It's hard to imagine two cars taking more different approaches to providing executive luxury than the Audi A8 and Jaguar XJ. Whereas the Jag majors on its dramatic style and sporty driving experience, the Audi is designed to slip past unnoticed while making journeys effortless for all those inside.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the Audi is put in the shade by its rival. While the XJ draws admiring glances at every turn, few passers-by will give the A8 a moment’s notice despite its imposing size. The model in our pictures is an SE Executive, but it’s almost identical to our Sport Executive test car, which gets slightly larger 20-inch alloys and rear privacy glass.
The wide front end is dominated by the brand’s trademark grille and flanked by a pair of huge LED headlights that admittedly give it a certain presence. From the rear, however, the A8 is virtually identical to cheaper and smaller Audis like the A4 and A6. Smart chrome details and twin exhausts are not enough to set it apart, so it lacks the sharper XJ’s desirability.
Peek inside, though, and the Audi does begin to claw back some of that lost ground. The clean-cut cabin is more conventional than the Jaguar’s – especially with the shiny wood veneers of our test car – but every piece of switchgear feels really robust, and bespoke items such as the wide gear selector and pop-up display screen add a quality gloss.
The array of tech as standard on the A8 is all neatly integrated and includes 3D sat-nav, a 60GB hard drive, Bose sound system with DAB and a touch pad for scrolling listings or spelling out letters without having to navigate any menus. This system is a lot more intuitive than the XJ’s, and the analogue dials are easier to read than the Jag’s bright digital screen.
However, in the back seats, the Audi is less convincing. Touches such as ashtrays built into the doors and a huge central armrest make this seem a welcoming place to relax, but it’s narrower than the Jaguar and it’s easy to catch your feet under the driver’s seat. Head and legroom are on a par with the XJ (despite the A8’s shorter wheelbase), but the boot is 10 litres smaller, and the optional (£665) DVD changer takes up vital space in the glovebox. This 3.0 TFSI Sport Executive comes well kitted out and undercuts its rival by more than £2,500.
With 286bhp and 420Nm of torque, the A8 trails the XJ by 49bhp and 30Nm, but it was just one-tenth slower from 0-60mph, setting a time of 5.9 seconds. And in our in-gear tests, it felt quicker to respond to sudden throttle inputs due to its closely spaced gear ratios.
The A8 has less body roll, and in ‘dynamic’ mode the Drive Select system weights up the steering to aid cornering. Our car had the optional quattro Sport differential (£1,175), which shifts power between the rear wheels for tighter turn-in. But even with these extras the A8 struggles to engage the driver, although the trade-off is a slightly softer ride than in the Jag.
Yet despite not having stop-start, the Audi was more efficient on test, returning 19.4mpg. It’ll also cost fleet users nearly £1,000 a year less in Benefit in Kind tax. Plus, there’s a slightly less well equipped SE Executive model for £59,850.
It makes more financial sense than the XJ and is beautifully built inside, but will that be enough for the A8 to claim its first test win?