Audi has undoubtedly raised its game in the 21st century, using all the wiles of the Volkswagen group to finally achieve its long-stated mission of being mentionable in the same breath as Mercedes and BMW, with no apologies or qualifiers necessary. In this fast company, however, there's no resting on laurels, putting all the more pressure on the company as it launches its new, third generation A8. Fine car though it was, the outgoing A8 never sold as well as the Mercedes S-Class or BMW 7-Series, and they've hardly been standing still.
With an ear to growing international calls for reductions in carbon emissions, Audi's new flagship sedan claims considerable improvements in fuel economy, with reductions ranging from 13 to 22 percent, depending on engine choice, though once again Americans are sadly deemed to be uninterested in maximum economy. While the rest of the world will be offered a front-drive only 3.0-liter turbo-diesel option, as well as a more powerful 4.2-liter V8 diesel, here in the States you can have any engine you want, so long as it's the latest version of Audi's 4.2-liter gasoline V8, mated to the company's Quattro all-wheel-drive. An all-new 8-speed tiptronic gearbox, advances in friction reduction and aggressive thermal management technologies help curb its appetite to achieve a respectable 24mpg highway rating, despite the big engine's robust complement of 372-horsepower. A more powerful -- and thirstier -- S8 would seem an inevitability.
Flying 900 journalists from around the world to Miami's iconic (and recently renovated, to the tune of $1 billion ) Fontainebleu Hotel, Audi retained the B-actress Lucy Liu to present the A8 with company brass in a lavish event on the hotel's grounds, tied into the Design Miami/Art Basel design fair underway here this week. A brief panel discussion with a British artist, a local developer noted for his high style and Audi's chief designer was intended to highlight the company's abiding interest in design (and the design world's slavish devotion to architectural eyewear,) though paradoxically the new A8 breaks little new style ground, looking like a longer, heavier version of the lesser A4 and A6 models, though it remains a decisively lower and sportier looking car than Germany's other heavyweights. Much of the discussion focused on the fun designers had incorporating Audi's new signature, all-LED head lamps and tail lamps, which read as big check marks. Liu should not quit her day job.
As expected, all the world's technology and safety kit are in attendance on the new A8 -- adaptive air suspension, dynamic steering, smart restraint systems and the modern era's full battery of onboard cameras including ones which will read speed limit signs on the side of the road and post on the dash screen. But once again, the A8's defining features are its aluminum space frame body -- more rigid than before but still lighter than the competition -- and its spacious, sumptuous interiors.
Much energy was lavished inside the A8, which is more inviting than ever. A gearshift shaped like the thrust lever on a motor yacht bespeaks the power below, as well as the nautical design cues Audi claims to have taken its inspiration from. Technophobes beware: the comprehensively redesigned multi-media interface now features a touchpad. We'll have to get back to you on whether or not it trumps BMW's iDrive for inscrutability -- the goal is to make things easier -- but there's no doubting it will only add to the sense of occasion when we finally get to fire the new A8 up.