Luxury express

Team OD  /
25 Jul 2013 14:59:39 IST

The new Audi A8 has the best seats in the world, and that's a fact. Obviously it'll heat or cool your backside. Get behind the wheel and you will (eventually) discover a staggering 22 ways to adjust the seat which include not just contracting the side wings and thigh bolsters so that the seat bear hugs you like only granny did but even (electrically) adjusts the seatbelt anchor height on the B-pillar. One, literally, need not lift a finger. Then you punt the A8 around corners at a particularly brisk pace and you will find the side bolster filling up to counter the g-forces and keep you from sliding in the seat (actually you won't realize it, it's done so imperceptibly). And it has the best massage function of any massage chair in the world with five programs – wave, pulse, stretch, lumbar and shoulder – all of adjustable intensity. Little Thai masseuses also find gainful employment inside the rear seats but there's an even nicer trick: at the press of a single button, the base extends out, the seat back reclines, the front seat (passenger side, obviously) goes all the way forward, the screen does a jig adjusting to the best viewing angle, a footrest folds out and in 20 seconds you have a plush business class seat. That will massage and blow cold air up your arse while you sip chilled champagne from the fridge and crank up the tunes on the 1400-watt B&O sound set-up. Who says manipulating the stock exchange and trampling over gullible investors doesn't make life cushier?

Luxury cars live and die by their sense of occasion and the A8's interiors will drive you mad with their sheer desirability. But just having the best seats in the world isn't going to kill the S-Class and 7 Series, two cars that have earned their spurs by comprehensively besting the previous generation A8. So what else is up the A8's aluminium sleeves?

DESIGN

Audi has a problem, and I think it's a big one. In its determined effort to plaster every car with the family look, the general visage across the range has become so similar that from a distance it's hard to pick one out from the other. Nigh on impossible really unless you have the LEDs switched on and that brings me to the other bone I have to pick – such is the pivotal role in styling played by the giant Audi Xerox machine at Ingolstadt that the only unpredictable element these days is how jauntily the LEDs will be arranged in the headlamps. And hard as I might try, that's hard to get excited by.

The A8's resembles a Nike swoosh and using some horribly complicated technology it looks like an unbroken beam of light. Light bar, they call it. Darth Vader's light saber would have been more apt. And it looks brilliant, when you put on your spectacles and look closely at the A8. It is a cliché but the A8 is one of those cars that you have to get up close and personal to really appreciate. The hoi polloi might mistake your A8 for an A6 (or worse an A4) but run over their toes, give them all the time to stare at the details, maybe even wander around the car and, god damn, you have an invitation to every cocktail party in town. The stance, latent muscle and strength really take your breath away and such is Audi's mastery of body engineering that the panels literally don't have any gaps. It's an engineering fetishist's wet dream, the A8.

It's also suitably bling with that massive chrome-lined trapezoidal grille filled with even more chromed slats. And there are those headlamps which not only have LEDs for the daytime running lamps but (for an additional Rs 1.2 lakh) LEDs for the low and main beam and even fog lamps. The four rings used to be synonymous with the understated but nobody can accuse Audi of that any more; there's anger on the A8's face and evil in the eye. And everybody wants to be bad these days. In comparison the BMW 7 Series seems almost plane jane. The softening of the old 7 Series' outrageous details has made this 5th gen 7 Series, well, soft. Here too the devil is in the details, the flair in the subtle interplay of light and shadows. The chrome strip at the base of the bumper visually stretches out the car. The pinched shoulder line and cabin set well back over the rear wheels emphasise sportiness and rear-wheel drive, and the larger more upright kidney grille gives it a more thrusting and sporty nose. But you need somebody pointing all this out to you and that's something neither the shouty Audi nor the S-Class requires.

Surprising as it may sound the oldest car in this test (which is due for a full model change next year) is the most good looking in the traditional sense. While it needs a close look and a fetish for the engineering to truly appreciate the A8, the S-Class is uncomplicated. If there's a line it's a prominent line, if there's a detail it's a blindingly obvious detail. Subtlety is lost on most buyers, particularly in Asia, and neither does anybody have the time to pore over the details for hours. What you see is what you get – nice, big expressive headlamps, a shiny grille, strip of daytime running LEDs and despite those comically distended wheel arches there is an overwhelming sense of opulence and money to the car. The recent face-lift was rather minor – re-profiled bumpers, new headlamps, LED tail lamps (without the body coloured strip bisecting the lens) and twin exhausts – but it has turned things for the grand old lady around making it one hell of a good looking car.

INTERIORS

While still classy on the outside, step inside and the old lady is beginning to show her age. The S-Class is the only car to require you to physically insert a key into the keyhole and – horror of horrors! – require you to twist it to fire up the engine. All the A8 and 7 ask of you is to keep the key in your pocket. And then there's the general design. The pregnant bulge for the central console never looked cool, now it looks old. The central screen is the smallest and coughs up the least information (though with Splitview technology driver and passenger can watch different things at the same time). The dials are a semi-digital screen which is just dated, and there is far too little to prod, poke and tweak for a terrifically expensive car.

What it does do well is luxury. The seats are soft and luxurious and space inside is still the best in class. There is a single-minded focus to the S-Class – comfort, and more comfort – and the S excels at it. After all, and this is a relevant question, would fat cats pay for toys that only the driver can play with or a fabulously cushy back seat where he can stretch out?

Minimalism is a theme BMW follows religiously – minimal clutter with iDrive being the gateway to all functions. Of course in its first iteration iDrive needed a PhD to operate but second-gen iDrive which debuted on the new 7 Series is rather easy and intuitive to use and when you really have a go at it, well, there's a lot of things to fiddle with to keep you occupied for hours on end. Here too the dials are projected on a TFT screen but it is one big screen (not a patch for the speedo) of a higher resolution where far more information is projected in a more attractive manner and the dials are permanently outlined by chrome rings. The wood and plastics used for the rest of the cabin feel more expensive, the leather wrapped steering wheel is nicer to hold and the overall sense of opulence is raised up a notch.

The 7 Series is also the only car to have its navigation functions activated and though Indian maps aren't still flawless this is still a big step forward.

But the A8 goes and whacks every single benchmark out of the ballpark; the design is classically handsome, the details extraordinary and the opulence astonishing. The seats, well like you know they're the best in town. The dials are nice big analogue units for the speedo and tacho that are a damn sight sportier than an image on a TFT screen and are flanked by the temperature and fuel gauge which are graduated in cool LED bars. In between the dials is a large 7-inch colour screen that displays everything (navigation isn't activated for India) including a fuel efficiency mode that forces on to you an eco conscience by showing how much extra fuel the air-con or seat cooler or massagers are consuming.

The central console has more knobs and buttons than either the S or the 7 but it's laid out in a clear logical and ergonomically optimal fashion so that it looks neat, clean and sexy (particularly at night with the red backlight). The gear lever is shaped like the thrust lever of speedboats which looks extremely cool but also doubles up as a wrist rest for when you scribble the name (or number) you want to dial on the touchpad (you could also scribble destinations but no navigation, not yet). And you would think that's it. But no, the coolest thing isn't the overwhelming smell of money, or that the entire cabin is lit up by cool white LEDs or that its intensity can be adjusted but even the intensity and – wait for it – colour of the mood lighting oozing out of the door pads and other small nooks can be tweaked. It's ridiculous, the attention to detail, the quality, the gadgets, the surprise and delight features. The first time I drove the A8, I spent an hour just playing with everything and then when I reached home I spent another hour playing around some more. It's the best cabin and if that were the only criteria the A8 has the competition sussed out.

POWERTRAIN

The most important engine in the A8 range will be the 3.0 TDI diesel and in time we will get the whopping W12 petrol but for now there's the 4.2-litre naturally-aspirated direct-injection FSI petrol and it's a belter. In its basic form this is the same engine as in the R8 sports car though of course it has been re-tuned for the requirements of a luxury saloon. Max power is 371PS and max torque is 445Nm (up by 21PS and 5Nm) giving the new 4.2 similar performance to the old 450PS W12-engined A8 with the 0-100kmph sprint taking 6.7 seconds.

It's astonishingly quick for a luxury car, until you look at the S500's times: 6.45 seconds, that's what it takes to 100kmph and that's without the tractive advantages that four-wheel-drive offers during a full-bore standing start or even the reduced shift times of a twin-clutch gearbox over the Merc's traditional 7-speed torque converter. The advantage that it does have is displacement, 5.4 litres to 4.2 litres, and though the power output is only marginally more at 373PS there's an additional 60Nm of torque developed lower down the rev range. It makes short work of the additional 200 additional kilos the S500 lugs around making it a shockingly quick package, shocking considering the rest of the S-Class is decidedly un-sporting. It even has a wooden steering wheel for crying out loud!

But then along comes the BMW with its twin-turbo charged 4.4-litre V8 and blows everything away. Switch off ESP and traction control and with 407PS on tap it smokes its rear tyres on the way to a 5.98-second 0-100kmph time. It's not just outright acceleration, there's so much torque (600Nm between 1750rpm and 4500rpm) that just breathing on the throttle is enough to send it flying to the horizon without breaking into a sweat. It really is bizarre just how rapidly the 750Li picks up speed and then when you consider there's an even bigger engine 7 Series on sale, the V12-engined 760Li, you've got to wonder just how quickly CEOs need to get to board meetings.

As is to be expected the BMW is the least fuel efficient. 6.4kmpl overall to the Merc's 6.7kmpl and the Audi's 6.37 kmpl.

DYNAMICS

Audi has long persisted with the aluminium spaceframe construction on the A8 (as opposed to aluminium monocoque on the Jaguar XJ) which has obvious weight benefits over steel-bodied rivals though the Quattro drivetrain does negate some of that advantage and in this company the A8 4.2 is only 20 kilos lighter than the 750Li. Up front there's the four-link front axle while the rear uses the trapezoidal multilink rear setup. Air springs are standard on the 4.2 and so is Drive Select which can be toggled between comfort and dynamic modes. There's also the individual mode wherein the driver an alter individual parameters to his personal preference like the engine and gearbox in dynamic, steering in auto, suspension in comfort and seat belt pre-tensioners to dynamic mode (yes, seat belts!).

Set everything to dynamic and the A8 can be hustled along at a preposterous pace. Grip from the quattro drivetrain is immense and when it gets wet or slippery quattro is impossible to beat. Unless you're on a race track getting to its limits needs some seriously committed driving and it is very rare that you will be able to get to the limits of adhesion. Then on it's the front that breaks away gently into understeer requiring a lift off the throttle to get back on line. Quattro gets a 60/40 rear-biased split for a slightly sportier balance and the A8 is far more agile and fluent that before. However this is no R8, it is huge and heavy and there is body roll to show for during spirited cornering. Also the steering, while accurate, isn't brimming with feedback and in dynamic mode it just weights up artificially.

In India and under most conditions the A8 is best left in comfort mode where the suspension is at its most compliant and there is a delicious pliancy to the ride. A conscious decision has been to limit wheel sizes to 18inches and to use higher profile 55-section tyres to give a further degree of compliance to the ride and it has made the A8 a way more comfortable car than its predecessor. That said the A8 is still no patch on the S-Class' segment-defining ride quality.

At first you put the slight pitter-patter that comes through into the A8's cabin down to terrible road surface quality but then you drive the same road in the S-Class and you feel nothing. The ride is soft and how! It's a magic carpet that soaks it all in and never lets anything filter into the cabin. To be driven around the S-Class is still the most comfortable, and by some margin at that.

But of course it isn't one to be hustled. By any normal yardstick the grip levels are very high but here it's got some serious Nurburgring stars for company and soon the S is left behind. The steering is the largest in diameter and is wood-rimmed so your palms slip when they start to get sweaty (and it will get sweaty if the S is to chase down the A8 and 7). There is a fair bit of body roll to tell you when the limits are coming and there's no active this or dynamic that, just a honesty of purpose – to deliver the best possible ride quality come what may.

The last car you'd expect to match the Merc's ride quality is the 7 Series and the BMW does not let us down, particularly on the 19-inch wheels shod with low profile run-flat tyres (wider and lower profile at the rear compared to the front). That was our biggest criticism of the 7 Series when we first drove it in India and time has done nothing to change our opinion; for a luxury car and over our roads the 750Li is just too stiff.

But for a luxury car the 750Li is obscenely good fun to drive. The A8 might dazzle you with all the millions of settings that can be personalized but it's the 7 Series that is far more nerdy. There's no air suspension so unlike the other two you can't raise the car to clear nasty speed-breakers but what you do get is integral four-wheel-steering where the rear wheels turn by a few degrees to aid maneuverability and stability. At low speeds the rear wheels turn in an opposite direction (never more than three degrees) to the front to reduce the turning distance while at high speeds they turn in the same direction to aid stability. Then there's active steering that varies the steering ratio to make it more quick and direct at low speeds and less razor-sharp at speeds (now also adopted by the A8) while also interfacing with ESP to cut undertseer and even applying a bit of corrective lock if the car starts to oversteer.

And oversteer you can the 750Li, at will. It's only rear-wheel drive and as you play with the electrically adjustable suspension the degree of electronic intervention reduces allowing some degree of tail happiness in Sport + mode. ESP can also be switched off completely and then the BMW turns into a tyre-smoking hooligan that can hold the most ludicrous rubber-shredding power slides. It's most unbecoming of a luxo-barge and I can't imagine a single situation in which one would want to power oversteer a 7 Series but by dint of being able to be provoked and controlled at the limit the 7 Series is also the best to drive at legal speeds. The steering feels the most natural, most communicative; the car is light on its feet with delicious agility; and when pushed hard she shrinks herself around the driver feeling more like the 5 Series than a big fat car. It even has a sports steering wheel!

If you want a luxury car to enjoy driving in I'll insist you stop reading now and call up your BMW dealer.

VERDICT

But think logically. Who buys a luxury car to go drifting? While it is great to have a car that is absolutely and insanely good fun to drive the truth of the matter is that such cars are overwhelmingly chauffer driven in India. So the priority has to be ride quality, correct? And in terms of ride quality nothing beats the S-Class.

The Merc is not perfect. It still looks very good but inside her age is beginning to tell and neither the equipment levels, gadget count nor even the material quality match what the competition is dishing out these days. But the S-Class knows what its purpose in life is – to pamper, cushion and isolate its passengers and it does that in extraordinarily good manner. The back seat (or any seat for that matter) of the S-Class is the most comfortable place to be and if that is your priority, which it must be, then the S-Class is still the luxury car to buy in India.

So where does that leave the A8? Let's deal with the negatives first. Its ride quality, while vastly improved, still has a determinedly sporty edge to it, even in comfort mode, while lacking the suppleness of the S. The handling while vastly improved doesn't have the agility or driver feedback (or even hooligan quotient) that the 7 Series offers. And there are too many people with a poor eye for cars who will mistake your A8 for an A4 (they're best run over).

But equally there will be that clued-in lot that will get all orgasmic with the A8's Vorsprung durch Technikery. All that's required to sell the A8 is to get prospective customers to see one up close and then sit inside one; touch, feel and smell the car. Fitness of purpose might make the S-Class the best luxury car in India today but the sense of occasion of the fourth-generation A8 has the best luxury cars in the world bested. It feels lavish, opulent, insanely engineered and fiendishly clever; sit inside one and you will never want to get out.

And of course it has the best seats in the world.

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Price (Delhi)
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  • -NA- On Road
Engine
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Mileage
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Transmission
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Price (Delhi)
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Engine
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Mileage
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Transmission
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Price (Delhi)
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Engine
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Transmission
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