FOR THE LONGEST time, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series have dominated the large luxury vehicle segment, with Ingolstadt’s entrant struggling to get a convincing look in. Now the Audi A8 is muscling its way back into contention with a burly 4.2-litre V8 that churns out 273kW through its quattro drivetrain. It gets a sharp all-new skin, plus comes absolutely brimming with technology. But what’s this? Another rival for the luxo crown from deep within the VW Group’s brand armoury – the tortoise-shaped Panamera. This segment is all about a showy badge and the ability to carry the complete board of directors in comfort, so what kind of edge does the ‘posh-sporty’ Panamera carry? Budget buy would be the last thing on your mind right here, but in six-cylinder format the Porsche bows in at R350k less than the leading limos, A8 included. Have we stumbled into Opposite World?
Despite being cast from all-new metal, the A8 remains a familiar shape: essentially a 5137mm long slab of typical Audi design. Swathed in pearlescent black (included in base price), our test unit oozes old-school gangster cred, a quality BMW seems to have lost with the geek-pleasing Seven. Dominating each massive arch is a formidable 19-inch alloy, conspiring to deflect the metal bulk with help from the wide chrome grille and bright beading which outlines the greenhouse and underlines the doors. The A8 gets all-new jewels in the form of updated head- and rear-lamp clusters, each an ornate festival of Light Emitting Diodes and reflective surfaces. The result is refreshingly masculine. Here’s a car that, as it glides past, is greeted with knowing nods. ‘Yes, that man owns a large company, and possibly a sniper rifle.’ It’s that menacing.
But then we come to the hodge-podge Panamera. Porsche is renowned for its cookie cutter design studio. Tradition stifles even the tiniest innovation. And it shows in this first attempt at a five-door hatch cum saloon. They seem to have proceeded as follows: Take two 911s. Lop the front off one – keep both doors. Lop the back off another – keep both doors. Glue them together, sell millions. Strangely it all works, just. We’ve loved every derivative we’ve driven thus far, and the new six-cylinder entry model promises to continue the trend. Very few would consider it a handsome design with those porcine hips, a too-wide nose, and a profile that shows up the visually unbalanced nature of the car – yet I’m one of them. I ‘get’ it. Our platinum silver (metallic paint is an R14 880 option) test unit benefits from Audi-like LED running lamps, with intricate head- and tail light clusters, and makes do with 18in alloys to fill those arches. There’s little visual commonality with the limo-like Audi, but parked up in an abandoned train yard, there’s a sense of a proper fight brewing here. How will the upstart fare against a roost ruler?
Both cars feature million rand interiors, and that includes the budget Porsche whose cabin is on par with its pricier 4, S and Turbo siblings sans a few buttons. The Panamera features a split highway of function buttons on its imposing centre stack, divided fore and aft of the gear lever which actuates the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, or PDK in Porsche parlance. Surrounding the rear-view mirror is another set of switches and buttons, with most multimedia functions and select car controls relayed to the driver via a TFT screen which takes up dash central – this pricey R40 900 option is dubbed PCM, and includes the navigation unit.
The Panamera is great ergonomically, but the A8’s MMI (MultiMedia Interface), again a standard feature on the Audi, takes the tech feast further with functionality that extends to a new touch panel which recognises handwriting. Our test unit was limited to selecting radio channels and the like, but the writing recognition software is an option. The Audi’s TFT screen plays a discreet game of hide and reveal as it alternately slides into or out of its slot in the wood-faced dash. Against the Panamera’s button-laden approach, the A8 feels less cluttered, with more functions alotted to the MMI interface. For distinctive, it relies heavily on its T-bar-type grip for hauling the eight-speed Tiptronic slushbox into action, although paddle shifters are an option.
Both cars are sumptuous, the Audi favouring a more reserved approach (wood trim , faux aluminum, diamond stitching) while the Porsche opts for retro racer (even more aluminum, silver outlined dials and black leather on everything). Both come equipped with grippy leather pews, though the A8 can comfortably seat five adults while the Porsche eschews a rear bench for two separate seats, making it strictly a 2+2.
A Porsche trump card is surely a steering wheel that relays (through the screen) which driving mode you’ve selected – choose from Normal, Sport and Sport Plus. Behind the helm you sink convincingly into the beast’s belly for an idyllic ‘driver’s position’, much lower than you’ll accomplish in the Audi. But lower isn’t necessarily better, and you’ll enjoy a riveting drive no matter which driver’s seat you’re occupying. Fire up the engines and the fundamental differences become wholly evident: the A8 has the superior insulation and isolation from the outside world, the Porsche delivers a more visceral experience, complete with the sound of stones and dirt being kicked up into the wheel wells.
It’s not strictly fair to rate a range topping 4.2-litre V8 (273kW at 6800rpm) against a base 3.6-litre V6 (220kW at 6200rpm), especially considering the yawning 53kW/45Nm output chasm that separates them. Then consider that vehicle mass is too close to significantly level the playing fields (1835kg in the aluminum A8, 1760kg in the Panamera). It doesn’t help the Panamera’s dynamic cause, but it wears the Porsche shield on its prow and that should count for something. It does. Twist each engine into life – a deep fizzy note in the Porsche, a raspier, tinnier sound from the A8 – then navigate the menus to reach their sportiest settings and they’re ready to have their performance prowess measured. The sprint to 100kph is managed in a blistering 5.79 seconds in the Audi, which really cashes in on its four-wheel drive system. The rear-driven Porsche manages a respectable best of 6.35 seconds. The Audi obliterates the quarter mile in 13.94 seconds before topping out at a limited 250kph while the Porsche achieves 400m in 14.65 seconds and runs out of steam at 261kph.
So while there’s a performance gap, they’re both quick, perhaps quicker than any saloon needs to be. Certainly they’re both more than capable of getting you into and out of trouble – fast. The V8 in the Audi boasts excellent efficiency and fuel economy with a 9.5ℓ/100km combined cycle, which makes the smaller Porsche lump’s 11.3ℓ/100km look more than a little wasteful. The optional 100-litre fuel tank (80ℓ standard) might be a worthy investment. The Audi’s 90-litre item seems perfectly judged.
Executive barges don’t consider the race track their natural home, yet piloting this heavy metal around Killarney’s tight curves offers valuable insight into their dynamics and poise. On the face of it, low-slung Porsche should trounce taller, heftier Audi, yet here the odds are skewed by a different approach to taming weight transfer.
The A8 gets Quattro drive (60:40 rear bias) put down through a double wishbone front and multi-link rear, all modulated through air suspension (R10 600) which can be adjusted on the fly. The rear-driven Panamera uses similar suspension hardware riding on coil springs in standard trim. Our test unit is however fitted with the optional (R45 560) adaptive air suspension and Sport Chrono Plus package (R15 950) which lets the driver select drivetrain and chassis settings ranging from Normal to Sport Plus. Tick that box and you get Porsche’s launch control and electronic suspension system (PASM), but our test unit misses out on PDCC (Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control) and Porsche Vectoring Technology Plus (PTV Plus) which are Porsche’s active anti-roll and variable torque distribution systems. So most of the good stuff is there, but the end result still leads to a turnabout of expectation. Surprisingly, it’s the Porsche that inspires less confidence and doles out the smaller grin, despite its endearing ability to shrink around the driver. Barrel into a corner, climb on the stoppers and begin the turn-in, and the front end is reluctant to take the command, and when it does, you feel its full weight shift into your forearms. Feed in the loud pedal and the rear switches from masses of grip to none of the stuff. It misses out on the linearity you crave in a driver’s car, in a Porsche. It still entertains. And you certainly couldn’t accuse it of not being involving.
Conversely, the Audi is sublime. The V8 feels urgent, and navigating the same corner puts a smile on your face, despite its obese proportions. Don’t be fooled, it’s heavy – and more prone to initial understeer than the Porsche. Coax it with modular inputs and it slingshots out of bends like a rocket ship exiting orbit. It’s only in the tightest of turns where the Audi loses out to the Porsche in terms of sheer manouevrability, and even then flattening the right foot in the A8 remains the ultimate equaliser relegating the Porsche to its rear-view mirror once more. Scrub off speed in the Audi with the easy brake action, aim for the apex and with uncanny precision and urgency the lumbering Audi tracks with precision. Just how do they make a two-tonne teuton feel THIS nimble? It’s a trick admittedly also done well by Merc’s S and BMW’s 7, and by all accounts a higher spec spec Panamera 4S would decimate all in this regard. But on the day, the A8 takes the bow.
Today, we’ve not compared apples with apples. The Audi A8 is a super limo on par with the market leaders in its segment, the Porsche a blend of sports car and saloon which just happens to possess enough brand equity to smooth over the transition. The Audi retails in base form for R1 105 905 against the Porsche’s R755 000 in sublime PDK form, and they’re both very accomplished cars. These prices are not true reflections of our test units which both benefit from liberal options box ticking, an activity that easily inflates these base prices by R200 000 or more. In the lesser-kitted Porsche’s case the optional PDCC with PTV and Sport Chrono Pack Plus packages are almost obligatory, ditto the multimedia interface. Yet as status symbols with performance and pedigree, the Audi and Porsche are certainly comparable.
Predictably, the dearer Audi proceeds to one-up the Porsche in almost every regard. So if a hyper accomplished limo is your bag, your A8 decision is better benchmarked against the thirstier and more potent BMW 750i and the pricier despot-spec Merc S500. Where the Porsche pulls ahead is in its affordability. That’s one up to Stuttgart for clever positioning. If you just want the badge and need the extra pews, the V6 is ‘performance’ enough. Or perhaps you’re a corporate ladder-climbing lady with an eye on the upper echelons of premium automobilism but still need the extra seats and space for a burgeoning family. But what about you, Mr (or Mrs) CEO, with similar requirements and the extra tin to indulge the more engaging driving experience? May we suggest the Panamera S at R1 045 000 with its sonorous 294kW V8?