Audi A8L 4.2 Quattro

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Senior executives at Mercedes-Benz should be worried. The new Audi A8L 4.2 Quattro—solid, beautifully made, able to cruise at ludicrous speeds all day—is more like what we expect from a Mercedes-Benz than is the current S500. The A8L exudes quality and feels special from the moment you open the door and slide into the seat. Audi of North America expects to sell only 5500 of the new A8s each year, which is a drop in a large bucket compared with the 21,118 big Benzes sold in 2002 but would more than double the rate of the previous A8. The new car is good enough to warrant those extra sales, particularly since it will be very well equipped at a starting price of less than $70,000.

The A8L comes to America on a 121.1-inch wheelbase, 5.2 inches longer than the regular A8. There is one engine, an updated version of Audi's 40-valve, 4.2-liter, DOHC V-8, making 330 horsepower and 317 pound-feet of torque. It's mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic manu-matic actuation.

As with the new Jaguar XJ, the Audi's styling is conservative, but it is handsome and has real on-road presence. Also like the Jag, the A8L uses adaptive damping allied to air springs to address the ride/handling conundrum. You can program one of four suspension settings: lift, which raises the suspension to clear obstacles; automatic, which lowers the car at speed; comfort, for a plush ride; and dynamic, which firms up the springs and dampers and lowers the ride height by an inch. Quattro all-wheel drive and seventeen-inch wheels and tires are standard, with eighteen- or nineteen-inchers optional.

Interior

The interior is gorgeously appointed and crafted, with tasteful alloy accents everywhere. The Multi Media Interface looks similar to the BMW iDrive system, except that it's far easier to understand and use. Typical of the car's overall attention to detail, the standard navigation system's screen neatly retracts behind a cover. In the back, there's enough room for the average NBA player to stretch his legs.

We covered the 340 miles from Nice to Geneva in less than four hours in an A8L yet arrived as fresh as when we'd started. Mark that down to great high-speed stability and a comfortable ride, even on the suspension's firmest setting. The engine makes a sweet growl under hard acceleration and will push this 4399-pound device from 0 to 62 mph in a claimed 6.3 seconds. The ZF autobox's shifting is virtually unnoticeable.

The A8L impresses over the twisties in dynamic mode, but you revel in the car's speed rather than its brio because the steering is too light. Body control and grip are excellent. With the comfort setting, you'll get a bit more roll and a lot more understeer.

Like all Audis, the A8L isn't an emotional car. Rather, it's an utterly rational one, complete in every way. It's very Teutonic, very different, and very appealing. It doesn't march into the sporting end of the luxury market and lay waste to BMW, despite what Audi may think, but it might just be the best all-around V-8 luxury car out there.

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