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The future is here

Audi’s latest A8 is quite possibly one of the most advanced cars ever built. Virtuozity gets behind the wheel to try and figure it all out

In 1969 the world watched in awe as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Eagle, the lunar module of Apollo 11 on the moon. As the world knows, the two men became the first people to set foot on the moon’s surface and in doing so they won a space race that had ignited the passions of both America and the Soviet Union, as both fought the world’s most expensive game of one-upmanship.

There are so many amazing facts from the Apollo moon landing, ranging from the chances of success, through to the ongoing conspiracy theory that the whole thing was faked. But perhaps the most interesting fact is that Apollo 11’s computer had 1,300 times less computing power than an iPhone 5.

Fast forward almost five decades since that epic mission to stretch mankind’s boundaries beyond our atmosphere and any modern car also contains more computing power than that incredible spacecraft. And it’s needed too, to run all the on-board systems we now take very much for granted in our vehicles.

But step into the new Audi A8 and you’ve taken the automotive equivalent of Armstrong’s ‘one small step for man’. It’s incredibly clever and frankly a little terrifying to the uninitiated. 

For a start the A8 dispenses with rotary/push-button controls and touchpad of its predecessor, instead using MMI touch response. That’s if you can find the screen of course. The 10.1-inch touchscreen display at the center of the instrument panel blends almost invisibly into the high-gloss black surround when off. Switch it on and the user interface features new, concise graphics, which allows the user to freely arrange the icons according to their importance.

As well as the infotainment system on the large display, a second touchscreen display on the console of the center tunnel is used to operate the climate control and convenience features, as well as enter texts through handwriting recognition. 

Touch either of the two displays by touch control, and you’ll hear and feel a confirmation click. This is created by an electromagnet moving the spring-mounted display minimally to the side by roughly the width of a human hair. At the same time a small loudspeaker emits a click sound.

But if you think that’s all a bit George Jetson, the A8 can also engage in intelligent conversation. The driver can activate an array of functions using a new, natural form of voice control. The system understands sentences in English such as “Please take me to the St. Regis Hotel in Dubai?”. The dialog manager (which is not a person sat in the back of the car) asks questions if necessary, allows corrections, offers choices and also defers to the speaker when interrupted.

Even the sat nav is clever. It is able to learn on the basis of routes that have already been driven, so the system can make intelligent suggestions to the driver. The calculation is performed online via the servers of the map and navigation provider, with real-time data concerning the overall traffic situation also being taken into account. 

The car also features the incredible Audi AI traffic jam pilot, which brings in level 3 automation. But unfortunately, it’s not yet approved for use in the Middle East, so regional buyers will have to wait a little longer for that technology.

But even without that, the A8 is a technological tour de force. It’s taking interior human/car interaction to the next level. But perhaps even more importantly it’s also an extremely comfortable and relaxing space to spend time. At this end of the luxury market that’s key to the car’s success.

Importantly, Audi hasn’t gone too futuristic with the exterior. It’s more evolution than revolution. Most of the changes have been done at the rear, where a design strip now stretches right across from one rear wing to the other. The front is a little more aggressive than the previous model, but it’s still sleek and composed. 

It’s also fantastic to drive. It hides its size well, even in the corners. It’s helped by dynamic four-wheel steering, but is incredibly nimble for what is a very large car. Audi has become excellent at removing weight from its cars and it shows in the A8’s architecture.

Under the huge bonnet is a new 3.0 litre V6 turbo engine with 340 hp and 500 Nm of torque. For the first time the A8 also comes with an electrified drivetrain as standard. The engines are equipped with mild-hybrid technology via the belt alternator starter and a lithium-ion battery with 10 Ah electrical capacity. This allows the A8 to coast at speeds between 55 and 160 km/h with the engine off. All this electrickery gets to the road via an eight-stage tiptronic gearbox and the quattro permanent all-wheel drive system.

If it were all about the technology then the Audi would be right at the head of the pack. But of course, it’s not just that which pulls at the heart strings. There’s more to a car than just bells and whistles. Luckily the Audi is also super comfortable, great looking, handles well and has a clever new drivetrain. It’s more than ‘one small step’.

And in the large luxury segment it needs to be.

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