Germany is a long way to travel to write a story on a car’s new headlights. Launching their new luxury A8 model, Audi chose Germany for Auto Trader to put the car through its paces, but, the main story they wanted to convey was the new headlight technology on the car. To be honest I was a little confused: Mercedes had brought out similar technology on the new S Class a few months earlier, so why was Audi so keen to push the story?
I managed to corner Stephan Berlitz, Head of Development for Lighting Functions and Innovations at Audi, and asked him that exact question. “The Matrix LED headlights are a perfect example of our lighting strategy. They are three-dimensional, dynamic and interactive” he explained, “The new technology is Audi’s, we started showing this technology years ago on concept cars”. I don’t think he was too happy that I thought Mercedes had pipped him to the punch.
It’s all about LED technology and instead of one bulb trying to illuminate a road, as in the past, each headlight comprises 25 high-beam light-emitting diodes, arranged in groups of five per reflector to dazzle the road ahead. Not only do these LEDs brighten the way ahead like never before, they also act as a light curtain that can be opened and closed when necessary, they don’t all need to shine at once. As soon as the camera in the A8 detects oncoming vehicles, the Audi Matrix LED headlights dip the relevant sections of the high-beam headlights. The system operates with such precision that it blanks out light that would shine directly onto oncoming and preceding vehicles, but continues to cast the high beams with full power on all other zones between and beside them. When there is no more oncoming traffic, the high-beam headlights then resume full power, including the sections that had previously been off. The light that the driver sees is always bright - By day, too, they have a very attractive and distinctive look, which is reinforced by the new appearance of the daytime running lights.
The A8 has received a minor facelift as it is in the middle of its 7-year lifespan. While the LED technology might be a major plus point it isn’t the only change. New sculpturing to the bonnetand the boot of the car plus a new grille give it a slightly more chiseled appearance. The rear is also new for 2014 with refreshed tail lights and chrome crease.
Luckily, Audi have three flavours of the A8 for me to sample: the regular 3.0-litre, a feisty S8 and a whopping 6.3-litre W12. In true German fashion, I have the option of having the three flavours in three colours: grey, off grey and silver, where are the other 47 shades of grey? The most masculine of the three is the S8, thanks to a subtle body kit and aggressive wheels. The W12 is the one that intrigues me the most as, being in Autobahn country, I can’t imagine this car ever slowing down. The 3.0-litre is a little ‘meh’, no added styling and no big engine, so can the smaller engine cope with a big curvy body?
First up I take the wheel of the S8, to me this is the one Dubai residents will have their eye on. More horses than the previous S8: 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8, 520bhp churning out 650Nm of torque. My worry is that the body, weighing less thanks to the Audi ultra lightweight aluminium frame, still has the potential to absorb all this power and make the passengers feel a little seasick. It didn’t take me long to relax and put the motion sickness tablets firmly away, Audi Space Frame also adds rigidity and active engine mounts reduce vibration in the cabin. Thanks to Germany’s winding country roads I could open up the S8 and felt planted firmly on the tarmac. Audi’s understated styling of the S8 belies just how powerful this car is, taking on the bends, hitting 100-kph in 4.1 seconds on exit. Over the previous model, the ride hasn’t changed too much – it’s still very good.
Swapping cars to a W12 I wondered why Audi would develop both a 4.0-litre V8 S8 and a 6.3-litre W12, surely two varieties of the A8 chasing the same buyer? Interiors are not that dissimilar, exterior styling is slightly less racier in the W12 (not that the S8 is over the top) the figures are similar too; 500-horses and 0-100kph in 4.4-seconds.
Turning the key on the W12 and looking for the Autobahn, the W12 had me asking another question where did I leave my motion sickness pills? It was like I was in a whole new car. The S8 waddly - a bit like a businessman after a long lunch. Maybe I’m being a little harsh after driving the sporty S8 then climbing into the W12 but this is all about splashing the cash and I’d go for the S8 if I was opening my wallet.
Heading back to Dusseldorf I opted for the last choice, the 3.0-litre. If you’re motivated by being a bit more economical with your cash, opt for this model. More obviously a stable mate of the S8 than the W12 the smaller engine A8 felt as though, obviously, I’d dropped down in engine size but I could still feel the family resemblance. Balanced cornering, good uptake when demanded, smooth road handling and obvious presence due to the size of the car. The serious driver will go for the S8, the more savvy buyer, the 3.0-litre.
In the luxury segment all flavours of the A8 matched the demands for opulent cabin interiors, plenty of options and even bespoke tailoring (visit the showroom in Dubai for the future in car buying). Exceptional leg and headroom are taken for granted in an A8, even the seats contort for almost flat bed seating in the rear behind the front passenger seat.
The Audi A8 is sheathed in fine leather, with a large choice of Alcantara, carbon fibre or wood finishes. The sound system is excellent and can be configured for opera pitch, R&B base or DVD explosions.
The large luxury sedan segment is a tough nut to crack but the Europeans are leading the way. Audi, Mercedes and BMW hold vast market share but of the three it is Audi who is gaining ground. The Mercedes S Class is still way out in front but with Audi finally turning American heads over the 7 Series BMW, the scales might just be tipping in the A8’s favour