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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New A8/S8 to Bow Fall 2009

Audi is charging ahead with its third-generation A8, set to be unveiled at the Frankfurt auto show in the fall of 2009. Once released, it will battle a slightly face-lifted Mercedes-Benz S-class, expected to be unveiled next spring, and BMW's all-new 2009 7-series. But unlike the rather conservative 7-series, which backed away from the audacious styling of its predecessor, the next Audi A8 will show a new look and carry the brand forward stylistically.

Audi's chief designer Stefan Sielaff explains: "The first generation was very dogmatic and product-design-like. With the second generation, the theme was 'elegance'—softer, flowing lines. The upcoming third generation will be stronger, sharper, and more precise."

Highlighting the Technology Within

While the design of the current, second-generation car is pleasing to our eyes, you could argue that it doesn’t properly convey the advanced chassis technology under the skin—the A8’s all-aluminum structure is lighter and stronger than those of its steel-intensive competition. The next A8 continues to use an aluminum space frame and aluminum exterior panels, all of which bring weight down compared to a conventional steel design. Sielaff says that the next-gen Audi A8’s styling will play up that distinction. "It will highlight the aluminum aspect, and it will have a strong three-dimensional theme. In that respect, the next A8 will be the first of a new styling language at Audi. We are entering a new phase with a clear top-down strategy."

The A8 will be futuristic, but it will also have enough chrome to please customers in emerging markets such as Russia and China. There will be both short- and long-wheelbase versions, the latter to be launched in mid-2010. The A8 uses Audi's new modular longitudinal architecture, introduced on the A5, A4, and Q5. Compared to the current A8, the front axle is shifted forward.

The A8 will keep the Quattro all-wheel-drive system, but an entry-level front-wheel-drive version is again possible if the market demands it. In Europe, such a model is currently offered as an especially fuel-efficient alternative. Initial engine offerings will likely include a 4.2-liter gasoline V-8 and a 4.2-liter V-8 turbo-diesel, both equipped with an all-new, ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic (a gearbox which will simultaneously go into the BMW 7-series). Audi will also offer its 3.0-liter V-6 turbo-diesel, an extremely popular engine in Europe, and the supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 from the A6 and S4. And even though the current W-12 engine is no more than a footnote in the A8's European home market, expect Russia and China to demand a successor of the prestigious powerplant. Audi could also offer a version of the V-12 turbo-diesel introduced in the Q7, although modifications would be required to fit this big and heavy unit into the A8's engine bay. Expect the supercharged six and the 4.2-liter gas V-8 in U.S.-market A8s. If the W-12 happens, it will almost definitely once again be available to U.S. customers.

We expect the next S8 to become available sometime in late 2010 or early 2011, and it will use the turbocharged V-10 found in the high-performance, Euro-only RS6. It will likely be even more powerful than the RS6, though, which could mean 600 hp—or more.

A Fantastic Interior Gets Better, the Dance Moves Get Sportier

Audi engineers tell us to pay special attention to the interior, which they say represents as much a step forward as does the exterior. A large center screen and a new MMI architecture will be "more innovative" than the current system. We hope Audi won't tinker too much with MMI, a system we’ve always liked.

On the road, we expect the A8 to give the BMW 7-series a fight for the title of sportiest offering in the segment. The A8's all-wheel-drive system will be rear-biased, and it will be available with the same torque-vectoring system ("sport differential") that we found impressive during our drive of the latest S4.

In Europe and China, the current A8 has caught up with the 7-series and S-class in terms of sales and image. With the next generation, Audi may be able to pull off the same trick in North America.