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.
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.