The most eye-catching feature of the Audi A8 is the optional LED headlight system. Every function, including the headlight high and low beams, consists of an assemblage of light emitting diodes. There is no single bulb serving any single purpose. Viewed head on, it's like a string of monochromatic Christmas tree lights reclining on a contrasting colored light rope bed. Audi says its LED system consumes 40 watts against 50 watts to 60 watts for most headlight high beams and as much as 80 watts for some xenon HID lamps. Even with the lower wattage, Audi still fits each headlight assembly with a small fan that keeps air circulating around the LEDs any time the lights are on. Whatever, there's no mistaking the A8 in the rearview mirror or oncoming, especially at night.
The other, equally important but less noticeable feature is a modestly bulbous hood. This is something that'll increasingly be appearing on European-brand cars as they're re-styled to meet the Continent's recently adopted pedestrian safety standards. Those that are done well, as on the A8, which benefits from complementary grille geometry, will be largely invisible. Others, like on the new BMW 7 Series, may look a bit awkward until our eyes adjust to the new contours.
The other noticeable feature on the A8's face is one that's no longer there: Beginning with the 2011 models, Audi eliminated the black bar crossing the grille at bumper height. The grille now looks of a single piece, a large but not ungraceful trapezoid sporting the trademark four interlocking rings.
Viewed from the side, the A8 quite frankly could be any one of the continent's large luxury sedans. Subdued character lines paralleling each other trace rearward from the top and bottom of the front wheelwell to the top of the boot and the center of the rear bumper; the lower line, of course, breaks where it leap frogs the rear wheelwell. The overall image is boxier and less wedge-like than the styling cues that prevail in the brand's smaller sedans. Door handles pop out of otherwise clean flanks just below the upper character line. The low profile tires neatly fill circular, gently blistered wheelwells.
Audi carries the LED theme into the taillights, enclosing the brake light units in a loop of running lights that wrap around the corner of the rear fender to double as side marker lights. The trailing edge of the trunk lid arcs across the car between the taillights, curving around the rear fender to link up with the upper character line creasing the A8's flanks. Properly placed dual exhaust tips peak out through the lower portion of the rear bumper, itself graced with a slender strip of bright work running the width of the car. A cutline bisecting the vertical plane of the trunk lid below the interlocking rings logo and between the taillights hides the lighting for the rear license plate and the pressure button for opening the trunk.
The W12 model adds subtle but distinctive touches, including bright accents in the grille and on the exterior mirrors; and trapezoidal chrome tailpipes integrated into the rear bumper.
The Audi A8 cabin is luxuriously appointed and trimmed and comes loaded with technology. Where there's wood trim, it's real. The standard leather upholstery and trim have an expensive look and feel.
The seats give good support without being overly firm or too soft. The driver's seat offers 22 adjustments, more than enough for us to find a comfortable and proper driving position. Front-seat headroom in the A8 trails that of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class by half an inch and the BMW 7 Series by more than three inches. In front-seat legroom, the A8 splits the difference between the BMW and the Mercedes. Visibility is good except the wide C-pillar (the rearmost body panel supporting the car's roof) creates a blind spot, although the blind spot warning system can help address that problem.
Rear-seat accommodations in the A8 felt average, and the numbers are close to BMW's: The 7 Series sedans have a quarter-inch more legroom and a half-inch more headroom, while the S-Class has half an inch more headroom and more than three inches more legroom. The A8L betters the S-Class in rear-seat legroom by a half inch. The long-wheelbase BMW 7 Series, including the 740Li, tops the A8L in rear-seat legroom by about 1.5 inches.
The A8 has the least trunk space of the three, holding about one less foot-square box than the BMW 7 Series and three cubic feet less than the S-Class.
The Audi A8 is loaded with technology and, as with the BMW and Mercedes, there is a learning curve. Like computer users, some drivers will use all the features and personalize all the settings, while others will focus on driving and not plumb the depths of the technology. Some of the technology works very well, some not as much.
We do not love the shifter, for example. Audi describes it as styled like a yacht's throttle lever with the intent of serving as a wrist rest to facilitate the driver's use of the nearby touch pad. This sounds good in theory, and it looks trick, but in practice not once during our weeks with the A8s did we manage to shift directly from Park into Reverse, the shift lever relentlessly and stubbornly slipping directly to Drive or occasionally only to Neutral irrespective of how gently we eased it out of Park. If you were James Bond and the bad guys were chasing you, you'd want an older car that could quickly be thrown into Reverse by feel. Modern luxury cars are slow to get going because drivers must look and carefully select Reverse or Drive. By the time Bond found Reverse on the A8, he'd be looking at the business end of a pistol.
The automatic climate control works very well and it easily kept the cabin cool during Central California's hottest days of the year. Ventilated seats mean occupants will be comfortable within moments of climbing into a hot, parked car. When temperatures dropped to the low 40s, we found the A8 warm and cozy, and we're confident there would be few sedans better for the iciest winter weather.
Figuring out how to operate Audi's navigation and audio systems borders on overwhelming, however. Audi stresses that its goal was to maximize features while minimizing distraction. Hence the touch pad and voice recognition interfaces. But we wonder whether the front seat of a high performance luxury sedan is the right place to display a full-color, Rolodex-like graphic of album covers of CDs and DVDs. The system includes a 20-gigabyte hard disk drive.
Audi connect integrates Google Earth into the navigation system. Instead of the usual road-map background, the system overlays the traffic grid on top of high-resolution 3D satellite and aerial images. A Camera Zoom feature allows closer views of surroundings or destinations. Google Voice Local Search allows destination searches to be accomplished by voice command. Once the driver knows how to operate this feature it can reduce driver distraction: Instead of trying to scroll through a seemingly endless list of points of interest while simultaneously trying to watch the road, the driver can simply press a button and say, "Vail Mountain Lodge."
Audi connect also offers real-time traffic and weather, fuel price updates, and streaming news feeds (available to view when the car is at a stop). But perhaps the coolest feature of all is that Audi connect also makes your A8 a WiFi hot spot, providing connectivity for up to eight mobile devices. Your email can be downloading while you drive and you can stop and check it whenever it's convenient.
Essential controls follow Audi's established patterns, with legibly marked buttons and knobs ergonomically arranged on the center console forward of the shift lever. A touch of class is the tidy analog clock with round face and sweeping hour and minute hands centered in the dash.
The 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system is superb, with the crispest of highs floating out of twin, acoustically tuned, mini-tower speakers that pop up out of the ends of the dash top and the deepest of basses pumped up by the 1400-watt amplifier but without rattling windows or threatening occupants' heart health.