First drive: 2015 Audi A8

DUSSELDORF, Germany — Methinks automobile engineers may be having trouble finding significant technology to innovate. Beyond all this blather about an electric car revolution or whether we will ever actually see a car powered by emissions-free hydrogen, I suspect that some engineering departments — especially those from high-end German automakers whose products are already rolling technology showcases — are struggling to improve on products that have been, well, already thoroughly improved.

Take the case of Audi’s new 2015 Audi A8. I just sat through an hour-long press conference regarding everything that is new about the company’s top-of-the-line A8 and the most impassioned — and the longest — presentation dealt with … headlights.

Yup, headlights. Now these are some pretty fancy-schmancy headlights, some new-fangled illumination innovations described by Audi as the world’s first electronic, glare-free customizable lED headlight system in the world. And, they are indeed way trick, the new Matrix system able to dim, focus and alternate through high and low beams completely automatically. Audi claims there are 25 different variable lighting segments to each headlight that allow an incredible 966,105,422 (no, I didn’t count them to authenticate) possible lighting permutations, all controlled by one mother of a computer (one, by the way, of over 100 that the new A8 requires to control its rampant high-techery).

Audi says its calibration is so sensitive that the A8 will dim its headlights for a miniscule bicycle headlamp 100 metres distant and will, thanks to its symbiosis with the onboard GPS system, illuminate the appropriate side of the car in anticipation of the corners the navigation aid foresees. It can even tailor the headlight so the high beam doesn’t blind the driver ahead of you and yet still automatically dims a portion of the remaining high wattage beam when a car approaches from the other direction. Complex indeed.

It truly is impressive stuff, but as the major technological announcement of a major model refresh, it hardly elicits the excitement of say a boost of turbochargers or a proliferation of pistons, especially since — and this is the kicker for Canadian auto journalists looking for some pizzazz in said press presentation — the system will not be available in Canada (something about the American NHTSA not allowing any fixed, one position headlight beam into the U.S. and we Canuckians must suffer as a consequence).

That said, there is a very good argument that Audi really didn’t need to do much to the A8. The top-of-the-line 4.0-litre V8 (ignoring, for the moment, the hideously-expensive and extremely-rare W12), for instance, is as creamy smooth as internal combustion gets. Now fortified with 15 extra ponies (435 hp in all), Audi also claims it achieves 0.5 L/100 km better fuel economy, mainly because the A8 gets electric-powered steering systems — which reduce the load on the engine — across the entire model range.

Now, 15 hp and half a litre per 100 klicks doesn’t sound like much, but it doesn’t need to be with an engine as sweet as the 4.0 TFSI. And the same engine in the S8, fortified with even more turbo boost, pumps out a significantly healthier 520 hp while cutting consumption by a similar 0.5 L/100 km. Expect the S8 to accelerate to 100 km/h in just 4.1 seconds with the basic 435 hp A8 requiring but 0.4 seconds more.

There’s a little more technological intrigue to the A8′s TFSI, however. In recent years, much has been made of injecting fuel directly into the cylinder, with claims of better performance and fuel economy compared to the traditional method of just squirting the fossilized dinosaur juice into the intake manifold. Well, Audi has discovered that, in specific conditions, it turns out that the old ways work best and so, for 2014, the 3.0 TFSI engine now comes with both direct and manifold injection. Not to bore you to tears, but the manifold injection does the job at low speed while the 3,000 psi direct injection system takes over as the load and engine speeds increase. Audi says that the combo is efficient enough to save 1.0 L/100 km (the 3.0L now rated at 7.8 L/100 Km overall in the EU cycle) while still getting a 10-hp boost. I can’t comment on the fuel economy on such a short run, but the V6 does seem more responsive.

Nonetheless — and here I am probably going to start sounding like the proverbial broken record — the best of the engines we’ll get here in the Great White Frozen North is the 3.0L TDI V6. A bump up to 258 hp and 428 pound-feet sees the big A8 moving along quite smartly and, indeed, performance is about on par with the 3.0L gas engine (at 5.9 seconds to 100 km/h, it is but 0.2 seconds behind the 3.0 TFSI). But its fuel economy is incredible for such a large car, the big A8 sipping just 5.9 L/100 km when powered by the turbodiesel. Considering that Audi Canada currently (2014 pricing has yet to be set, but European A8s have seen a slight price decrease) demands but a $3,200 premium for the oil-burning V6, it would appear to be good value.

It’s worth noting at this time that all A8s come with the famed Quattro system with a sportier 40/60 front-to-rear torque split. All also are mated to the company’s eight-speed automatic, some with paddle shifters on the steering column. As well, all Canadian A8s get the upgraded five-position adaptive air suspension, which can lower the ride height by as much as 20 millimetres for superior handling and raise it by 25 mm to allow easier ingress/egress.

Other changes include some exterior bits — namely a rear fascia and its enclosed exhaust — that Audi would very much like me to proclaim invigorating, dynamic, or, damn it where’s that press kit, “taut and athletic.” Frankly, I have always found the latest generation A8 comely. To me the slight styling changes are but a new dress; if the basic goods weren’t attractive, a new bumper isn’t going to turn beast into beauty.

More dramatic, however, are the changes inside. And here, in all honesty, I am surprised. I thought that Audi, long a leader in interior build quality and materials, had reached its zenith. Instead, they have once again upped their game with leather — something called Unicum that is tanned with organic vegetables, starberry leaves or some such thing. It’s softer and more supple than ever. And the Alcantara! Wow, just the stuff Audi covers its doors with is worthy of naked frottage. It may be the softest organic material ever fitted to an automobile. Not only that, the seams connecting plastic, wood and leather are nigh on perfect, a magnifying glass needed to find imperfection. Factor in things like the best audio system in the biz — the optional Bang & Olufsen Advanced system with 19 speakers and no less than 1,400 ear-bleeding watts — and you have one of the most opulent interiors in the industry. The nutmeg brown trim deserves special mention.

Audi also makes much of some new electronic safety gizmos, like the adaptive cruise control system’s ability to stop, accelerate and speed up to 250 km/h without supervision, not to mention the lane-wandering warning and night vision assist systems. In the safety nanny sweepstakes, the A8 is at least in the same league as Mercedes-Benz’s S-Class electronic tour de force. The difference is that the A8′s electronic supervision never seems overbearing while the S-Class’s gizmos always remind me of a body-builder constantly flexing his muscles; yes, we see your obvious might but we’re busy enjoying the drive right now.

On a last note, Audi makes much mention of the trunk having been expanded to 520 litres. Considering that the S-Class already has 530 L, that just tells me that the A8 is playing catch up and that last year’s model was lacking in something I (shamefully) didn’t notice. It is suitably cavernous now, however.

That said, the 2015 A8 (which will be arriving in Audi showrooms at the beginning of next summer) is not a radical revision of the previous model probably because revolution was not necessary. Even with these modest reforms, the aluminum bodied A8 is the lightest full boat luxury sedan (of the AWD persuasion), the most hedonistically accoutered and, minor revisions or not, nicely turned out. Try the turbodiesel. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

About David Booth