Techiest Cars of 2013

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Best overall high-tech car: The Audi A8

Technology is the ultimate luxury in large flagship sedans such as Audi’s A8 (starting at $72,200). On-board Wi-Fi is the latest in car tech, so it’s part of the Audi Connect system in Audi’s biggest car. Up to eight devices can hook up to the A8’s password-protected Wi-Fi network, which connects to the Internet over a high-speed LTE connection.

That means you can hand each of your kids an iPad and cruise along serenely while they occupy themselves with YouTube videos. The media interface is also impressive, and the system includes Google Earth real-world navigation graphics and Google Voice Local Search to help you hunt down travel resources.

Check out the bumper-to-bumper review on Edmunds.com.

The test-drive

Audi’s flagship luxury sedan, the A8, is a good-looking and surprisingly high-tech car. I say “surprisingly” because initially it doesn’t look that way—in fact, the car-tech system’s main screen doesn’t even emerge from the dashboard until you start the vehicle.

The A8 features Audi’s MMI infotainment system, which has intuitive controls and runs on an Nvidia chip. It also offers a 3G data connection, hotspot functionality, and Audi’s specialized Internet-connected Audi Connect news-delivery platform. The model we reviewed, the $78,500 A8 L 3.0T, has a few more techie features than other models do, including adaptive air suspension, which lets you customize the drive feel and vehicle suspension even while the car is in motion.

The main screen

The main event inside the Audi A8 L 3.0T is the 8-inch matte-finish screen that appears when you turn on the ignition. What I like about this “not always there” screen is that you can stow it away (a button on the dash lets you put it back in its compartment). This feature is convenient if you find the screen too distracting, or if you share the car with someone who isn’t quite so inclined to use in-vehicle technology.

This LCD screen is where you’ll find all of Audi’s infotainment options, including built-in navigation, vehicle controls, audio/media, phone-integration settings and information, and Audi Connect. Below the screen, you’ll find an analog clock, buttons for turning various safety features on and off, and a multimedia compartment that houses a single slot-loading DVD player, two SD Card slots, and a SIM card slot. A six-disc CD/DVD changer is mounted in the glove box.

The A8's infotainment features display on the main head-end screen.

The display is not a touchscreen. Instead, you control it primarily by using Audi’s MMI system, which is located at the bottom of the head unit, near the gearshift.

These controls look a little confusing at first, but they’re intuitive and easy to use. I especially like the placement: Because the MMI controls are right next to the gearshift, you can rest your arm along the console and reach all the necessary buttons and dials—no need to constantly lift your hand and reach across the head unit to tap a screen or surrounding buttons. The system does have a number of buttons (I count 15, not including the selection dial or the touchpad), but because everything is grouped together, you can learn your way around them quickly.

The MMI controls are mounted at the base of the head-end screen, just in front of the gearshift.

Not enough buttons?

The main issue I have with the MMI controls is that navigating to the screen you’re looking for can sometimes take a while. The MMI controls consist of a selection dial surrounded by four soft-function buttons (these buttons change, depending on the text in the four corners of the screen), six shortcut buttons (Nav, Menu, Tel, Info, Back, and Car), radio/media controls (including a volume dial), and a touchpad. To make selections on the screen, typically you turn the selection dial and then press it to indicate a selection. You may have to go through several menus before you find what you need, each time dialing through the selections and pressing to make your choice.

The touchpad is interesting. Most of the time it acts as a touch-sensitive radio-preset screen, with six numbers that you can tap to go to your preset stations. However, when there’s an opportunity to enter text (for example, if you’re entering an address), it becomes a handwriting-recognition touchpad. It’s very good at recognizing letters, and it presents a convenient way to enter an address, provided you have all the time in the world (you have to pause between each letter to ensure that the system has recognized it). If you need to enter an address quickly, you should use the car’s voice-recognition system instead.

Speaking of which, Audi’s voice-recognition system is very good. It isn’t quite up to Siri-level, and it can’t recognize most natural-language commands, but it is fast. Unlike other systems, which require that you pause a second before you say a command (and then require that you pause again while the system processes that command), Audi’s system is almost immediate. It’s also programmed to recognize some natural-language speech, such as “oh” for “zero.”

The A8 comes with Audi Connect, which pulls certain types of content from the Web.

Infotainment and navigation

The A8 has its own 3G data connection, which you can turn into a Wi-Fi hotspot for connecting Wi-Fi enabled devices inside the car. The screen allows for streaming-video and DVD playback, though not while the vehicle is in motion. The car doesn’t have to be in park, though—if you’re sitting in traffic, you can watch a DVD, but the screen will go blank every time you start moving.

The A8 has built-in navigation, featuring 3D maps and a four-year subscription to SiriusXM traffic reports. You can enter addresses, go by points of interest, or find online destinations using Google search for route guidance. I especially like how easy it is to enter destinations using either the selection dial to choose letters, the touchpad to write letters, or Audi’s voice-recognition system to say the full address.

The A8 also comes with Audi Connect, which is Audi’s connected information platform. Audi Connect is like an especially watered-down version of the Internet—think mobile phone browsers circa 1991. With Audi Connect, you can get traffic reports, news, and weather information, though everything is in headline/snippet format. Audi Connect doesn’t strike me as something most people will use, though it might be useful or interesting if you happen to be bored and stuck in traffic.

The only real issue I had with the car was its phone connection. You’re supposed to be able to connect your phone via Bluetooth to the A8, so that you can make calls through the car’s speaker system, but I couldn’t get the car to recognize any of my phones—and I tried three models (a Samsung Galaxy Note 2, a Samsung Gusto 2 feature phone, and an iPhone 4). The good news is that the process of connecting your phone to the car seems pretty straightforward, and you can do it even while the car is in motion. I just wish I could have gotten it to work.

Other screens and features

The A8’s other screen is an impressively large instrument-cluster display. Nestled between the tachometer and the speedometer, the A8’s Nvidia-powered instrument display looks more like the Tesla Model S’s all-digital instrument cluster, rather than the small, 2- or 3-inch rectangular displays we’ve gotten used to in cars.

You control the A8’s instrument display with buttons and a dial on the left side of the steering wheel.

The instrument display is customizable (you can also dim it completely, if you find it too distracting), and it can show lots of different information. For example, it can show “onboard computer” statistics, such as fuel economy and average speed, as well as a digital speedometer, lane assistance, radio/media settings, and phone settings. If you’re using the A8’s navigation system, the instrument display also shows turn-by-turn directions. The bottom of the screen shows the temperature, time, odometer trip meter, and current-gear stats constantly.

The A8 comes packed with safety features, including lane assistance (which issues an alert if you drift outside your lane), rain-detecting windshield wipers, and a fairly advanced parking aid system. The parking aid system uses a backup camera to show you what’s behind you, and sensors around the front and back of the car beep increasingly faster as you approach something you don’t want to hit. In my tests, the parking sensors seemed a little too cautious: Even when the sensors were beeping so quickly that it basically sounded like one long beep, I was still more than 6 inches away from the wall.

You can turn off any of these safety features, including the lane assist, parking aid, and blind-spot monitoring. You can also stow the screen, put up the rear window blind, and turn on the hazard lights.

Bottom line

With the A8, Audi has done an admirable job of designing high-tech features into a plush interior. Before you turn the car on, the interior looks like something that might appeal to an older demographic, complete with wooden paneling, leather touches, minimal dashboard buttons, and an analog clock. But when you start the engine, it’s an entirely different story. The screen emerges from the dashboard and the instrument cluster lights up, and the A8 looks as high-tech as any of the other cars we’ve reviewed.

The A8‘s in-vehicle tech is surprisingly intuitive and easy to use, even if you’ve never played with a connected vehicle before. Despite the fact that many of the menus are pretty deep, you need go only to the first or second level to reach the main parts of the car’s infotainment offerings. And Audi’s voice-recognition technology works well enough to allow you to circumvent using the on-screen menus altogether by speaking your commands.

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