x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Hi-tech - but still a touchy subject

Georgia Lewis travels to Spain to investigate the new Audi A8's much-hyped technology, performance and green ambitions.

The Audi A8 is an unashamedly large, long wheelbase saloon with a strong presence on the roads, as befits the flagship status the Ingolstadt-based marque has bestowed upon it. But as well as being Audi's flagship in terms of luxury, technology, style and sheer size, the A8 is making inroads as Audi's flagship for environmental awareness. Before testing the car in Malaga, Spain, we caught our first glimpse of the latest A8 last month. A test car, disguised in black cladding, was spotted in Dubai. The interior was a drab grey with cloth seats - obviously not the elegant leather that we would experience at the launch event in Spain - but there was no mistaking the strong, solid lines of the exterior, the chunky grille and sturdy rear-end as being the next evolution of the A8's typically imposing design.

As the spy shots had revealed, the A8 we're driving in Malaga sticks with the headlights that feature a row of LED bulbs - this always reminds me of the lights surrounding the mirror in a backstage dressing room. But these come with technological advances to allow the lights to illuminate a much broader area and to automatically dip from full beam to regular when an oncoming car is approaching. Much has been made of the interactive technology inside. In particular, the handwriting recognition software, which allows the driver to draw letters or numbers on a touchpad, has been heavily hyped. The promise is that this device makes it easy for the driver to enter directions into functions such as an inbuilt hands-free phone and sat nav without taking eyes off the road.

The system can be set to a wide variety of languages, although Arabic is not available. I found it easy to find destinations on the sat nav by writing the first letter. Just for the heck of it, I set the route from Malaga to Vatican City with just a few deft strokes on the touchpad and a tap of the screen. The sat nav quickly calculated the 2,300km route, complete with the option to check out the sights along the way with images from Google maps. It is a very impressive piece of kit and when we used the sat nav for a trip around Malaga that didn't go quite as far as the Pope's residence, it was simple and straightforward.

Using the touchpad to enter phone numbers, however, seemed a little unnecessary. It only works on numbers that you have memorised, and if you write the numbers too quickly, it gets confused and soon there is a childish scrawl on the screen rather than a coherent phone number. Obviously though, this technology works better when you write the name of the contact already stored in the car's phone system, but even so, it wasn't my favourite feature.

Personally, I'd prefer it if everyone who needed to make a call while driving would simply pull over by the side of the road and then dial. Accessing the internet is possible, but this was only something I tried when the car was not moving. Frankly, anyone who tries to surf the net while driving should not be on the road, but it's be a handy feature if a passenger wants to look up tourist information, or jump onto Google to settle a debate.

What was lovely about the A8 was the Bang and Olufsen sound system, the elegant suede lining the doors, the quilted leather of the seats and the wood panelling on the dash, centre console and steering wheel that had a textured grainy finish rather than the usual highly polished look common to cars with delusions of grandeur. The gear shifter reminded me of the head of a golf club poking out of the centre console, but this will probably appeal to the affluent driver, who will test the boot space with the usual set of golf clubs and a stylish leather holdall on weekends.

On the road, there are no performance surprises from the A8 - the eight-speed gearbox shifts nicely on the motorway, although it's not quite as adept on the uphill climb, but the engine is quiet and the cabin pretty well soundproof. With 350hp and 440Nm of torque, there's no issue with maintaining a cracking pace on the highways. The one niggle was the heavy steering, which was obvious on the winding roads around Malaga. The car had a firm grip on the road and the suspension was faultless but it did become tiring on one's arms during the long climb up a bending road.

But this car is a cruiser rather than a climber. It will do well on the wide, straight roads of the UAE and it can be driven here with a relatively clean conscience. I was not a big fan of the touchpad for the phone, but given the propensity of UAE drivers for chatting at the wheel, anything that keeps eyes on the roads will hopefully be a selling point. Fuel economy is better too. While the previous A8, with a 4.2L V8 petrol engine, had a combined fuel economy of 11.5 litres per 100km, the newest petrol-powered A8 has a fuel economy of 9.5L/ 100km, or 24 miles to the gallon if you prefer imperial measurements. While this is not completely frugal, it is a fine achievement for a car of this size.

The diesel A8s, which are expected to do well in the European market, have an even better fuel economy. The 3.0L diesel A8 uses just 6.6L/100km, 20 per cent less than the previous model, and has CO2 emissions of 174g per kilometre. The front-wheel-drive diesel is even more economical and cleaner with a fuel economy of 6.0L/100km and emissions of 159g per kilometre. In Malaga, Axel Strotbek, a member of the Audi Board of Management, was keen to promote the A8 as a fuel efficient car in a market that is growing more aware of environmental issues and can be increasingly cynical about brands that only pay lip service to green concerns. "We're not shy, we're competing this car with hybrids," says Strotbek. "And we'll come out with a hybrid pretty soon."

By "pretty soon", Strotbek means the Geneva Motor Show next month. Audi's first luxury full hybrid A8 will be unveiled at Geneva, and while there has been no production date or UAE on-sale date released just yet, it will be an obvious competitor to the Mercedes-Benz S400 and the Lexus LS600h, as well as the BMW ActiveHybrid 7, which is not yet on sale in the GCC countries. "We will launch eight new products this year," says Strotbek. "There will be more TDI clean diesels, hybrids and electric cars."

It is not yet clear whether Strotnek is referring to the production of Audi's electric supercar, the E-tron, which was launched at this year's Detroit auto show and on display last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In a bold move, Audi will trial the sale of a diesel-powered TDI Q7 in the UAE, as launched at the Dubai Motor Show. Jeff Mannering, Audi's managing director for the Middle East, urged the governments of the region to make diesel fuel more readily available so that consumers here can use clean diesel technology. Perhaps the diesel A8s will be next for Audi Middle East, but in the meantime, the relatively fuel efficient new Audi A8 is scheduled for release in the UAE later this year. glewis@thenational.ae