My assignment -- and I quickly chose to accept it -- was to drive, compare, and contrast two of the most technology-laden vehicles on the road: The BMW 745Li, which came out last year, and the new Audi A8. I live in rural Pennsylvania and normally tool around in a base-model 1996 Ford Ranger pickup, so driving these cars -- each of which will set you back $70,000 or more -- was quite a challenge. My truck doesn't even have power windows. By contrast, these luxury models do everything but fry your breakfast eggs.
The first trick for someone like me -- especially with the BMW -- is figuring out how they work. These cars have so many geegaws and features that I found learning to use them nearly as challenging as mastering a personal computer for the first time. The Audi A8 comes with a 357-page owner's manual, plus a 187-page operator's manual -- and it isn't nearly as complicated as the BMW.
If you don't study up, it could take months to discover all these cars' features on your own. I drove the Audi for a week before I found the four little buttons that allow four different drivers and passengers to save their preferred settings for the electronically controlled seats. The buttons were hidden in storage compartments that open up in both front doors.
STARS OF THE SCREEN. That said, both vehicles drive marvelously. Each has a powerful eight-cylinder engine that will propel these cars to 60 mph faster than I can get my truck into first gear (the slightly higher-end BMW 760Li has an even more powerful 12 cylinder engine). Their 6-speed automatic transmissions are extremely smooth. Both cars had a "standard" transmission (called Tiptronic in the Audi and Steptronic in the BMW) that allows drivers to switch out of automatic mode and do the shifting themselves. It's like using a manual, minus the clutch.
The first big difference between the two that hits you has to do with getting in and making each one move: The Audi still has a conventional car key and shift lever, whereas BMW's designers have daringly dispensed with such old-fashioned devices. In the 745Li, you plug a little clicker device (like the remotes most cars have to lock and unlock the doors) into the dash and then push a button to start the engine.
Its shifting mechanism is electronic, too, activated by a little lever on the steering column. It has three settings -- drive, park, and reverse. Just nudge the lever up or down for drive or reverse, a light goes on, and you're ready to go. The 745 goes into park automatically when you remove the clicker from the dash. In both cars, you push a control on the center console to activate the electronic emergency brake.
SCREAMING MAD. Some of the coolest features in these cars (such as their navigation systems) are operated via a little video screen mounted in the center of the dash to the driver's right. In the BMW, most of the usual knobs and switches have been eliminated and you have to do just about everything via the computer screen -- a system called iDrive. You turn and tile a single knob (a sort of joystick) on the console between driver and passenger to make choices on the screen. Manipulating it while driving is strictly verboten, according to the owner's manual, because it's too distracting and could cause an accident.
BMW has rightly been criticized for making this system too complicated. A Newsweek reviewer never even figured out how to change the radio settings. I read all the manuals and did somewhat better -- but only somewhat. My biggest problem was with the voice commands that are supposed to simplify things but just didn't work very well. You have to memorize the proper words to use -- "guide," "radio," etc. -- and then memorize more commands that allow you to burrow down through series of complicated menus to change the radio station or make the CD player start the disk you want.
Even then, the commands usually didn't work for me. I found myself yelling louder and louder at the computer screen, like an American tourist who thinks foreigners will understand English if it's shouted. "Navigation," I yelled at one point, only to have the CD player shut down and the radio come on. Apparently the system thought I had said "station." The only manual override is to choose commands off the screen using the clunky console-mounted control knob. So your two options are to stop driving and use that, or keep yelling until it does what you want.
Audi's system doesn't have voice control yet (no great loss in my book). It's also much easier to fathom because it uses blessedly familiar buttons for performing basic tasks, eliminating the need to wade through endless submenus on the screen. If you want to turn on the Audi's radio, you push "radio" and there's even a knob to regulate the volume. What a retro idea!
"YOU ARE HERE." As with the BMW, you can still go into the software and do all sorts of complicated things, from adjusting the subwoofers to putting dozens of stations into the radio's memory. But you move through the menus using buttons, which is far easier than using the BMW's control knob. (BMW has added a second "back" button to the iDrive on its new 5 Series models, which should help.)
Once you get the hang of them, both navigation systems are very cool. Each is basically an onboard DVD player, full of maps and information, linked to a global-positioning system that pinpoints the car's location within a few feet. I live at the end of a no-name gravel road on a river bluff, and the systems in both cars nailed my location instantly.
You can watch your progress on a map as you drive. Or you can plug in your destination, and let the car give you verbal instructions ("left turn coming 400 yards ahead") as you go. You also can pull up all sorts of useful information, such as the hospitals, hotels, restaurants, and other key locations on your route.
SELF-SLOWING. In general, I preferred the BMW's navigation system because it's more detailed. For instance, it included tiny little towns in my area of Pennsylvania -- such as Aldenville and Beach Lake -- that weren't in the Audi's atlas. The BMW's map system also included a lot more information: I learned the names of lakes I didn't even know were there.
My test BMW also had Adaptive Cruise Control, an advanced feature that soon will be standard on luxury cars. It's similar to conventional cruise control, except that the car "watches" the traffic ahead via sensors. You not only set your cruising speed but also how far you want to stay behind the cars in front. If you set the speed at, say, 55 mph, and then come up behind a slower car, you get a warning, and the BMW reduces speed itself when you get too close.
I tried it out following an aged Jeep Cherokee one day, and it worked great -- except that I rattled the Cherokee's driver by pulling up right behind him again and again, and he eventually pulled off the road and glared at me as I went by.
STOPPING POWER. Much of the most impressive technology is hidden away in the cars' guts. Both have electronic stability control (which helps prevent rollovers), traction control, and front, side, knee, and side-curtain airbags, as well as seatbelt pretensioners.
The single thing that most astonished me was the smoothness of the BMW's ride on rough country roads. You could still feel the bigger potholes, but the electronic suspension system simply erased the endless bumps and washboards I'm used to feeling jar my kidneys. The Audi smoothed out the bumps, too. But it has quite a stiff ride for a luxury car and didn't do quite as well.
I discovered another new safety feature of the latest luxury cars when I slammed on the Audi's brakes. With no skidding, fuss, or fade, the car stopped so fast that my little dog, Elsa, who was perched on a blanket in the passenger seat, went rocketing paws first into the dashboard like a character in a Saturday morning cartoon.
Studies show that most people don't brake hard enough in emergencies. So, in addition to having an antilock brake system (ABS) that prevents skidding, the A8 has electronic-braking assist. When sensors indicated that I might be trying to avert an accident, the car took over and braked far harder than I would have done. I might never have suspected something unusual had happened if poor Elsa hadn't been riding shotgun.
BUTT MASSAGER. For big powerful sedans, both cars are fairly fuel-efficient. That's partly because of highly sophisticated engine technology such as BMW's new, advanced form of variable valve timing that cuts gas consumption. And the A8 boasts light yet strong all-aluminum (body and chassis) construction. Both cars also have pressure monitors that alert the driver if the tires aren't properly inflated.
The U.S. Environmental Agency rates the BMW at 18 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. The Audi, which is slightly bigger and has all-wheel drive, is EPA-rated at 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway.
Some of these cars' luxury features seemed silly. Does anyone really need a butt massager to keep their nether regions from falling asleep during long drives? The BMW's made me feeling like I was uncomfortably perched on several rolling logs. How about just stopping for a stretch every hour or two instead? And I couldn't tell if the ventilated seat backs (designed to reduce perspiration) worked or not, since the air conditioning on both models was so effective.
TOUGH CHOICE. On the other hand, as someone who is always backing into things, I really enjoyed the "parking aid" each model sports. It beeps when you get too close to the cars in front and behind you. I also liked being able to electronically set the Audi's road clearance at 5.7 inches (for snow and rough roads), 4.7 inches (everyday driving) or 3.7 inches. It really hugs the highway on the low setting.
Which car did I like best? The Audi's curvier, aerodynamic look gets the nod for styling. The A8 is also much easier to figure out. That said, I can't help feeling a furtive admiration for BMW's audacity. You might have to hire a technogeek teen to help you. But once you master BMW's iDrive system, it's a wonderful car with more features than any other on the road. By Thane Peterson somewhere near Waymart, Pa.