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Audi A8 review: Discretion is this plug-in hybrid’s tradecraft

Powertrain might be behind the times, but this big saloon delivers a wonderfully low-key performance

Audi A8 TFSIe

Discretion, after all, has a value all of its own. We’ve seen, repeatedly in the past few years, luxury car manufacturers swinging for the fences, in design terms. The BMW i7 and 7 Series are the best cases in point.

It’s not so much ugly as it is aggressively offensive, reaching out and grabbing your eyeballs with unrelenting fists of design. It’s the Chinese market, we are told — customers there prefer their car to shout about its attributes.

What a pity, as it means that more traditional European luxury norms of discretion and subtlety are being abandoned. Even the once-understated Mercedes-Benz S-Class has grown a massive grille to help advertise its presence better.

Not the Audi A8, though. This, the biggest and most luxurious Audi, is a very handsome, very good-looking car but one that’s good-looking in a more traditional sense. It’s not brash, nor shouty despite also having a big grille up the front. In fact, it’s very easy to mistake it for a much humbler Audi A6 saloon, a car which costs half as much.


That may seem anathema to some — if you’ve got it, flaunt it, baby, as Max Bialystok so memorably put it — but to me, that seems about right. If you’ve got the cash to buy a car like this, do you really want to advertise the fact to a jealous world? Wouldn’t a little discretion be more appropriate?

Perhaps that’s why the A8, in its original D2 model of the 1990s, made for such a good spy car. It was the choice of wheels for 1998′s Ronin, in which John Frankenheimer took the directing skills he’d honed filming Grand Prix 30 years prior, and applied them to smash-and-bash car chases featuring a 340hp V8-engined Audi S8, the high-performance version of the A8. I’m a sucker for a good spy flick, and the S8 seemed every bit as important a part of Ronin’s cast as Robert DeNiro or Jean Reno. I’ve craved one since.

Audi A8 TFSIe

Or have I? That original S8, with its 4.2-litre V8, would hit 100km/h in a little more than 6.0 secs. This brand new Audi A8 TFSIe — the plug-in hybrid version — has an extra 120-odd horsepower and does the same 0-100km/h sprint in just 4.7 secs.

More importantly, as far as modern mores are concerned, it also hits 67km — that’s the official range quoted for a full charge of its 17.9kwh battery pack. That pegs it some way behind the latest plug-in hybrid Merc S-Class (the S580e will do better than 120km) but even with the realistic real-world range of about 45-50km on a charge, you’ll spend a surprising amount of time in the A8 TFSIe whooshing about in blissful silence.

And when you do need to “shove it” a bit (another Ronin reference there …) it really can. When the 3.0-litre turbo V6 engine wakes up, you’ve got 462hp to play with, backed up by 700Nm of torque and — this being an Audi — Quattro four-wheel drive to help you keep it all pointing in the desired direction. It never feels violently fast, not in the kick-up-the-arse manner of the various generations of S8 down the years, but it gathers pace in the relentless manner of a freight train whose brake line has been cut. That V6 may not have the characterful sound of the original S8′s V8 engine, but it still snarls with pleasant aggression when you want it to.

To be honest, this isn’t the right way to drive the A8 TFSIe. Frankenheimer — along with actor Skip Sudduth, who did many of his own driving stunts, and ex-F1 driver Jean-Pierre Jarier, who did the stunts Sudduth couldn’t — might have delighted in getting the big Audi to go rally-car sideways along narrow Parisian streets, but this A8 is better experienced at a more relaxed pace.

Audi A8 TFSIe

The air suspension — which automatically adjusts for height depending on the driving mode you have selected — gets occasionally caught out by short, sharp urban bumps, but the rest of the time is sublimely comfortable and smooth. That goes hand in hand with the A8′s exceptional noise suppression, which lets barely a whisper of air nor tyre noise penetrate the cabin. In fact, it’s so quiet at low-to-medium speeds in electric mode that you can hear rather too much creaking and groaning from the leather seats and the seatbelt mountings.

Handling? Well, there is a Dynamic setting, which stiffens up the suspension and weights up the steering, but to be honest even then the A8 still feels pretty soft and is still more happy gliding through corners than attacking them like you’re in a car chase. It doesn’t have the Jeckyll and Hyde character of the big BMW, which can suddenly feel like a small, agile 3 Series when you get it on the right road.

Audi A8 TFSIe

It’s also slipping behind inside, just a little. The quality levels are exceptionally good, and I’ll defy you to find more comfortable seats than these, but the cabin looks and feels a little stark and cold (despite the warming effect of soft suedette on the doors) and it doesn’t quite have the welcoming feeling of the BMW or Mercedes cabins. The software that runs the main touchscreens and the digital instrument panel is also starting to feel a step behind the best.

That, in fairness, is because the A8 is actually getting on in years now. Its once unbeatable aluminium chassis and body have become old hat, and it’s going to be replaced soon enough by an all-electric model, based on the striking GrandSphere concept car.

Is it still worth considering, then, alongside all-electric and longer-range plug-in hybrid models from its great German rivals? Actually, yes. Ageing it might be, but it’s still an exceptionally refined and relaxing car to drive, and if you keep that hybrid battery topped off then you can achieve some exceptional fuel economy figures. Also, while it’s sure not an affordable car (this one clocks in at just over €120,000) you can always remind yourself that the same hybrid powertrain double-jobs under the bodywork of the Bentley Flying Spur, so maybe it’s less a pricey Audi, and more a cheap Bentley.

And then there’s the styling. Compared to the in-your-faceness of the BMW, I’d much rather have the subtlety of the A8. After all, no spy is going to drive the i7 — it just stands out too much. Discretion, after all, has a value of its own.

Lowdown: Audi A8 TFSIe S-Line

Power: 3.0-litre V6 turbo petrol engine + electric motor developing 462hp and 700Nm powering all four wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission.

CO2 emissions (annual motor tax) 40-49g/km (€140).

Electric consumption: 21.9kWh/100km (WLTP).

Fuel consumption: 2.1l/100km (WLTP)

Electric range: 67km (WLTP)

0-100km/h: 4.7sec.

Price: €12,481 as tested, A8 TFSIe starts from €105,115.

Our rating 4/5.

Verdict: Not fully electric yet, and it’s no spy car, but it’s swift, smooth, and gorgeous.

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring