First Drive: 2011 Audi A8

#Audi, #A8

In any gadget-intensive machine such as this, the man-machine interface is elevated in importance. Thus, a major innovation with this model -- and in fact a first on the market -- is its touch pad interface, which supplements Audi's turn-and-push knob controller for its Multimedia Interface (MMI).

The touch pad at first sounds like a gimmicky sap to iPhone fetishists, but in fact it is rather useful. Located within a finger's reach from the gear selector -- itself redesigned to be evocative of a power boat's throttle -- it allows the driver resting his hand on the shift lever to draw letters, or numbers, on the pad rather than twisting the controller knob to the correct letter/number and then pushing to select it. The advantage is that one can finger-write a letter without looking at the pad (the system repeats it aloud when it is recognized), whereas as the turn-knob-and-push method (which is still available, by the way) requires a glance at the screen. Audi claims that the touch pad reduces eyes-off-the-road time by 50 percent for actions such as entering a navigation destination, looking up a name from a phone list, or manually entering a phone number. At other times, the pad doubles as a six-button key pad for radio presets, so these are more readily accessible.

If the touch pad is the new hardware most likely to enthrall tech geeks, the navigation system's Google function will be their favorite piece of software. Activated by a button on the nav screen, you can Google search, say, "restaurant," either near your current location or your destination, and see results in a list (with additional info available) or on the map. Oh, and the map itself can be a Google earth image. The Google search functionality requires a subscription to an internet data plan through a wireless carrier; Audi will pick up the tab for an initial time period after which you can expect to pay between twenty-five and thirty dollars a month. (A warning to early adopters: the Google function will be not available at start of production, but is coming within the first year.)

Considering the essential nature of the main screen -- which is used for navigation, audio, as well as many climate control and seat adjustment functions -- it's strange that Audi elected to go with a pop-up unit rather than one that's integrated into the dash. But that is absolutely the only discordant note in the predictably lush interior, where the attention to finish detail borders on obsessive.

Outside, though, Audi's usually forward-reaching design aesthetic seems stuck in neutral. The new A8 looks like nothing so much as a larger version of the A6 or even the A4. Audi makes a big deal of the car's all-LED front lights -- an industry first -- but their shape mimics the LED daytime running lights that have characterized Audis for a while now, so there's no dramatic new appearance. But while this latest A8 may not look radically new, it packs enough leading edge technology to render it a worthy step forward for Audi's range-topping sedan.

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