The Great Recession knocked the stuffing out of the luxury-car flagship segment, and it has never recovered. Today, sales of full-size luxury sedans are down roughly 50 percent from their heyday and high-end crossovers continue to eat into the market.
That said, premium automakers are still pouring resources into their sedan flagships, partly as a means to pioneer new technologies and autonomous driving capabilities.
For the 2018 model year, Mercedes-Benz has significantly updated its S-Class sedan and coupe lineup, while Audi has introduced a new A8 sedan and will follow soon with a closely related new A7 coupe-style four-door.
A chance to drive the 2019 A8 in Spain reveals the depths to which top automakers are going to win back flagship buyers. If there is a key theme to the A8, it is its role as a technology showcase. But before exploring those technical advances, it’s worth noting just how refined the A8 has become. Quietness is a quality one expects from a luxury sedan, but the near silence of this new Audi is striking.
For a large car, the A8 is also fast and surprisingly agile on narrow country roads. The sheer size is intimidating, but once you learn to trust the car’s sophisticated steering system, it becomes easier to thread a path through the twisties.
This is just one of the surprises in store when driving the A8. The car is literally a rolling demonstrator for advanced technology, from hybrid drivetrains to active suspension to laser and OLED lighting to level three autonomous driving and much more.
Stepping inside the A8, especially one finished in cream-colored leather trim, the progressive aspect of the Audi design ethic asserts itself. In either the standard or long-wheelbase versions, the cabin feels expansive, light and modern. The atmosphere is perhaps not as plush as a Mercedes S class, but it also projects a more contemporary, less baroque feel than its Stuttgart rival.
Multi-adjustable, heated and cooled massaging seats make it hard not to be comfortable in the front or back of the A8. For the driver, the new multi-screen, mostly glass cockpit is more like the cockpit of a latest-generation executive jet than a car.
Versions of the A8 to be sold in the U.S. will be long wheelbase, and the car will launch here with 3.0-liter V-6 and 4.0-liter V-8 hybrid gasoline powertrains (diesels are available but likely will not be sold in the U.S.). Driving the A8 55L model, with its 340-hp V-6, the overall impression is of silky smooth, quiet power, with 0-60 mph taking 5.6 seconds. The A8 60L with the 460-horsepower V-8 motor essentially provides more of the same, but the V-6 seems powerful enough to suit US market driving conditions.
Coming later, the U.S. A8 lineup will be a plug-in hybrid version that can use a wireless, inductive-charge floor pad.
Unfortunately, our test drive did not include experiencing the A8’s much-anticipated level-three autonomous driving capability. This promises to allow the car to pilot itself in stop and go traffic up to 37 miles per hour on divided highways. However at present, driving regulations in most American states will not permit autonomous operation, so it remains to be seen when the A8’s autonomous capabilities will be enabled in the U.S.
Technical wizardry, refinement, performance, elegance and comfort, the new A8 ticks all the boxes. It will be good to see how the car’s suite of capabilities holds up in the U.S. driving environment, but for now it promises to breathe new life into the luxury flagship class.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.