Audi has introduced the new A8 hybrid and has made fuel savings its main goal. Using a four cylinder turbo engine coupled to a heavily modified 8 speed automatic transmission, Audi claims best in class fuel economy numbers. Although not yet rated by the U.S. EPA, the European cycle numbers indicate that the A8 Hybrid will far exceed the fuel economy of either the BMW ActiveHybrid 7, or the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid sedan. What is not in question is that the Audi A8 hybrid will be the slowest of the three by a pretty wide margin.
In the US, Audi A8s are usually driven by their owners, as opposed to having the car driven for them by a chauffeur. With that target audience in mind it is hard to understand why Audi would take the approach it did in building its hybrid. It would seem that the global market, where cars are piloted for the owners by a driver, determined the drivetrain. From the back-seat it would be hard to tell the car is a hybrid. However, any driver in the US who has had a previous A8 will be used to 0-60 times in the mid 5 seconds or better due to the substantial V8 or W12 power that has been supplied on previous models. It will be a rare Audi enthusiast who chooses a near $100,000 luxury sedan and then settles for the performance of a 4 cylinder Camry.
BMW took the exact opposite approach with its flagship hybrid. The BMW offers a twin turbo V8 with 465 HP total including its electric motor. The car will rocket to 60 in just 4.9 seconds compared to 7.9 for A8L hybrid. Fuel economy is barely changed from the regular 7 series car. Mercedes-Benz splits the difference. Its offering is a V6 with electric support and the fuel economy and performance numbers are not so dramatically changed as in the Audi. The real sedan to watch for in this segment is the Lexus LS. If it adopts the new powertrain just released in the Lexus GS450h, it might nearly equal the fuel economy of the Audi A8 hybrid while offering performance that is nearly equal to its outgoing V8 offering.
Audi deserves credit for offering a legitimate hybrid A8 that significantly improves fuel economy, but it remains to be seen if its US customers will tolerate such a dramatic drop in performance.