(Pocket-lint) - Back when we reviewed the Audi A8 in 2017 it was probably the most tech-crammed car we'd seen. To the point that we thought it was maybe trying to do a little too much with touch-based controls. And yet, three years on, most of Audi's rivals are copycatting such interfaces. Because the A8 was, in many respects, ahead of its time.
So here we are, in 2020, with the evolved Audi A8: the 'e' version, designating that this is a plug-in hybrid. Perhaps it's not the most likely candidate you'd expect in Audi's fleet with electrification - given its past history of offering V8 engine options - but given the sheer expanse of space available in this long wheelbase model (hence 'L' in the name) there's plenty of room for some battery power. Once again, it's showcasing future technology ahead of its standardisation.
Back to the future
Open the rear doors of the Audi A8 L TFSI e and it's impossible not to be impressed. This is a car for chauffering; a car for executive types; a car with no compromise to space and comfort.
From these rear seats there's a host of controls at your fingertips, thanks to a tablet-like system that Audi calls Rear Seat Remote. This 8-inch touchscreen panel lives in the centre armrest - only it's not fixed in place, as a press of the release button detaches it to be handled.
So whether you want to adjust the mood lighting, control the stereo, climate controls, personal lighting (the directional LED lights can be adjusted for precision), seat heating, or much more - it's all available at your fingertips.
That's before soaking up the abundance of interior niceties - including a wood finish and comfortable leather seats - which makes the A8's rear bench akin to a first class suite on wheels. There's even two headrest-mounted tellies - if you want to pay the extra cash.
For this review, but of course, we spent 99 per cent of our time in the driver's seat. It offers all the comfort of those rear seats, but the expanse of digital displays sometimes makes you feel more airline pilot than driver.
The A8's dash wraps its way around the full width of the car, almost floating in its position, while two large touchscreen panels are neatly integrated to the centre tunnel. Everything appears as one single piece, there's no knobs and buttons to concern yourself with, and even the air conditioning vents are hidden from view - only revealing themselves by electronically motoring their covers out of the way.
While these screens have access to a whole host of options, you can tailor your experience by pressing-and-holding a given icon and dragging it into a side panel for extra ease of use. Furthermore some key functions - Drive Select (for Auto, Comfort, Sport and Individual), traction control, hazard signal, and front/rear demist - permanently exist on the lower section of the touchscreen, ensuring you'll always know where they are.
Having originally found this somewhat busy, it now feels like second nature. And the haptic feedback of these screens - a bit like the vibration of a phone - is so astutely judged that it's hard to not believe you're playing with physical buttons.
About that electrification
When the modern A8 hit the streets it did away with larger V8 engine options of earlier generations, instead opting for a 3-litre V6 (for the UK market anyway; side note: there is an even more ridiculous W12 option). It's the same 3-litre in the plug-in hybrid model, except you get additional electrification to propel you along for up to 29 miles on a single charge.
That might not sound like a lot of distance, but for a fuel-guzzling car it can make a huge amount of difference to consumption. It's an emissions benefit too, of course, as its 146g of CO2 per kilometre brings its annual vehicle tax down by one step - meaning, compared to a non-hybrid equivalent (at 158g/km) it's well under half the cost per year in the UK (£215 vs £540 in this example).
Unlike many plug-in hybrids it's feasible to keep the A8 in EV mode, with support for electric-only at even motorway speeds. You won't get the full range if demanding a lot from the battery, but we were getting close to 27 miles per charge. We plugged into a wall socket at home, which takes a couple of hours to refill the battery - not the fastest ever, but still quick enough. Even a three-pin plug will fill the battery in under four hours.
The A8 will recuperate energy from braking, too, so that will help extend the battery's potential range throughout driving. Indeed, the systems on board here will advise you when to take your foot off the pedal - with a double 'knock' sensation to the sole of your foot - to keep everything in best order.
Combined with the petrol engine and you'll make over 100mpg no problems, which is fairly efficient for such a big and heavy long wheelbase vehicle. Over our week of driving the threat of visiting a petrol station never once became reality after many hours and miles on the road.
As a driving experience the A8 L e is as expected. It's refined and smooth, yet when you push things there's some inevitable wallow from that large body. That's the thing about the long wheelbase: it really does feel big on the road, and it's so long that it's a real pain to park (or perhaps not on your mansion's expansive parking lot).
Which brings us neatly to the A8 e's safety systems, of which there are a stack. It's the parking one that you'll really need - as the 360-degree camera of Audi's AI Parking Pilot depicts a frightfully accurate on-screen 3D model of the car in situ (including its surroundings), which is useful for parking such a long vehicle without smashing into the kerb.
But you needn't necessarily use such a feature when behind the wheel: the AI Remote Parking Pilot means you can simply press-and-hold a button on your smartphone and, when standing outside the car, watch it park itself into a bay or into a garage (if, again, you have one that's long enough!)
This is all thanks to a stack of sensors on board. There's 12 ultrasonic sensors, four 360-degree cameras, five radar sensors (four mid-range, one long-range), one laser scanner and one infrared camera. These enable the car to be always looking at its surroundings, aiding the safety systems, which enable incident avoidance.
In its hybrid form the A8 comes fairly fully kitted out too, meaning the cost of that battery doesn't really translate negatively to the buyer. The majority of tech setup, interior finish and safety features comes as standard, making the plug-in option a no-brainer over the petrol-only equivalent. Not that the 'standard' price is in the realms of affordable for most: it's upward of £87k.
The way the Audi A8 L TFSI e plug-in drives is almost secondary to its cause, because this car is such a haven of tech and comfort that, as an executive saloon that's best viewed as a back seat driver, it's a bubble of luxury.
As we said of the 2017 A8 upon its launch, this vehicle is a vision of in-car tech's future. Now, in its hybrid 'e' form, it's also a vision of where things are going in terms of power. It continues in pushing the envelope - and unlike many other plug-ins there's sensible emissions savings and practical uses of EV modes at your fingertips.