Audi A8: Autobahn Burner

Audi's flagship cruiser is luxurious and classy without being crass or complicated for complexity's sake. It's a splendid, refined offering even in so competitive a class

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Gorgeous looks, performance, and luxury for the price; fuel economy

The Bad: Options packages a little restrictive; no diesel option

The Bottom Line: A perfect package for those who appreciate the sumptuous without needing to flaunt it

Slide Show > >Audi is in the process of seriously doping its model lineup. A cohort of power-mad S- and RS-versions of its mainstream offerings are marching forward, emboldened grills leading the charge against Mercedes-Benz's AMG and BMW's M performance lines. Unlike in professional sports, though, the steroids are more than welcome and out in the open, especially in performance-obsessed segments.

Audi's overall car sales seem to be holding steady, rising just shy of 1%, to 51,898, in the first eight months of the year. A rash of new models is waiting in the wings to reinvigorate showrooms, on the heels of the hot-selling Q7 sport-utility vehicle, including new variants of the flagship A8 sedan, sales of which are down about 4%.

The forthcoming power models are a sign of pluck and vigor from the third brand in the German luxury triumvirate, even if most average consumers are likely to drive away in less-costly conventional models, simply feeling good about the S-association. Audi's base version of the flagship A8 sedan is sterling example. After all, if comfort takes precedence over disfiguring acceleration, the V8's base price of $68,130 seems ever reasonable in comparison to the sporty S8's $92,000 and the limo-like W12's $118,190.

Even with copious options totaling $82,050, including a $720 destination charge, my test A8 didn't breach the S-version's base price. Audi's test mule had $750 metallic paint; $4,000 premium package, $2,800 sport package including 19-in. wheels; $2,100 adaptive cruise control; $1,500 Alcantara interior; $1,500 seat massagers; and $550 satellite radio. Even north of 80 grand, that's an impressive amount of auto bang for the buck.

With any version of the A8, stout and stately are the buzzwords. Large, luxury sedans—even when they originate in Japan, Britain, or the U.S.—are cast in the image of that archetypal highway, the German Autobahn. It is for that mythic and unrestricted roadway that true cruisers like Audi's offering and the competing Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7 Series are forged, and on which their worth is ultimately proved. That's a lot of legend to live up to.

The best at my disposal, though, was the 500-mile long stretch of Highway 80 between New York City and Cleveland, which is unburdened by curves, sadly saddled with speed restrictions, and the subject of no misty-eyed legends I know of. Nevertheless, the A8 proved as sumptuous and fun to drive there as it undoubtedly would on its home turf.

Behind The Wheel

Powering the A8 is a capable 4.2-liter V8 that pumps out 335 horses, putting it in cahoots with BMW's bigger, more powerful 7 Series and leaving Mercedes and Lexus somewhat behind. Mated to a smooth 6-speed automatic, the power-plant's orders are carried out by Audi's always-on and always-good Quattro all-wheel-drive system, which contributes to the sedan's sure-footed grounding.

Though not as athletic as its larger 450-horsepower W12 sibling, the V8 accelerates gladly and forcefully. I suspect that, under average driving conditions, the typical customer might not much miss the difference in power. Steering and breaking are also excellent, everything you'd expect from a German master. Both seem to have been significantly tinkered over and better balanced than past generations.

Audi promotes its programmable air suspension as a major innovation. Deep within the car's preference menus is a multigraded setting that can adjust the car's suspension to the driver's taste, softer for comfort and harder for sport. Though these types of controls trend towards gimmickry rather than substance, I was surprised at how different the various settings performed on my test bed, the cobbled and pockmarked streets of Tribeca in Lower Manhattan. At the computer-controlled defaults, the suspension is smooth and extremely comfortable, though certainly capable of snapping into action if so directed.

The A8 is, simply put, a beauty to behold. Its demure lines are long and well-heeled.

The car's increased proportions really afford Audi's newly minted design cues more room to develop than on, say, the diminutive A3 hatch. The single-frame grill is delightfully wide and exudes gravitas, nestled between twin Bi-xenon lamps. Likewise, the trunk is squarer than in the past and much more prominent without adopting a cliche Bangled butt.

All in all, it's not the money look of Mercedes or BMW's fancywork. Instead, Audi is carving out a niche that exudes elegance, of the slightly understated, less self-conscious sort. In the flesh, it really is a remarkable looking car and affirms the brand's general design direction, a turn away from the dowdy roundness reminiscent of Volkswagen.

Inside, like its competitors, the car is replete with gadgets and amenities. Luckily, Audi designers managed to strike a balanced between button overload and plentiful function. The MMI setup avoids being a potentially irritating all-in-one system, like BMW's iDrive or Mercedes' COMAND, but centralizes commands just below the gear shifter. In fact, of the major luxury brands, Audi has the best navigation and control system around, in my opinion. Besides being easy to use, its high-resolution screen and special effects-laden user interface is actually a pleasure to use.

The cabin is full of appreciable minor details, including door sill containers that fold out for storing maps or CD cases, nifty moon-roof controls, and sturdy, cubby-laden center consoles in the front and back. But, my favorite is the adjustable mood lighting that bathes the doors and dash in a sultry blue light reminiscent of a cool-cat jazz club. Indeed, the Bose sound system was astute, reproducing John Coltrane's 1961 Village Vanguard recordings with rich clarity.

Seating all around is comfortable, the front seats disposing of no less than seven multifunction buttons to be adjusted in every which way. My test vehicle came with the optional seat massagers, which—though I ridiculed the option as superlative at first—I came to use quite frequently and with much gratitude over the course of a 1,000 mile round trip.

In fact, if distance driving is on your agenda, besides the massaging seats, I suggest opting for the optional adaptive cruise control system. When activated, the car sends out a radar signal in front of itself to detect vehicles ahead and adjust speed accordingly. The smoothness of these transitions took me off guard, feeling less like emergency braking than the slow resistance of opposing magnets. Even when a vehicle cut in front of me sharply, adjustments were by no means harsh. It's a surprisingly well-implemented and useful innovation, especially on straight-bound road-trips.

In terms of fuel economy, there isn't much to differentiate the major competitors in this class. Most get right around the A8's 17 to 24 miles per gallon. Given the always-on Quattro system, my highway average of between 26 and 27 miles per gallon was a welcome surprise. Note, though, that in Manhattan traffic I averaged just shy of the stated 17 miles per gallon.

Buy It or Bag It

The A8 is an astonishingly good car, even at the price and given considerable competition from its countrymen. Unless a major competitor provides some techy feature you cannot live without, I'd recommend the A8 over the equivalent BMW or Mercedes, if only as a more self-confident and understated alternative. With the A8, Audi's proved its flagship's worth— not only vis-à-vis the Autobahn legend, inflated or not, but for all roads everywhere.

The A8 and its black-sheep cousin the VW Phaeton are a common sight in European capitals, a favorite of the elite and diplomatic cognoscenti. But stateside, they're a rarer breed. The style-conscious are right to wish Midtown Manhattanites would ditch tired old Lincoln Continentals for Audi's flagship, which brims with modern charm.

Click here for the slide show

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