Statement Piece: The Evolution of the Audi A8

Back in the ‘80s, Audi was a young company, practically an upstart, and an exciting new rival to the stuffy old German luxury car establishment. People often point to the now-classic Audi TT as the car that put the brand on the map, or sometimes the first R8 supercar, or even the first A7. Those cars get all the attention, but without the A8 — Audi’s original flagship full-size sedan — there would probably be no TT, R8, or anything else. The A8 made the car world stop and take notice of what the brand with the four rings was up to. It showed Audi had what it takes to go head-to-head against old legends like the BMW 7 Series and the venerable Mercedes S-Class — and win.

There’s a new A8 in 2022 — we’ve driven it, and it’s great — but to fully appreciate the A8, you’ve got to understand where it comes from. Here’s everything you need to know about the history of Audi’s biggest, boldest sedan, featuring every generation of the Audi A8 sedan.

The original (1994)

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Audi’s big idea with the A8 was quite radical, as it had to be if it was going to steal customers away from the old standbys like the 7 Series and S-Class. The way Audi saw it, the problem with big luxury sedans is that they were heavy, which in turn made them handle poorly. Add the extra weight of Audi’s quattro all-wheel drive system into a traditional full-size sedan and you’ve got a potentially porky machine. That simply wouldn’t do. Audi’s radical solution was to build the car out of aluminum, which is much lighter than steel but more expensive and trickier to work with. But, Audi forged ahead.

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The Audi ASF Concept Car — the precursor to the A8

The original 1994 Audi A8 was the first production car to use a full aluminum monocoque chassis. Audi showcased all that pretty metal in 1993 with the ASF (Audi Space Frame) concept car, pictured above. It was the original A8 dressed in a bodyshell made from mirror-finish aluminum. The production car debuted in 1994, to glowing reviews, which praised not only the level of fit and finish, but the high-tech cabin and all-wheel drive system. Many different engines were on offer, including a range-topping W12.

It certainly helped that the high-performance S8 was also featured John Frankenheimer’s 1998 heist movie, Ronin. A noted connoisseur of fine cars, Frankenheimer himself reportedly picked the original Audi S8 to star in the picture, which features some of the best, most realistic car chases ever put on film.

2nd generation (2002)

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For its sophomore effort, Audi doubled-down on design and tech. The big A8 looked much more avant-garde than its German rivals. Unveiled in 2002, the bodywork of second-gen A8 was all-aluminum, which is partly the reason for its smooth, ocean-washed appearance. (Aluminum can’t be creased like steel.) The second-gen A8 shared a platform with both the Bentley Flying Spur, and Volkswagen’s ill-fated Phaeton, and pioneered more high-tech features than we have room to list here. Most notably, the cabin featured the first MMI (Multi Media Interface) infotainment system, which you’ll still find in new Audis today.

Under the hood of the S8, there was a 5.2-litre aluminum V10, churning out 444 hp. To state the obvious: it sounded glorious, like an F1 car in slow-motion. The motor was so good, Lamborghini eventually ended up using in later models of the mid-engine Gallardo. Audi even built a bulletproof A8. According to Oliver Hoffmann, member of the board of Audi, “The armoured A8 L Security, which Audi first presented in 2005, is popular among well known political, economic, and social figures.”

Once again, the big Audi landed a starring role. In the summer of 2005, Jason Statham drove the hell out of an A8 W12 in The Transporter 2. It cemented the A8’s status as a car for those who speak softly but drive quickly.

3rd generation (2009)

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Getting into the third-generation A8 was a trip. The Bang & Olufsen stereo featured motorized speakers that raised up from the dashboard, and the infotainment screen had graphics to rival a contemporary Sony PlayStation (almost). Remember, back then, most cars still used maps that looked like they were drawn with crayons, but the A8 feature a full 3D Google Maps view of the entire planet. Audi once again used aluminum monocoque construction, which made the A8 the lightest full-size sedan in its class according to the company.

Naturally, the product placement team was once again hard at work, getting various versions of the A8 and S8 into another Transporter movie, as well as Avengers: Age of Ultron and Spide-Man: Homecoming.

“The third generation [A8] sticks in my memory because of two features: in 2009, we decided to stop pursuing a dual strategy and to equip the A8 with air suspension. … On top of that, this was the first A8 with a hybrid drive system. It blazed the trail for today’s plug-in hybrids,” Oliver Hoffmann wrote.

4th generation (2017, 2022)

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It was almost spooky to ride in this thing. You’d see a speedbump approaching out the front window, but then — as it passed under the car — you wouldn’t feel a thing. It was like the car’s active air suspension made bumps disappear. Despite that level of comfort, the big Audi more than held its own in corners thanks to all-wheel steering. It makes the car feel more nimble and eager to change directions than you’d ever expect for a big luxury land-yacht like this. And the cabin set a new high-bar for tech with dual haptic touchscreens. Originally, this A8 was supposed to have a Level 3 automated driving system, but Audi shelved plans for that, saying the tech wasn’t quite ready for public use.

This year, Audi overhauled the A8 and S8 with a more distinctive front grille, new colours, and wheels, and some new high-tech lights. Drivers can customize the rear lights with three different “light signatures.” It may seem silly, but it’s oddly satisfying to see the dazzling little lightshow as you walk away from the car; it looks like it’s waving goodbye.

Today, nearly 30 years after the original A8 made its debut, it’s clear Audi made good on the original threat of its flagship sedan. The big Audi has carved out a nice chunk of the market for itself, garnering an especially loyal following in China where almost 60 per cent of all A8s are sold. Audi’s flagship has matured and developed a character all its own. Compared to the usual rivals, Audi’s is a minimal, understand type of luxury sedan, eschewing aggressive design and overt statements of wealth.

The only question is what’s next. Audi may have already given us an early clue with last year’s all-electric grandsphere concept.