These four test vehicles are pretty fair representatives of a mixed breed called "luxury performance sedans." About all they have in common is that classification, their level of performance, and their prices, which are all in the same ballpark. Two of them-the Audi A8L 4.2 Quattro and the Mercedes-Benz S430 4Matic-have all-wheel drive. Two of them-the Audi A8L and the Jaguar XJ8-have body structures consisting largely of aluminum. One of them-the BMW 745Li-boasts a mind-boggling number of controls and menu options. These cars are as different from one another as they are different from the Lexus LS430 and the Cadillac DeVille DTS, which were not included in our deliberations.
There isn't much evidence that America is weeping and rending its garments for want of luxury performance sedans. One could argue that most Americans would opt for a Lexus if they could afford one, or for the Lincoln Town Car, which defines luxury for Mercury owners and promgoers. Nonetheless, BMW, with its very comprehensive portfolio of luxury performance sedans, has nudged all of the other luxury-car manufacturers emphatically in that direction. Even Rolls-Royce now offers the Phantom, a sedan that can crank off 0-to-60-mph times in the neighborhood of five seconds.
These are intensely lovable cars, particularly for the enthusiast. They are fast and sure-footed, and any drivers worth their salt would check all the "Very Good" or "Excellent" boxes on their road reports after driving them through the mountains of Tennessee, as we did. Whether they really answer a crying need among all those people who have worked their way up to the luxury-car class and just want a nicer, quieter ride to work remains to be seen. But this single, central fact remains: Each of these four cars is superb in its own way. They have idiosyncrasies of technology, style, and national origin, but they are no-kidding-folks grown-up automobiles, and they came to play.
Audi A8L Quattro
Referring to the Audi A8L, one member of our test team said, "If we look at the history of Audi's attempts to take on the Mercedes S-class and the BMW 7-series, it's clear that the third time is the charm." This Audi A8 is head and shoulders above the previous attempts. If the car has a flaw, it would be the way in which it distances itself from its driver. There is no feeling of involvement, no sense of becoming one with the machine. It is terrifically fast, behaves flawlessly on mountain roads, and exudes competence from every pore of its beautifully crafted leather interior, but it doesn't really seem to care much whether you love it or not. It's there to do its job. It seems to say, "I'm very sophisticated and totally up-to-date, and you're not."
In terms of pure over-the-road behavior, the BMW 7-series has a slight but significant edge, mainly as a result of the BMW's superior steering and rear-wheel-drive configuration, but the Audi's adaptive suspension provides an ideal blend of compliance and firmness. When we finally got behind the wheel on a twisty road, the A8L handled the ever-changing curves better than its smaller and supposedly sportier sibling, the RS6, which tends toward too much understeer. In fact, Audi's most luxurious car, the A8L, is now the marque's second-sportiest car, just behind the RS6. The A8's V-8 engine produces 330 horsepower and makes no attempt to cloak that power with refinement. The six-speed automatic transmission is brilliant, although its manu-matic shift gate is fussy and complex in operation and, truth to tell, not as nice in use as the full-automatic mode, which matches revs on downshifts, shifting for an instant to neutral, blipping the throttle, then selecting the lower gear just as a sequential-manual gearbox does. It is all perfectly seamless. The engine's power delivery is such that you could probably deal with most winding roads by leaving it in third, but the very sensitive shift-mapping in full automatic makes even that unnecessary.
The Audi was ranked number one by 50 percent of our four-man test team.