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Audi A8

Audi's first premium luxury car, the A8, is elegant without being gaudy. Its square-shouldered, squat look speaks of power and speed, yet it does its bragging quietly, and I liked that.

Some folks who plunk down $68,000 for a luxury car don't want to brag about their wealth, and the A8 lets them pass among fellow motorists with barely a glance. That's a benefit.

It also passes through the wind with barely a ruffle, keeping the sound to a minimum. This new competitor to Mercedes-Benz and BMW is not just another German luxury car. It is a revolutionary vehicle because it has an aluminum space frame body, side airbags for rear-seat passengers and is available with Audi's famous Quattro all-wheel-drive system. Audi is the luxury division of Volkswagen.

There are two models, one with front-wheel drive and a 3.7-liter engine, and the Quattro with a 4.2-liter engine. The 3.7 has 230 horsepower and prices start at $56,900. The 4.2 Quattro has 300 horsepower and is priced at $64,500. Our test car was the 4.2 Quattro, which is the model I would prefer if cost was not a factor. The 4.2 Quattro not only grips the road like a cat on Velcro, but it does so in all kinds of weather, and the added horsepower is rewarding when you stomp on the throttle. As with most Audis, you have to push the throttle convincingly to get maximum performance, but when you do it responds vigorously. Around town the five-speed automatic transmission did not shift down as quickly as I would like, and that prompted me to leave the lever in fourth, or even third, for quicker throttle response.

Based on a seat-of-the-pants impression from daily driving it seemed slower than either the BMW 540i or Mercedes-Benz E-420, but that is academic. All scheduled maintenance for three years or 50,000 miles is free. Its smooth profile is deceptive. Its 113-inch wheelbase and 198.2-inch overall length are slightly larger than a Mercedes-Benz E-Class, yet it doesn't look bulky. The 16-inch wheels are a nice visual counterpoint to the soft, curved shape. Optional 17-inch wheels would be my personal choice.

Space frame

The unique aluminum space frame concept was developed in concert with Alcoa to reduce overall vehicle weight for better performance and fuel economy. It required 40 patents and 10 years, not to mention seven new aircraft-grade aluminum alloys. An added benefit is easier recycling. The load-bearing structure is similar to an aircraft, according to Audi, is 40 percent lighter than steel and has greater rigidity. The outer body panels even resist dents easier than steel. The lighter weight gives less heft move around and makes the car feel agile. An side benefit is that there is no threat of rust.

Heated wheel

Inside, the A8 lives up to its luxury billing. The first night I drove it I flipped on the heated seat and immediately noticed that the steering wheel was warming up, too. While that may seem like a foolish indulgence, it remains one of my enduring memories of the A8. The warmth in the steering wheel only lasts for few minutes and then automatically turns off, but it is amazing how good it feels on cold hands. Bravo. The seats are wonderful, although some may not like their firmness. They fit me like they were tailor made. Walnut trim is abundant, and the shift lever is surrounded by aluminum as a reminder that the car is constructed of it. In the back seat there is not only plenty of legroom, and our test car was equipped with the warm weather package that has retractable window screens built into each door. Again, a nice touch. Around back, there is a huge, carpet-lined trunk. With the A8 Audi has moved to challenge established car makers in the premium class, and it has done so with a unique vehicle that is agile, light weight and handsome. The price of the Quattro, however desirable, seems a bit too high compared to others in its class.

Price

The base price of the 4.2-liter Quattro is $64,500. Options included heated front and rear seats, heated wheel, radio controls on the steering wheel, a power rear window shade, rear side window shades, insulated glass and a solar sunroof to lessen heat gain. The sticker price was $68,700. The basic warranty is for three years or 50,000 miles.

Point: The 4.2-liter Quattro is a revolutionary approach to a luxury sedan, and it uses an aluminum space frame construction technique to achieve a solid structure with light weight. It is slick and smooth, yet doesn't look flashy, which is great for staying incognito.

Counterpoint: The transmission needed a deliberate kick to get it to downshift around town, and the price is on the high side.

Vehicle Type:

front-engine, front-drive, mid-size luxury sedan

Base Price:

$57,400

Engine Type:

3.7-liter V8

Power (SAE net):

230-hp

Transmission:

five-speed automatic

Wheelbase:

113.0 inches

Length:

198.2 inches

Curb Weight:

3682 pounds

EPA fuel economy, city driving:

17 city/26 hwy

 

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