An old name makes a barely audible comeback.
There appears to be something rather half hearted and unmistakably anti-climatic surrounding recent product activity amid the traditional full-sized luxury saloon car. Last year, Mercedes introduced a new-generation S-Class and the automotive world yawned. In fairness, the renewal of the Mercedes flagship has long ceased to be a notable event and truth be told, the W223 bears hallmarks of even Sindelfingen’s ambivalence, now that the EQS EV bears its electrified North star.
So too at Ingolstadt, where Audi’s A8 has this week been in receipt of a refresh, aimed at seeing the model through to 2024 and its reputedly more ambitious replacement, heralded by the recent Grandsphere concept. Speaking of which, the current A8 itself was previewed in 2014 by the striking Prologue, an indulgent 2-door coupé (remember those?) whose muscular proportions were somewhat lost amid the transition to a production-ready four-door saloon.
The current A8 arrived in 2017 and has since settled down to a fairly unremarkable career as (more or less) everyone’s third choice in the Teutonic luxury saloon three-way. Likely viewed by Ingolstadt management as the price of admission to the top table, these vehicles are for the most part viewed as technological pathfinders, with a good deal of trickle-down to the lower orders set to take place over the fullness of time.
That seems to be the justification at least, certainly one the carmakers would have us believe. Traditionally, these cars have been statements, not simply of industrial might, but of financial wherewithal – ‘we can afford to take a massive commercial hit on this product line’, being the tacit undercurrent. The trouble is, carmakers these days are finding it increasingly difficult to justify such profligacy amid a shrinking market, given the multitude of knottier issues they now face. Hence, any perceived lack of conviction isn’t necessarily all that startling.
There is little doubt that for Mercedes, the traditional S-Class, while still important in prestige terms, is now a fading star. And while certain (non-European) markets remain enthusiastic customers, the Sonderklasse is likely to remain – no longer quite the sine qua non of Untertürkheim’s dreaming, but there for those who still want it – whether in boggo Mercedes form or the one you really promised yourself: Maybach-branded.
For Audi, the eternal third party in this triumvirate, a dip into the Maybach recipe book probably seems as good a place to start as any, matters being what they are. This being so, we are presented with, not only a revised A8: a more ostentatious looking grille with reprofiled headlamps up front and some minor reshuffling around the back, but the introduction of a much-rumoured, but hitherto unrealised name from the past: Horch.
Debuting at the forthcoming Guangzhou Auto Show, the A8L Horch Founder’s Edition will (for the time being at least) be confined to the Chinese market – one of the remaining territories where vehicles such as these still retain considerable allure. Based upon a workaday A8L, but with a further wheelbase stretch of 130 mm, it provides occupants with a rear compartment sufficiently commodious to conduct a really serious pillow fight.
Naturally, the Horch-trim level comes replete with all the mood lighting, electronic aids, tech-connectivity, diamond quilted stitching and throw cushions any (in this case) Chinese plutocrat could reasonably expect or require for that all-important sense of inner well-being, although the curious absence of rose gold interior highlights does betray a lamentable want of conviction on Ingolstadt’s part. They do this kind of thing better at Carlsbad.
What these changes haven’t altered is the A8’s vaguely flaccid exterior appearance. It’s a handsome enough shape – or would be shorn of all the scoops, bulges and needless accretions, to say nothing of the outsized grille up front – but perhaps this is a design theme which has been stretched and manipulated well beyond its limit? Inside: well, tastes differ, do they not?
Ford have pretty much given up on brand-Vignale, while Renault appear to have also ceased offering Initiale Paris editions. Yet Mercedes, and now Audi are ploughing a broadly similar furrow, only at a much higher price point – and for the three pointed star at least – with a good deal of success. In the case of Ford at least, (it’s difficult to be certain about Renault), the Vignale experiment not only lacked conviction, but carried a faint whiff of desperation. With regard to this German duo it comes with an air of, if not finality, then something possibly approaching it.
Before long, this market is likely to be too small and too entrenched for the number of players currently therein. A hollowing out amid the big-name luxury saloons is therefore a reasonable likelihood. Equally likely is the survival of Mercedes’ offering – showing up year after year without fail does after all have its benefits. Can we say the same for Audi (or Horch for that matter)? We await to hear.
 Now offered in a wider variety of flavours than of yore
 Audi have toyed with reintroducing the Horch nameplate on and off since the late-1980s, when they re-acquired the rights to the brand name from Mercedes-Benz, who briefly controlled Auto Union (from whom Audi is derived). Audi is the Latin translation of the German verb Horchen, which allegedly means ‘listen’!
 When you have Rolls Royce amid your portfolio, one supposes you don’t exactly need to stoop to this kind of thing. However, Mr. Zipse may well have other ideas.