Photos courtesy of Audi

In Washington, D.C., a stoplight on Independence Avenue is more than just a traffic control device. It’s a choke point–a security checkpoint–but normally, you don’t get asked for your papers. Normally.

This has occurred to me before, but wasn’t on my mind as I sat at the traffic light at Independence and 2nd Street Northeast in Capitol Hill. In fact, despite the presence of a D.C. metro cop in my rear-view mirror, it wasn’t anywhere on my list of concerns. The police presence in D.C. is so ubiquitous these days that I rarely give the various law enforcement and paramilitary organizations a second thought. I’ve only been working downtown for five years, but it’s long enough to become used to seeing M16-equipped officers standing on the sidewalk.

So as I eased away from the stoplight and my mirrors lit up with red and blue, my first instinct was to simply move out of the way. I slipped into the right lane and slowed to allow the officer to pass, but when I glanced in the side-view to monitor his progress, I was greeted by the glare of a mirror-mounted spotlight. Hmmm. I know how this story ends.

I continued on to the next corner so I could turn off onto a side street and get out of the way of the dwindling rush hour traffic. If this annoyed my pursuer, he didn’t show it. I pulled off behind a line of parked cars, pulled my license out of my wallet, killed the engine and threw the “key” on the dashboard. I haven’t been so much as pulled over in ten years, but I know the routine. What happened next, though, threw me for a loop. Here, I was–the victim–in one of the greatest tragedies the modern forum-going Audi enthusiast can possibly endure.

“Sir, did you just purchase this vehicle?” Before I could respond, he gestured with his flashlight at the scrap of paper in his left hand, “because this says it’s a Volkswagen.”

My mind went three different places in a matter of seconds. My first reaction was hilarity–to tell an Audi owner that his six-figure purchase is “just a Volkswagen” is one of the most ubiquitous troll moves in euro-centric discussions. My second reaction was one of fear; this is a bad place to be wearing out-of-state plates belonging to another vehicle. That’s a great way to end up on a watch list.

But what ultimately took over was the calm serenity of knowing that everything was OK. This is a fleet car; plates get shuffled all the time. I politely explained that it wasn’t my car, handed over all of the paperwork, called my Audi rep to inform them of the incident, and patiently waited while the growing huddle of officers confirmed that all my documentation was in order and sent me on my way. All in all, the incident took no more than twenty minutes of my life–a minor inconvenience in a city that regularly dishes them out on a much more amplified level.

In the days that followed, I reflected frequently on the idea of an Audi being just a gilded Volkswagen. At $105,000 (as equipped), the A8L 4.0T was no tarted-up Jetta. Indeed, the Audi was by far the nicest, most comfortable, most luxurious, most complete car I’ve driven this year… and maybe ever.

When Jack reviewed the then-new Porsche Panamera Turbo for us a couple years back, he memorably opined that Panamera was late to the party because Audi had already built the Porsche of luxury sedans and called it the A8. Those words floated around the back of my mind as I put the twin-turbo executive limousine through its paces. In many ways, I believe Jack was correct.

The Audi is dynamically brilliant, luxurious in a way the Porsche is not, and far quicker than it has any right to be. The 4.0-liter, twin-turbocharged V8 is rated at 420 horsepower, but feels like it’s making closer to 500. Torque delivery is instantaneous. In fact, the immediacy with which the power comes on after flooring the throttle actually makes the top-end drop-off feel more dramatic than it actually is. This is a car that goes from zero to “arrest me” at an alarming rate, and does so without any drama at all.

But having just recently driven the Panamera GTS, I can’t help but compare their approaches to luxury and performance. The Audi’s aluminum spaceframe construction contributes to a surprisingly low curb weight for its class, but 4,600lbs is 4,600lbs. The short wheelbase model shaves 70lbs off that figure, but even then there’s just no getting around the size of the Audi. Flipping all of the drive select options over to “dynamic” makes the chassis responses more crisp and immediate and takes some of the roll out of the body on back roads, but as the curves become tighter, the Porsche’s ability to shrink from its size and hunker down really outshines the Audi’s. Whether it does it to the tune of a $45,000 price difference is another matter entirely.

I do have some quibbles. First off, the steering. It’s just a hair too slow when you’re trying to hustle, and to add insult to injury, it’s too heavy in dynamic mode. Audi’s variable-ratio steering is only available on its S models, so with drive select, all you’re changing is the effort. That means you can have your slow steering one of two ways: light or heavy. I actually found the “comfort” steering more enjoyable than “dynamic.” Even with all of the other chassis and power train components in dynamic mode, the comfort steering made for a more pleasurable corner-carving experience.

My second and final major beef was with the transmission. Other outlets have taken issue with the return-to-center gear selector, but I actually found it to be rather intuitive. No, what bothered me was a complete lack of enthusiasm for idling up to speed from a stop. Most cars will start to move forward when you lift your foot off the brake pedal, but not this one. In fact, it took a surprisingly authoritative shove on the gas pedal to get moving.

Keep in mind that the A8 was equipped with auto stop/start tech, which I kept disabled. It was almost as if some lag was built into the transmission to account for stop/start whether it was enabled or not. I doubt that’s the case, as I can’t see Audi neglecting to program that out before launch, but I suppose it’s a remote possibility. Now that I think about it though, the last car in which I noted this behavior was the 2010 Jetta I reviewed a couple years back. Maybe that cop was on to something…

Looking around the interior, I have few complaints. The reach to some of the media controls still bugs me a bit (I’ve complained about this in previous reviews of the A6 and S4/S5), but not enough to make me look elsewhere. Count me out on Audi’s insistence on pop-up, non-touchscreen navigation, especially since their voice input leaves a lot to be desired. At one point I was trying to get the Nav system to route me around traffic, and every time I called out my Maryland address, it tried to send me to Missouri. I suppose it may have just been overachieving.

On the plus side, Audi has really nailed it with their most recent calibrations of their radar-guided cruise control. The real winning component here is the ability to customize the aggressiveness with which it keeps up with leading traffic. If you adjust the following distance nice and tight and change the cruise setting to “dynamic” in drive select you can actually use the cruise in real-world traffic without being cut off all the time. Add in the system’s ability to handle stop-and-go traffic for you, and I’d say it’s a candidate for one of the best automated driver aids of the last ten years. It’s that good. My only complaint is that in stop-and-go driving, the brakes get a little noisy when the car tries to creep. The noises sound painful, but knowing what’s going on, it’s not really anything to be concerned about.

On those rare occasions where you may decide to drive the A8 yourself, it’s an Audi through and through. It’s comfortable and quiet, yet not overly isolated. You get serious thrust from the engine and serious grip from the tires, and the all-wheel drive system does its thing, removing drama from the equation at every turn. The early-onset understeer appears just as expected (you won’t get that in the Panamera GTS, of that I can assure you) and the dashboard chimes at you politely when you run a bit too close to the car in front of you. I’d say that the S8 may give the Panamera a run for its money, but the run-of-the-mill (as if that were possible) A8’s luxury-focused mission precludes outright dominance. I may be splitting hairs here, but what’s the fun in comparing hundred-thousand-dollar-plus automobiles if you can’t be a pedantic know-it-all from time to time?

Where the Audi truly trounces the Porsche is in value for money. While it may seem ridiculous to highlight the value proposition of cars costing upwards of six figures, it’s only because the Panamera exists that this has become noteworthy. I wasn’t kidding earlier when I said the Panamera GTS I drove this summer was optioned out at nearly $150,000. And while it’s easy to dismiss the Porsche’s premium due to its intended mission as the “track-oriented” Panamera, let’s be realistic: any Panamera driver with track day aspirations already owns a 911. If the decision then comes down to whether said 911 owner’s second car should be a Panamera or an A8, then track capabilities very likely won’t be a tipping point in the purchasing process.

And what of the other competition? Well, the A8L is lighter than the 750iL xDrive and the Benz S550 4Matic (it’s actually lighter than either rear-wheel drive variant, too), and, minor quibbles aside, trumps them both on interior design. If you’re after an all-wheel drive, twin-turbo, long-wheelbase luxury car, then it’s hard to go wrong with the four rings.

Audi provided the A8 for the purposes of this review. Fear not, my fellow autojournos; the registration issues have since been addressed.


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Byron Hurd

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