Nov. 11 (Bloomberg) -- It’s a good time to be in the market for a big, black car.
This is the Golden Age for executive-style sedans, those urbane missiles stealthily idling outside halls of power.
Audi’s latest entry is its fourth-generation A8 flagship, a brash four-door that starts at $78,925 and is being released this month.
This time around the Ingolstadt, Germany-based company isn’t just facing segment stalwarts Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series. It’s going against the fantastic Jaguar XJ, the four-door Porsche Panamera and even an Aston Martin.
Like any fight for alpha domination, it’s going to get nasty.
Audi is on a mission to increase market share and decided to bypass an evolutionary design and go for the throat -- mainly by dumping its traditional understated look. The ostentatious new A8 wears its wealth like a lion’s mane.
Just look at the vainglorious grill. Actually, I dare you not to look at it. Eight horizontal blades barring a massive black maw, it encompasses the entire span from hood to underside.
The sedan isn’t any less bold from the side, with three strong lines spanning the body, signaling depth and movement. Confident 19-inch wheels fill out the arches. The BMW 7 Series seems sober by comparison, the Mercedes S-Class downright dowdy.
I tested the regular-wheelbase version. It’s 5.1 inches shorter than the extended-wheelbase sedan, sacrificing rear legroom. From the driver’s seat with seatbelt on, I still couldn’t touch the rear seat. Still, one wonders what executive underachiever would opt for the stumpier model. The A8 L starts at $84,875.
For really big egos, a 500-horsepower 12-cylinder engine will be available next spring.
Yet my enjoyment and creeping sense of entitlement hit a serious bump when I put it into drive. The A8 is gifted with sporting elements like an aluminum frame and all-wheel-drive, but the steering is all wrong.
The power steering is speed sensitive, so that the steering wheel is easy to turn in a parking lot and becomes firmer as you speed up -- on the highway for instance. BMW uses a similar setup and it has rarely bothered me.
Yet the A8’s wheel feels particularly numb and lifeless, any connection to the road underneath the tires lost in a digital ghost world.
It’s actually worse in the sporting-minded “dynamic” mode, when it feels like you’re fighting against the wheel. Hopes for fun on a narrow back road leaked away as I tried to figure out how much traction I had on the wet asphalt. I soon gave up and backed off.
I suspect it’s a matter of tuning the system. That’s a shame, as the eight-speed transmission and 4.2-liter, direct-injected V-8 work in easy harmony, and the 372 horses lend ample power. There may be a great ride lurking in there, but I prefer the in-your-face verve of the Jaguar XJ, which gets 385 horsepower from its base V-8 and has no kinks to work out.
What is undeniable is the power of the interior. While the XJ and the 7 Series have superb cockpits, the A8’s mix of shiny tech and man-cave comforts is hard to beat.
Alcantara, leather, pretty wood, shiny aluminum, high-definition screens: They cover every inch of the inside in a luxurious jigsaw.
This class of car often becomes a war of numbers. The power seats have 18 adjustments; the available Bang & Olufsen stereo 19 speakers and 1,400 watts of power.
I even liked the massaging features in the front seats, a technology I previously deemed insufferable and alien-feeling.
There’s no lack of innovation, either. Most cool is the infotainment system’s new touchpad, which allows you to draw letters on its surface with a fingertip. After a few minutes of practice, you can input a destination easily and quickly. The flat shifter is placed just behind so you can rest your palm on it. Genius.
My test car came to $88,625. It lacked the available sport differential and torque-vectoring systems, both of which would have aided the handling. It included 20-inch summer tires ($1,200) and LED headlights bright enough to blind Apollo ($1,400).
There’s always a question when evaluating an uber-sedan, especially the long-wheelbase versions: Is it aimed at a self-driving titan or a puppeteer who prefers the back seat? Once you get in this price territory, it really shouldn’t matter. Everybody better be happy.
It’s odd that Audi thought of everything except perfecting the most elemental bit -- driving. For this, the Porsche Panamera, Jaguar XJ, 7 Series and Aston Martin Rapide take driving honors over the A8.
(At twice the price, the Rapide wins the beauty contest, but lags miles behind in terms of electronics and back-seat comfort.)
Stuck in traffic, the A8 comes out on top. It’s only when you get moving again that the picture becomes more clouded.
The 2011 Audi A8 at a Glance
Engine: 4.2-liter V-8 with 372 horsepower and 328 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: 8-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in about 5.6 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 17 city; 27 highway.
Price as tested: $88,625.
Best feature: The wow-worthy interior.
Worst feature: The dead steering.
Target buyer: The titan who’s stuck in traffic.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.
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