It is the £44M speed bump on the M4 motorway as you enter west London. Traffic on the motorway’s elevated section slows down, not for fear of a jolt but to gawp. It is the largest Audi dealership in the world, opened with a celebrity-drenched party a few months ago. Gleaming glass walls, a whole floor of museum cars in full view, towering over the stream of traffic alongside. And like a giant, land-bound iceberg, its service bays, workshops, parts stores and offices extend unseen far beneath the surface.
Its presence – which has spurred Mercedes-Benz into a smaller-scale effort a few yards down the road – is symbolic of the vastly improved fortunes of Volkswagen’s premium brand. A decade ago, Audi was an also-ran in a global executive and luxury car market dominated by Mercedes-Benz and BMW, each churning out almost 1.5 million cars a year. Audi had just 12 models and sales of about 500,000. This month, with the launch of a new version of its flagship A8 luxury saloon, the model tally rises to 37. By the end of the year it is due to exceed 40 and annuals sales will almost certainly pass one million.
Audi has, in short, become the wunderkind of the VW group and its designers and engineers have been rewarded with euros by the lorry-load to build on their success. There is €2bn a year for new car design and development alone. And a sizeable slice, for very good reasons, has been spent on the A8.
After a couple of hundred miles behind the wheel, it is apparent that this is a car destined to give two of its three main rivals, the 7 Series BMW and Mercedes-Benz S-Class saloons, a real fright. And the designers and engineers behind its third rival, Jaguar’s racy new XJ saloon, should be thankful that they have differentiated it from the German cars with a more extroverted, distinctly sporting character: to go head-to-head with the dour but relentlessly efficient Audi would be a bruising experience for the British-based carmaker, no less than for Mercedes or BMW.
The A8 is almost scary in its use of new technology, quite apart from being the only four-wheel-drive car in its class, although much of the equipment is optional. Let’s start with the so-called “vehicle assistance” system and its large central control panel for key functions such as navigation, audio and communications. The eight-speed automatic transmission and collision-preventing “adaptive” cruise control function, for example, has been linked ingeniously to the satnav system. So the car can “see” bends, junctions and motorway stretches before the driver can, and plan gear changes accordingly – to the occasional bemusement of the inadequate human behind the wheel. Alongside is a touch screen with handwriting recognition, on which the driver can scribble postcodes or other instructions without the hassle of pressing keys.
Infrared night vision with pedestrian recognition well beyond the range of headlights is also an option. On the 4.2 litre diesel model a clever torque-sensing differential provides remarkable agility into and out of bends. The air suspension (matched by Mercedes) has four settings – “comfort”, “auto”, “dynamic” and “individual” – to suit driving moods and road surfaces. (As ever, the manufacturer’s “auto” setting is the best all-rounder.) Accelerator, steering, gear-change and even seatbelt tensioning are all sharpened or relaxed, depending upon the mode of choice. Tyres have unusually low rolling-resistance and the Audi’s 0.26 drag coefficient sets a new benchmark for how quietly and economically a big luxury saloon can slip through the air.
There are twin Bluetooth wireless headphones and Audi’s own online service for things such as news, weather, travel information or trip planning (free except for mobile phone connection charges). In the third quarter of this year, Google Earth navigation will be added, giving a real-world, satellite view of the planned route ahead. Even the Xenon headlights have a mind of their own, using satnav route data, a forward-facing camera and the ability to turn with the car in corners to save the driver from bothering with light switches at all.
There are other minor but still useful touches. The climate control system uses heat generated by the engine to keep the interior warm long after the engine has been switched off. And when it’s freezing outside, the control valves decouple the cooling system on start-up so the car reaches operating temperature more quickly.
So what is it like to drive? The answer is: pretty much as you would expect. Swift, silent and, it must be said, more dynamically competent than either Mercedes’ S-Class or the 7-Series BMW, thanks in part to the weight saving provided by its all-aluminium body. Standards are now so high, however, that none of the rivals has any really significant shortcomings.
The cockpit is all-new and mostly looks good and works well. Compared with its German rivals, however, rear seat legroom is not generous and some may wish to wait for a long-wheelbase version due later this year (at an extra cost in the UK of about £3,500).
What this new Audi does demonstrate beyond doubt is the increasing irrelevance of large, thirsty, high-performance petrol engines to the luxury saloon sector. Jeremy Hicks, Audi’s UK marketing director, predicts that 85 per cent of A8 sales will be of the 4.2 litre turbo-diesel and it is easy to see why. It is quieter and altogether more refined than its 4.2 litre petrol stablemate and has much more torque at low revs plus it accelerates more quickly, while covering almost eight miles more per gallon. A slower but even less thirsty two-wheel-drive version, powered by a 42.8mpg, 3 litre turbo-diesel, will be launched in September.
One word of caution: care is needed with the options. The “basic” A8 4.2 litre turbo-diesel has a UK list price of £65,390. By the time the test car’s extras are factored in – including £12,500 of super-luxury interior – the final bill comes to £95,050.
Audi ups the ante
(4.2 litre turbodiesel) 0-62mph 5.5 secs, top speed 155mph (limited)
37.9mpg on EU urban/rural test cycle
BMW 7 Series from £58,740; Jaguar XJ from £53,775; Mercedes S-Class from £59,035