Automatic for the people

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…but you can’t yet make full use of Audi’s latest technology

– Audi A8 50 TDi –

Did you know there are five levels of automotive autonomy? Bear with me because these days this stuff is important. In the most basic terms Level One is where the car regulates a function without driver input, like active cruise control. Level Two requires cars to be able to look around and autonomously act and react to their environment, for example being able to change lanes with no more driver input than flicking an indicator. Level Three reduces the driver to a safety net, where the car essentially drives itself, but requires a driver to take over if necessary. Level Four is full autonomy in autonomous-enabled environments such as in cities or on motorways. Level Five doesn’t need a steering wheel.

Where are we today? Thanks to this new Audi A8, hovering around Level Three. In the right circumstances (in heavy traffic, where speeds are below 37mph) it really will look after itself while the driver – and this is the critical distinction – gets on with something else. Not only do you not have to be in control of the car, you don’t even need to be aware of what it’s doing.

There is, of course, a catch, hence the careful use of the word ‘hovering’ in the previous paragraph. The car may say it can, but the law most definitely says it cannot, at least for the moment. So here is a potentially game-changing technology, a genuine USP for Audi’s latest luxury limo – and no one can use it. Hopefully within a year or two at the most, that will change.

Otherwise this is by far the best of the four generations of A8 seen to date, the first that has seemed more than an engaging also-ran from the moment of introduction. More impressive still is the fact that the opposition in the form of the heavily revised Mercedes-Benz S-class, the still very new BMW 7-series and an all new Lexus LS500h has never been stronger.

Key to its appeal is its sumptuous, spacious yet still essentially simple interior. Almost all functions save the pedals, wheel and steering wheel stalks are now controlled by touch- sensitive screens of crystal-clear resolution and wondrously intuitive function. For such a mind-wiltingly complex car, it is staggeringly simple to operate.

At launch there’s a choice of 3-litre six- cylinder engines, a diesel and a petrol/electric hybrid. I drove the diesel and marvelled at its performance – clock that sub six-second 0-62mph time – and fuel consumption, providing a real world 45mpg from a two-tonne car.

There are flaws: the ride quality is excellent at speed, less so around town, the engine is a little hoarse at high revs and it’s not a car you’d choose to hustle through some corners as you might the fine-handling S-class Mercedes. But judged in the environment most will use it, driven the way most will drive it, this is a fine effort and one that, at the fourth time of asking (fifth if you count the Audi V8), at last cements its creator’s place at the top table of luxury car manufacturers.

FACTFILE

Audi A8 50 TDi

Price £69,100 Engine 3.0 litres, 6 cylinders, turbocharged Power[email protected] Torque 442lb [email protected] Weight 1975kg Power to weight 143bhp per tonne Transmission eight-speed automatic, four-wheel drive 0-62mph 5.9sec Top speed 155mphEconomy 50.4mpg CO2 145g/km