Audi A8 Essential History
Unlike the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which trace their roots back to the BMW New Six of 1968 and the Mercedes-Benz W180 and W128 “Ponton” of 1954, the direct bloodline of the large and very-much-in-charge Audi A8 only stretches back to the full-size Audi V8 sedan from the late 1980s. The V8, despite being a well-engineered and handsome luxury cruiser, was taken to the cleaners by contemporary offerings from Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus, though the image and market position of the V8 did significantly elevate global perception of Audi as a viable alternative to the other established luxury automakers.
Despite praise from the media, the V8 proved somewhat lackluster on the sales floor, inspiring Audi to develop a clean-sheet design for its next crack at the full-size segment. A decision was made to invest substantially into the new car, pushing a host of advanced technologies and material sciences into production. The resulting first-gen Audi A8 was groundbreaking in aesthetics, design, and construction, and was the first production vehicle to utilize a fully aluminum monocoque chassis alongside extensive use of the lightweight metal in the body, a method previewed by the spectacular ASF (Audi Space Frame) concept car of 1993 that was essentially the forthcoming A8 rendered in a shell of gleaming polished aluminum.
Audi A8: The First and Second Generations
The production A8 made its full global debut a year later in 1994, later going on sale in the U.S. in 1997 with a 3.7-liter V-8 and front-wheel drive. The more powerful 4.2-liter A8 with Audi’s trademark Quattro all-wheel drive system followed soon after and proved more popular than the lesser model. Regardless of engine, these were highly complex, ultra-luxurious sedans that offered the top-level tech of the era.
The second-generation A8 arrived in 2002 and launched in the U.S. for the 2004 model year, bringing with it a revised soft-edged design and a host of Audi’s halo tech with it. This was the first Audi with Bi-Xenon HID headlights for both high and low beam, the first Audi with a six-speed automatic transmission, the first Audi with four-wheel adaptive air suspension, and one of the first cars with adaptive front curve headlights.
In the United States, the second-gen A8 launched with the same 4.2-liter V-8 as the previous model, albeit with a few revisions that brought output up to 329 horsepower and 317 lb-ft of torque, managed by Audi’s Quattro system. Later, the thumping 6.0-liter naturally aspirated W-12 found its way to our shores, complete with a mighty 444 hp and 428 lb-ft of torque. Even with over two tons to lug around, the 0-60-mph dash was a surprisingly low 5.1 seconds for those A8s packing the strangely configured twelve-cylinder.
Audi A8: The Third and Fourth Generations
The third-generation A8 arrived for the 2011 model year in the U.S., built on a modified version of the ubiquitous Volkswagen MLB platform, bringing it in line with the rest of the then-updated Audi lineup and sharing related interior structure and design. The powertrain family tree grew a few branches as well, with 2011 and 2012 U.S.-market A8s launching with the familiar 4.2-liter V-8 and the massive 6.3-liter W-12, later dropping the 4.2-liter in favor of the 3.0-liter supercharged V-6, a 4.0-liter turbocharged V-8, or a 3.0-liter TDI diesel V-6, the latter offering up a relatively paltry 237 hp but an impressive 406 lb-ft of torque.
Just like the prior generation, the third iteration of the A8 carried a tremendous amount of technology and engineering in its elongated body. Alongside segment standards like adaptive air suspension and adaptive cruise control, this new A8 incorporated Audi firsts like early driver assistance tech, full LED headlamps, and infrared night vision assist. Later, the 2015 model year refresh would add a head-up display, active lane keeping assist, parking assist, blind spot monitor, and active noise cancelling.
After almost a decade, the fourth-gen and current Audi A8 landed for the 2019 model year. In keeping with the industry theme of engine downsizing, the massive W-12 was cut for this generation, with U.S. buyers having the choice of a 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6 with 335 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 with 453 hp and 487 lb-ft, or a hybridized version of the 3.0-liter with a combined 443 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque.
Of course, the new A8 is brimming with Audi’s latest tech. The interior is covered in a wide array of digital displays and touch screens, along with the most advanced semi-autonomous tech the German automaker can muster. Available all-wheel steering pseudo-shrinks the A8’s lengthy wheelbase, while the advanced electromechanical adaptive suspension independently controls each of the four wheels to offer unparalleled ride comfort and improved handling—and the system can even raise one side of the car prior to a side-impact event.
Audi S8: For When the A8 Isn’t Enough
For most, the Audi A8 is more than enough car both technologically and dimensionally, but for those who are never satisfied, the high-performance Audi S8 picks up where the A8 leaves off. Offered in parallel to the regular A8 models since 1996, each subsequent iteration of the S8 has added a more powerful engine along with a comprehensive go-fast kit that usually includes a combination of upgraded suspension, brakes, transmission mapping, and steering.
The first-gen S8 featured a hopped-up version of the A8’s existing 4.2-liter V-8, upgraded first to 332 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque, then to 355 hp and 317 lb-ft. Zero-to-60-mph time dropped to 6.2 and 5.6 seconds respectively, while Audi capped the S8’s top speed at the customary 155 mph. The second generation of the S8 is perhaps the most distinctive, utilizing a naturally aspirated 5.2-liter V-10 capable of 444 hp and 398 lb-ft of torque, which dropped the 0-60-mph sprint to 5.1 seconds but kept the top speed pinned at 155 mph.
The third-gen S8 did away with the V-10, supplanting it with the 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8, cranked up to 513 hp and 479 lb-ft of torque. The stronger engine shaved the S8’s 0-60-mph time to 3.6-seconds, but still, it kept its 155 mph top speed. The S8 Plus replaced the regular S8 in the States for the 2016 model year, pushing power up to 605 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque, which significantly reducing the 0-60-mph run to 3.3 seconds. Audi also finally pushed top speed to 190 mph. The new and current fourth-gen S8 replaced the discontinued S8 Plus for 2020, now with a revised 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 spitting out 563 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque. Zero-to-60-mph now takes 3.6 seconds, but the S8’s top speed has dropped back down to the familiar 155 mph.
Audi A8 Highlights
Since the very first Audi A8 hit the showroom floor on the global stage in 1994, it’s always been about tech. Whether the tech offered in each subsequent generation was a world first, an Audi exclusive, or simply the first time offered for the brand, the A8 sold itself on the cutting edge of automotive development and sumptuousness of interior appointments.
Still, it’s never quite had the sales legs to match the eternally popular Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series, nor even the less expensive Lexus LS family. Instead, the A8 carved out a niche among faithful buyers who were more than happy to upgrade every so often to the latest and greatest model.
Even when compared to the BMW, the A8 and S8 are moderately more driver-focused and engaging than other full-size executive sedans. This isn’t to say they match smaller four-doors for dynamics or tactility, but the A8 always had a bit of an enthusiast-friendly air about it that set it apart from the rest of the staid and relatively uptight competitors.
Audi A8 Buying Tips
Before you run off and buy some random A8 you find on a used car lot, it’s best to decide what you want out of your new mammoth Audi, regardless of age. Regular A8s without the W-12 engine are more or less interchangeable experiences with each other, so you simply need to decide if you’re willing to put up with the A8’s substantial maintenance requirements if you do hunt for a used example. Remember, if you can’t afford to purchase a cheap A8 at least three times over, you can’t afford it at all.
If this is going to be less of a daily driver—something we highly suggest, as we can think of few used cars more problematic than old Audis—and more of a special occasion, night-on-the-town treat or road trip limo, look for the cleanest S8 or A8 L W-12 you can find with the thickest sheaf of regular maintenance records. Of course, we suggest the newest W-12 you can find, and either the V-10-powered second-generation S8 or the final evolution of the third-gen S8—the S8 Plus.
Or, if you’re financially healthy enough, just get a new A8 or S8 straight from the dealer floor. Problem solved.
Audi A8 Stories on Automobile
We’ve been fortunate enough to drive most of the newer U.S.-bound iterations of the big and beautiful A8 family, so we compiled some of the greatest hits below.
- The power of the 2017 Audi S8 Plus blew our minds
- Our first drive of the 2019 U.S.-spec fourth-gen A8 was revealing
- Speaking of, the current A8 didn’t quite make the cut as an Automobile All-Stars finalist, but we’re fond of the big sled nonetheless
- Going back further, we enjoyed the second-gen S8’s V-10 very much
- The excesses of the 2011 Audi A8 W-12 were a rare treat as well
Audi A8 Quick Facts
- First year of production: 1994 (Europe)
- Original price: $56,900 (1997, U.S.)
- Current price: $86,195 (base)
- One of the most consistently cutting-edge luxury sedans on the market
- The high-performance S8 variant remains one of the coolest ways to shuttle your CEO around
- We miss the V-10, but the current twin-turbo V-8s are just as thrilling.
Audi A8 FAQ
You have questions about the Audi A8. Automobile has answers. Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked Audi A8 queries:
Is the Audi A8 a good car?
While the answer depends on what you intend to use it for, we’d say the A8 family is overall one of the better full-size four-door sedans you can buy today. If we’re talking about an A8 or S8 as a dependable, low-maintenance used car, we’d highly suggest looking elsewhere.
How fast is an Audi A8?
If we’re talking 0-60-mph, the current A8 handles that in 5.6 seconds. For top speed, expect to hit the limiter at 130 mph. If it’s speed you’re after, go for the new S8; that super-sled cracks off 0-60-mph runs in 3.6 seconds and hits a restricted top speed of 155 mph.
Is the Audi A8 bulletproof?
Sure, provided you manage to find one of the extraordinarily expensive and exclusive A8 L Armored models.
What engine does an Audi A8 have?
The regular Audi A8 has a choice of either the 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6 with 335 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 with 453 hp and 487 lb-ft, and a hybridized version of the 3.0-liter with a combined 443 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque. The current S8 carries a modified version of the 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 with 563 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque.
2020 Audi A8 L Specifications
|ENGINE||3.0L turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/335 hp @ 5,000-6,400 rpm, 369 lb-ft @ 1,370-4,500 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||19/27 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||208.7 x 76.6 x 58.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.6 sec|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph|