions of the Porsche Panamera S (16 city/24 highway/19 average), Lexus LS 460 (16/23/18), Mercedes S550 (14/21/17), and BMW 750i (14/20/16). Surprisingly, the A8 matches the average fuel economy of the new Mercedes S400 Hybrid, and does better than the 20-mpg average mileage of the hybrid and six-cylinder-engine versions of the BMW 7 Series.

Another selling point: The A8 is gorgeous, with a long, luxurious-looking hood and a rakish roofline that curves down into a macho, chopped-off rear end. It has a more aggressive, crouched look to it than the previous model. A curving string of LED headlights make the car immediately identifiable at night; a string of orange LED turn-signal lights and running lights make it equally distinctive during the day. I suspect the headlights alone will lure some shoppers into buying this car. They're that cool.

The A8's $78,925 starting price is a bargain, especially considering that Audi's quattro all-wheel drive comes standard. In this class, only the all-wheel-drive 2011 Lexus LS 460 starts at less ($68,560). Major German rivals such as the 2011 BMW 750i xDrive (starting price: $87,175), the 2010 Porsche Panamera 4S ($94,775), and the 2010 Mercedes S550 4Matic ($96,475) are far pricier. So is the rear-wheel-drive-only, supercharged 2011 Jaguar XJ, which starts at $88,575.

If you're considering the new A8, keep in mind that a new "L" version (for long wheelbase) will be available in November, starting at $84,875. The A8L will be 5.1 inches longer than the regular-wheelbase A8, with a like amount of additional legroom in the back seat.

If power is a priority, a new Audi W12, with a huge 500-hp, 12-cylinder power plant, is due out in late spring of 2011. The W12 will jump from zero to 60 in about 4.8 seconds, the company says. No decision has been made yet as to whether an updated version of the speedy S8—the S series is Audi's equivalent of Mercedes' AMG and BMW's M high-performance cars—will be offered in North America, a spokesman says.

Behind the Wheel

The new A8 has more than adequate acceleration, but it's far from the leader. Audi says the car will jump from zero to 60 in 5.6 seconds, which is quicker than the AWD Lexus LS 460 (5.9 seconds), but slower than the Mercedes S550 4Matic (5.4 seconds), BMW 550i xDrive (5 seconds flat), and Porsche Panamera 4S (4.8 seconds).

The A8 has a lighter feel than its rivals. That's partly because its curb weight is only about 4,400 lb., 200 lb. to 300 lb. less than the all-wheel-drive versions of the Mercedes S, Lexus LS 460, and BMW 750i. But it's also because the A8's steering is calibrated to require remarkably little effort on the part of the driver.

The A8's ride is a bit boaty for my taste. The suspension smoothes out most potholes and bumps during day-to-day driving, but on the highway you feel like you're floating a little above the pavement. I prefer the stiffer suspension, heavier steering feel, and general sportiness of the BMW and Porsche. But if a luxurious ride is what you want, the A8 rivals the Mercedes S550, though it doesn't feel quite as solid and sound-deadened as the Mercedes.

The A8's new interior is beautiful. My test car was upholstered in gorgeous black and coffee-brown leather, with sumptuous suede inserts in the door panels. The tiered and sculpted dash is not only functional but one of the best-looking around. I love the way various wood, aluminum, and leather design elements curve around the dash and continue along the doors. There are cool-looking strips of ambient lighting above the doors and surrounding the overhead controls.

The front seats are unusually comfortable and there's plenty of foot, knee, and head room in the rear seat. There isn't much need to pay extra for the A8L unless you require limousine-style space in back. A center armrest (containing cupholders and a storage space) folds down between the two rear seats. The middle rear seat can accommodate a third passenger with the armrest up, but there's a hump in the floor and the space is too tight for an adult to be comfortable.

The A8 comes with all the usual high-tech add-ons, including a night-vision system that Audi says will be better than competing systems at warning of pedestrians on the road ahead, a two-screen rear-seat entertainment system, and a 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system. The A8 also is the first car to offer wireless Internet access within its cabin for up to eight devices, as well as a little electronic pad for entering handwritten instructions into the navigation system. As is often the case, optional-equipment prices add up quickly. The B&O sound system alone goes for $6,300.

Buy It or Bag It?

I suspect that one reason for the A8's low sales is that many shoppers view the car as little more than a gussied-up Volkswagen. However, the A8 is a much better car than that. My advice would be to test-drive it against the 2011 Lexus LS 460, which is the best buy in the segment. The Lexus not only has a lower starting price but a relatively short and inexpensive list of optional equipment.

Among the German competitors, I prefer the sportier BMW 750i and Porsche Panamera, but they're much pricier than the A8, especially with all-wheel drive. If luxury is your top priority, the Audi's interior, nice as it is, can't quite match that of a Mercedes. As I said above, the Mercedes S550 also feels quieter and more solidly made than the A8. However, the A8 comes close to a Mercedes in build quality and interior sumptuousness at a much lower price.

The bottom line is that the new A8 is a wonderful car, but it doesn't really stand out from its many equally wonderful competitors.

Click here to see more of the 2011 Audi A8.

Thane Peterson reviews cars for Businessweek.com.

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