Known for its all-aluminium spaceframe construction and luxo-barge looks, the A8 sells modestly around the world and is admired both for its meticulous interior and its all-weather traction.
It’s ironic, then, that the most popular A8 model in Britain will be the front-wheel-drive model powered by the smallest diesel engine, which will sell mainly to the chauffeur market. The back seat is the closest that most of us will ever get to driving the new A8.
Way back when Audi first entered this market in competition with the BMW 7-series and Mercedes-Benz S-class, its V8 model was called simply that, V8, although a certain BMW PR gave it the charming sobriquet “Boat Anchor”.
On reflection, he wasn’t that far wrong and while subsequent models have been improved beyond all recognition, there’s always been a suspicion that these big Audis’ raison d’être is as much as technology carriers as they are driving machines.
There’s no shortage of Vorsprung durch Technik with this new model.
Under the aluminium panels lies the Volkswagen group’s Modular Longitudinal Platform (MLP), which underpins everything larger than Audi’s A4 including the VW Passat, Skoda Superb, Seat Exeo, and the VW Phaeton and Bentley Continental replacements.
Not that those cars will share the Audi/Alcoa-developed Aluminium Space Frame (ASF), introduced in 1994 and which is seen here in its latest, stiffest and lightest guise.
No, what Audi’s owner VW means by MLP is a set of components, sub-assemblies and drivelines that can be shared across and inside the group’s marques.
So Audi retains its aluminium featherweight stance and this new A8 goes on sale in right-hand drive in May with prices starting at £54,760.
Engines at launch will include two 90-degree V8s; a 366bhp/328lb ft, 4.2-litre FSI petrol unit and a 345bhp/590lb ft, 4.2-litre TDI turbodiesel unit.
There is also a new version of the 247bhp/405lb ft, 3.0-litre V6 TDI, which offers sports saloon performance with gosh-wobbling fuel economy. That’s the model tested here.
Launch models will use the standard wheelbase and quattro four-wheel drive as well as debuting the latest ZF eight-speed automatic transmission.
There is also a new rear axle for the quattro models, with Haldex-type clutch packs on each side of the differential to deliver torque between the rear wheels for additional traction and something all new to the previously strait-laced A8.
“Now the oversteer control is so good that if you were driving the car at a frozen lake you would seriously not want to get out of the driver’s seat,” says Georg Middelhauve, chief suspension engineer. “It is that much fun.”
So that’ll be fun, then, powersliding your two-ton luxury limo around a frozen lake. Wonder how many owners will be doing that on the way home from the shops?
While you are holding the slithering monster at an impossible angle of drift, you might also want to admire the improvements to the excellent Multi-Media Interface (MMI).
This now includes a touch pad, which recognises a driver’s finger tracing out letters to dial destinations into the satellite navigation system.
Capable of recognising Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Cyrillic alphabets, the driver traces a letter on the pad, which appears on the MMI screen with voice confirmation.
The system also combines with Google Maps via a 3G internet link to allow the selection of destinations not included in the navigation system’s memory.
MMI also reads the road ahead like a rally co-driver.
It prepares for the more severe bends by swivelling the light emitting diode (LED) headlamp beams into the corner before the driver has moved the steering wheel, it also prepares the gearbox for a change down and will disengage the cruise control system.
As the A8 also knows which country it is in, it will also automatically switch the headlamps from left-to-right dipping and back again.
The suspension system is the familiar multilink air suspension carried over with minor improvements and the ZF hydraulically assisted steering system has a variable-ratio rack and pinion that gives the highest gearing when parking and the lowest when travelling quickly.
That steering is weird with a capital W, worse than the early attempts at electronic systems by companies such as Renault.
There is virtually no self-centring action, which means if you let go of the wheel the A8 will continue to go around in circles like a jet ski that’s lost its pilot.
The steering loads up at speed to the point where you think someone’s sabotaged it by pouring iron filings into the pump, while in Dynamic mode it changes weight mid-corner so often it feels as though a lorry has dumped its load of banana skins on each bend.
In addition, the A8 has reinvented the famous Audi bounce where, at speed, the nose eagerly bounds into a corner like an overenthusiastic Red Setter.
You can alter the chassis settings to Dynamic mode, which hardens the ride but does little for the lurching quality of the suspension when travelling fast.
There’s also little improvement in the air suspension’s Achilles’ heel, the low-speed ride quality that fails to overcome the friction and sticking tendencies of the air bellows, and which fizzes and buzzes on quite smooth roads. Dynamically, the Audi would be eaten alive by the new Jaguar XJ or BMW’s 7-series.
From the back seat, however, little of this need bother you at chauffeuring speeds. Savour instead the immaculate interior, the exquisitely stitched leather upholstery, the myriad and brilliant surface changes and the voluptuous comfort of the generous seat.
Pull down the centre arm rest and play with your individual heater controls, or scroll through the downloaded CDs on the player, or perhaps just plug in your MP3 player. The ride comfort is cushion-like, but never nauseous.
At speeds up to highly illegal, there is no discernible wind noise and the big tyres are also dialled out of your listening horizon.
You can feel and hear the mighty 3.0-litre diesel, especially when James floors the throttle, but it’s not at all unpleasant, merely the confirmation that this is a car of substance, concealing iron-fist performance beneath a kid-glove interior.
The gearbox is never lost for a ratio and slurs the changes without becoming impaired in slush.
It’s a pretty class act, especially with the generous leg and head room. In fact, from the back seat the only sign of the cost cutter’s axe is the deletion of the previous model’s separate, chromium-plated coat hooks for nasty plastic ones incorporated into the grab handle.
So while it’s no longer a boat anchor and indeed can stand alongside any of its rivals, once they are moving, the Audi falls way behind them dynamically. Enjoy the new Audi A8, but make sure you are in the back seat while you are doing it.
Price/On sale Starting at about £54,760/on sale May
Tested 3.0 TDI, eight-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Power/torque 247bhp/405lb ft
Top speed limited to 155mph
Acceleration 0-62mph in 6.6sec
Fuel economy 42.8mpg (EU Combined)
CO2 emissions 174g/km
VED band H (£250 first year)
Verdict Excellent comfort, steering disappoints
Telegraph rating Three out of five
BMW 730d SE £55,360
Swift, elegant and great- handling top model from Munich. With 0-62mph in 7.2sec and a Combined consumption of 41.5mpg the big 7 trails the A8 in the numbers game, but more than makes up for it in dynamics and looks.
Mercedes-Benz S350 CDI £57,103
Matches the A8 for cabin ambience and trashes it on style and handling. The 0-62mph acceleration is 7.8sec and Combined consumption is 37.2mpg, but in practice, these cars are almost perfection.
Jaguar XJ 3.0 D from £67,185
Lighter and more powerful than the A8, the new XJ is a tour de force of style and handling. Short of rear head room and hard ride at low speed. Top speed is 155mph, can do 0-60mph in 6sec and 40.1mpg combined.