2004 Audi A8

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The market for high-end luxury cars is in a slow meltdown, but the key players are pouring on fresh products as if the go-go '90s had never ended. BMW has added a V-12 to its new 7-series range, Mercedes-Benz has updated its S-class models, and Audi has unveiled its second-generation A8 in Europe. Furthermore, Jaguar is laying the finishing touches on a sophisticated replacement for its XJ sedan, and Volkswagen, an unlikely player in this arena, recently tempted Europeans with its mighty Phaeton.

With volume comes variety: These cars are remarkably different in character and yet quite close in ability. The new A8, for example, wants to be the sportiest and most overtly dynamic executive express. It's a move Audi has to make to avoid tripping over its new, in-house competition.

Aesthetically, Audi took the safe road when it penned the second-edition A8. Ingolstadt's finest may not be a breakthrough design, but at least it won't start the love/hate debate that BMW's 7-series has. Because of the A8's long, arc-shaped roofline and the familial front end, it looks smaller than it actually is. Although it is entirely new, the well-proportioned Audi's appearance is subdued, which may be a good thing in these troubled times.

Inside, the A8 is very functional. Its two round gauges don't have to act as part-time electronic message centers (as in the BMW), its multifunctional steering wheel has only four controls, and the standard Multi-Media Interface (MMI) is much more intuitive than either BMW's iDrive or Mercedes-Benz's Comand. MMI consists of four key elements: a central knob; four inner buttons, which directly correspond to the four corners of the motorized pop-up monitor; eight outer buttons, which provide easy access to basic functions such as navigation or telephone; and an "escape" button, which returns you to the next-highest menu. MMI is simple, logical, fail-safe, and easy to learn, making it the undisputed new benchmark among interfaces.

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With the exception of MMI, the interior of the A8 looks as conservative as the lobby of a Ritz-Carlton hotel. There is plenty of wood and leather, the adjustable driver's seat is comfortable, and the materials and fit and finish are first-rate. Gimmicks are all but absent (not counting the very cool pressure-sensitive thumb wheels on the steering-wheel spokes that, among other functions, adjust the audio volume). Regrettably, some of the A8's most clever features won't make it to the States, such as a keyless ignition system that reads the owner's fingerprint, intelligent cruise control, and the Adaptive Light System, which throws a beam into the corner you are about to enter.

Although the new standard-length A8 is a veritable land yacht, with a 2.5-inch-longer wheelbase than the outgoing car's, passenger space is by no means overly abundant. That's why Audi will import only the long-wheelbase version of the car (the A8L) to the United States. The stretched floorpan adds slightly more than five inches between the B- and C-pillars—space that will make a huge difference for rear-seat riders.

When the car goes on sale here next June, it will come with a full complement of standard equipment, such as leather seats, bi-xenon headlights, a glovebox-mounted six-disc CD changer, and power everything. There are several packages available for extreme sybarites. One includes heated seats and electric rear sunshades; another features an acoustic parking aid and a power opener and closer for the trunk lid; still another offers rear seats with lumbar adjustment and front seats with ventilation and massage. There are also a couple of special-order options, including a comprehensive leather package and a rear-seat comfort package with massage and cooling functions as well as fold-down tables.

Just like the outgoing A8, the new car uses the Audi Space Frame (ASF) structure. The assembly, co-developed with Alcoa, features aluminum panels over a rigid spaceframe of the same material. Audi claims the ASF saves 280 pounds versus a traditional steel unibody. Torsional rigidity is said to be 60 percent greater than that of the old A8, which helps the handling greatly. The main difference between the old and new A8s is the addition of a sophisticated air suspension that's shared with the VW Phaeton. This setup complements a four-link (control arm) front end and a multi-link rear. The air springs operate in four different settings, labeled Lift (for semi-off-road excursions up to 50 mph), Comfort, Automatic, and Dynamic. Seventeen-inch wheels with 235-series all-season tires are standard, but Audi offers both eighteen- and nineteen-inch rims as options, both sporting meaty 255-series performance tires.

On the road, Audi's new flagship is amazingly nimble, behaving more like a big-engined A6 than like an evolution of the previous A8. It is precise and responsive and remains entertaining all the way to the limit. If you enjoyed the old S8, you will particularly appreciate the new A8's Dynamic suspension mode; it lowers the ride height and tamps down the body in the twisties. If you want the optimal compromise between body control and ride comfort, put the suspension in Automatic and leave it there.

Even so, since the Audi set out to be a bit more dynamic than the Phaeton, the low-speed response to manhole covers and expansion joints is brittle. The new A8 is more chuckable and harder-edged than the old car but suffers from steering that needs more weight, too much initial turn-in understeer, and a tendency to run wide at the limit. On the credit side, the A8 has extremely energetic brakes and plenty of grip.

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The A8 will offer one powertrain at launch in the States: a 40-valve 4.2-liter V-8 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The engine makes 330 horsepower, an increase of 20 over last year's unit, and 317 pound-feet of torque, up 15. The transmission has the familiar Tiptronic manu-matic setup, but we'd appreciate up- and downshift buttons on the steering wheel. Audi claims the A8 will accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 6.3 seconds and will run to an electronically governed 155 mph.

The new A8 is a supremely competent, utterly complete premium luxury sedan. It sounds great, goes fast, and is terrifically entertaining when the pavement begins to curve. When the car arrives on American roads, it will almost certainly raise Audi's profile in this rarefied market segment. Moreover, the second-generation of the high-performance S8 is sure to widen the eyes of more than a few well-heeled shoppers when it arrives a year or so later.

Is the new A8 revolutionary or merely evolutionary? Audi is betting on somewhere in between. The company expects to sell some 7000 examples of the new A8 in North America, which sounds modest until you realize that at their peak, sales of the old A8 barely topped 3500.

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