Discreet Luxury

The Audi A8 won't turn heads, but it's a class act.

Exacting German critics awarded high marks to Audi's all-new A8 flagship when it was introduced in Europe last fall. Sure, some carped that the car looked too much like its conservatively styled predecessor. But as I discovered when the $69,190 car hit the U.S. this summer as a 2004 model, the most conspicuous changes are all on the inside.

The biggest innovation? A high-tech Multi Media Interface (MMI) system that controls more than 200 functions, from radio-station programming to road navigation. It's Audi's answer to a dilemma that faces luxury auto makers everywhere. They need to distinguish their flagships from mainstream models already well equipped with just about everything a driver needs. So they pile on more technology. But that's a tough sell, given that their customers are fifty-somethings who didn't grow up with video games and laptops.

I was up to the challenge, though. Audi's MMI has a 7-in. display that flips up when you press a small panel on the dash. You move a cursor around the screen by turning a knob set between the seats, directly behind the gear shift, and enter commands by pushing down on the knob. For the most often used features, such as the radio, phone, and CD player, you can jump directly to the controls by pushing clearly marked buttons on either side of the knob. Reassuringly, basic levers and switches for the wipers, power seats, and windows are still where you would expect them to be.

In preparation for a two-day trip from Detroit to Chicago and back, I sat in the driveway and fiddled with the controls -- surrounded by curious neighbors. We were all stumped trying to switch on the audio for the navigation system so that I could hear directions as well as see them on the screen. "If I were a woman, I'd call a taxi," my landlord joked. Still, without cracking any of the owner's manuals, I found all the functions I needed within a half hour.

Once on the road, I made up the time. (Reminder: Set the speed-warning system to alert you when you exceed set speed limits.) The A8 handles beautifully. It has all-wheel drive, a six-speed transmission, adjustable air suspension, and a quiet V-8 engine delivering 330 horsepower. It handles so nimbly and precisely that, at 80, this car feels like it's doing 50. Yet for all the oomph, fuel economy is reasonable. Built on an aluminum frame, the A8 gets 17 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway.

When it comes to styling, the car is handsome and well-proportioned, but not ostentatious. It'll never elicit the love-or-hate reactions to rival BMW's 7 Series and its controversial rear end. Instead, it's like a fur-lined trench coat: Simple and classic, but with comfort and luxury awaiting inside.

By Christine Tierney

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.