Preview: 2003 Audi A8

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Audi's A8 has been the invisible man among high-end luxo-cruisers, with five XJ-series Jaguars, six 7-series BMWs, thirteen S-class Mercedes, and fifteen Lexus LS430s sold for every A8 that found a home last year. But the new A8, just now going on sale in Europe and due to arrive here in June, should get Audi on more shopping lists, despite the even stronger competition that the new car will face.

The A8 that we'll see differs from the car you see here in one important way: we'll get the stretched version (the A8 L), with a five inch longer wheelbase and a commensurate increase in rear seat legroom. We'll see that version in January, when it makes its debut at the Detroit auto show.

At the outset, the new A8 will be offered in a single version, with a single powertrain: a 4.2-liter V-8 driving all four wheels through a six-speed automatic with Tiptronic shifting--although no steering-wheel-mounted buttons. Output, at 330 horsepower and 317 pound-feet is up slightly from the outgoing A8's 4.2-liter. (A higher-hp S8 version, on the shorter wheelbase, will follow by about 24 months.) The A8 again uses Audi's pioneering all-aluminum spaceframe architecture, which is 40 percent lighter than if it were steel.

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This A8's most innovative new technologies are an adaptive air suspension and the so-called "Multi-Media Interface" (MMI), a BMW I-Drive style multi-function controller. The air suspension, which is standard, features air struts and continuously and infinitely variable dampers. The driver can select four modes: lift, comfort, automatic, and dynamic. The air suspension is the chief means by which Audi plans to reach its stated goal of creating the sportiest big luxury sedan.

The MMI is an attempt to consolidate many disparate controls into a single interface, which is a similar concept to BMW's much-maligned I-Drive. The Audi system, however, is mercifully simpler and more intuitive in use. It displays on a pop-up screen that emerges from the center of the dash. Other than the MMI, and two thumbweel switches on the steering wheel, the interior of the A8 is traditional in design and typically elegant Audi.

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Outside, the styling is evolutionary as well. The look is set off nicely by the optional nineteen-inch wheels; eighteens also are available; and seventeens are standard. Other noteworthy standard equipment includes: navigation, the air suspension, side airbags front and rear, side curtain airbags, knee airbags, bi-xenon headlights, glass sunroof, and a six-disc CD changer. Among the options are heated front and rear seats and steering wheel, ventilated and massaging front and rear seats, Alcantara upholstery, dual-paned security glass, an acoustic parking aid, power opening and closing trunk, and a solar sunroof.

To read our driving impressions of the new A8—including how it stacks up with the BMW 7-series and the Mercedes-Benz S-class—see the December issue of Automobile Magazine.

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