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What - Audi A8
Where - Malaga, Spain
Price - £61,640 to £66,240
Available - May 2010
Key rivals - Jaguar XJ, BMW 7 Series, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Lexus LS460, Volkswagen Phaeton
Audi make another concerted effort in the large luxury saloon segment - and delivers a highly effective car.
Likes: Interior quality, technology, effortless cruising
Dislikes: Conservative styling, impractically arranged boot.
Gallery: Audi A8
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Audi has been operating in the large luxury segment since 1988 with its Audi V8 joining the traditional offerings long offered by Jaguar, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz.
Twenty-two years ago the Audi badge struggled in that company in this highly image-driven sector, but today the four circles can mix it with the best of them in the boardroom car park.
So the new fourth generation A8 has the classy credentials, but can the actual car measure up to its very strong competitors in the shape of the upcoming Jaguar XJ (launching in the summer), the newish BMW 7 Series, and the Mercedes S-Class, whose current model has just had a mid-life refresh?
Two trim levels of the new A8 are offered, SE and SE Executive. Of the two models launching shortly, the 4.2-litre FSI petrol is £61,640 on the road, while the diesel 4.2-litre TDI diesel is £63,690. The 3.0-litre diesel will be available from September, at just under £55,000. The SE Executive trim is £2,550 extra in all cases. All are four-wheel drive.
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A major car design trend right now is the 'swoop' - the effort to create a coupe like rear compartment and thus give a car an inherent visual dynamism.
It all started with the Mercedes CLS over five years ago, and is something that has gone on to influence many cars including the Vauxhall Insignia, Volkswagen Passat CC, BMW X6, and the upcoming Jaguar XJ.
The new Audi A8 doesn't have a swoop. Which is surprising in many respects, and perhaps even laudably original. But the new A8 cannot be accused of radicalism; it is deeply conservative to look at, resembling a rather larger A4. Look closely and it does have the odd quirky design feature, but at first glance looks like the sort of three-box saloon that could have been launched a decade ago.
In short, it does not scream desirability in a design sense. Few cars do in this segment, though Jaguar are giving it a good go with its new XJ. Audi has played it safe here.
The new A8 launches with two engines; both 4.2-litres in size and V8 in configuration, one is petrol offering 372hp and the other is a diesel, good for 350hp .
Launching later in the year is a six-cylinder 3-litre diesel equipped with start-stop fuel-saving technology, and which will take the vast majority of sales - this offers 233hp. I drove all three versions.
Let's get the petrol version out of the way first; it will not sell in huge numbers here. Which is a shame since I rather enjoyed it, not least its high-revving urge that seemed well matched to the new eight-speed automatic gearbox (standard on all engines) - and the lovely noise it makes on the edge of its 7,000 rpm redline.
Its diesel twin has slightly less power but a full 80 percent more torque (590 lb ft at 1,750rpm, compared to 328 lb ft at 3,500rpm ) and overall low-down shove - all of which means that the diesel is even slightly quicker to 62mph - at 5.5 seconds - than the petrol's 5.7.
Inevitably it sounds less good though and the redline's arrival at under 5,000 rpm means that ratios are constantly changing on the challenging mountain roads on our test routes.
The changes themselves are quick and effective with this eight-ratio conventional autobox, whose operation can be overridden by plastic paddles behind the steering wheel.
The 3.0-litre diesel is surprisingly lively compared to its two big brothers. This new unit offers 7% more power than the old one (to 250hp), while delivering 27% better economy. At 406 lb ft, it has notably more torque than the 4.2-litre petrol, and makes eager progress. As with many sixes, it feels more agile than the big V8s. It is smooth to the ear and at cruise you can barely hear it unless really pressing on. 0-62mph for this model is nailed in a creditable 6.6 seconds.
Ride and handling
All A8s get a full suite of ways to alter the ride and handling of the car. The engine, gearbox, suspension (air sprung on all models), steering, sport differential and cornering can all be individually switched between dynamic, comfort, and automatic - the last of which attempts to match the setting to how you happen to be driving. In turn, these features are all packaged up into four broader packages of Individual (i.e. DIY), comfort, dynamic, and automatic yet again.
And they do make a difference, but even in dynamic mode the steering didn't provide the sort of progressive feedback that I expected. In the other settings I can understand this - B-road blasting is hardly a reason why people buy cars like this - but even senior executives like to turn it up sometimes. The body-control however is highly impressive, with very limited roll, offering the confidence to drive fast but fluidly.
But if comfort is what you are after, the new A8 will deliver. Aided by the soft leather seats, the A8 lapped up the smooth Spanish autovías and ensured that high speeds could be achieved without really noticing. How well the A8 will cope with over-used, over-worn British road surfaces will have to wait until we road test it over here.
Certainly the 7 Series - with its sportier steel-sprung overall set up - suffers. Finally, it should be noted that the aluminium A8 is around 200kg lighter than the steel competition from BMW and Mercedes, which has inherent handling, performance and economy advantages.
Audi interiors are probably best in the world right now and the A8 doesn't disappoint. The dials and MMI control interface are all exceptionally high quality, as is the quality of the interior plastics.
The wood trim - traditionally a weak area for all German luxury cars - is very impressive and clearly Ingolstadt is learning a lot about this area from their cousins in Crewe. I much prefer it to the minimalism of the 7 Series, and the rather austere S-Class - though it looks like the new XJ will really give it a run for its money in this department especially.
The sat-nav is very clever, and one can now both speak addresses to it (which seemed to work very well), or indeed draw the letters on a touchpad near the steering wheel - the first time such a feature has been on a car; it recognised all manner of aimless squiggles. Overall, the complex equipment is pretty intuitive, and while I found it hard to get to grips with in the six hours we had with the car, most owners will have the time and incentive to figure it all out in a fairly short time.
There is a lot of technology available on the car, including adaptive cruise control, automatic progressive braking (which won't save you on its own but will greatly reduce impact speeds which makes an exponential difference to reducing the scale of a crash), and the ability to turn your car into a wi-fi hotspot.
It also has Google Earth built in, though why this has any advantages over the sat-nav is not clear, and indeed the ability to Google while you drive along, a feature I'm not sure I entirely approve of - and that's not just because I work for Microsoft.
Legroom in the back is not brilliant considering it is a large car, and any passenger-focused A8 purchasers should wait until the autumn for the first long wheelbase version to arrive. Which brings us on the boot: in theory, at 510 litres, it measures up well to the 500 of the 7 Series and 560 of the S-Class, but numbers only tell half the story.
To make room for the myriad electronic gubbins behind the rear seats, the boot ends rather earlier under the car than you might expect - and is complemented by not especially usable bulges at the sides, which are much too small for suitcases. If you need an A8 to carry lots of luggage, this is a limitation you need to be aware of.
Equipment levels are decent, with standard equipment in all models including 18" wheels, xenon headlamps with LED running lights, double glazing, DAB digital radio, sat-nav, and Bluetooth telephony. As ever in this class, options will rapidly drive the price upward: these include ventilated seats and massaged seats all round (£3,000), Bang & Olufsen 1,400w sound system (£6,600), rear seat LCD screens (£3,750), night vision (£2,000), and so on ad nauseam, complete with more personalisation options for the deep-pocketed.
Economy and safety
The 4.2-litre petrol V8 achieves 29.7mpg combined and emits a creditable 219 g/km of CO2, under the 225g position where life starts getting seriously difficult tax-wise.
The diesel 4.2 however does 37.2mpg and just 199 g/km, while the best of the pack is the 3-litre six-cylinder diesel, with 42.8mpg and 174 g/km. The brakes recuperate energy back to the battery, thus saving fuel - every little helps, especially with a car with as many energy-hungry microprocessors as this one, and the smallest engine also has start-stop to save fuel.
Later in the year, a new more economical FWD 3-litre diesel will arrive, offering 204hp and a CO2 metric of just 159g/km - a number never yet seen in this large car sector. Safety-wise, the A8 is large, which offers inherent advantages in a crash. It benefits from eight airbags, and has various active safety systems including stability control, anti-skid control and ABS.
Models equipped with adaptive cruise control including 'pre-sense plus' (a £2,800 option) have technology that can smell a crash approaching - either by forseeing a crash at the front - or the arrival of another car into your rear-end or side, and adjusts seats, windows, sunroof, seatbelts and headrests accordingly, while cueing up the airbags. Euro NCAP tests are yet to be done, but I predict five stars for the key passenger safety rating.
MSN Cars verdict
The A8 is a highly impressive car, with a class-leading interior and electronic equipment - as well as offering the guarantee of very relaxing, assured long distance cruising.
My concern is that Mercedes has the conservative end of the luxury segment sewn up with the effortlessly impressive S-Class, a car whose classy competence makes it the default option for everyone from airport car services to company chairmen.
The movement in the sector is at the sportier end of the market, and the A8's conventional looks ill suit it. Radical designs can work in this bracket: look at the brave 2002-2009 7 Series, which sold by the boatload. The conservative look of the new A8 is unfortunate, because the car is supremely effective and in most other respects is a leader of its pack.
|Need to know||Audi A8|
|Petrol engine||4.2-litre FSI|
|Petrol diesel||4.2-litre TDI|
|Power (hp)||4.2-litre FSI: 372|
|Torque (lb ft)||4.2-litre TDI: 350|
3.0-litre TDI: 250
|0-62mph (secs)||4.2-litre FSI: 5.7|
4.2-litre TDI: 5.5
3.0-litre TDI: 6.6
|Top speed (mph)||155 (limited)|
|Economy (combined mpg)||4.2-litre FSI: 29.7|
4.2-litre TDI: 37.2
3.0-litre TDI: 42.8
|CO2 (g/km)||4.2-litre TSI: 219|
4.2-litre TDI: 199
3.0-litre TDI: 174
|Price||£61,640 - £66,240|
|Ride and handling||****|
|MSN Cars verdict||****|
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