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Look out, BMW: Audi's goal is world domination Add to ...

We are in the pastoral Bavarian countryside for several reasons, not the least of which is to send Audi's Bavarian rival, BMW, a message. And that message is "look out."

Munich, of course, is where BMW AG is headquartered. Audi is here in BMW's backyard in force and not merely for the first global press drive of the new, long-wheelbase Audi A8 L. No, the main courtyard in Munich's expansive airport has been completely taken over by a massive display of the new Audi A1 small car. All about the city, Audi is pushing its presence as the Bavarian alternative upstart using billboards and other aggressive marketing activities.

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Audi, of course, has made no secret of its plan for world domination in the luxury car marketplace. This would all be quite amusing if Audi were not so deadly serious about selling 1.5 million vehicles globally by 2015. To get there - to get to the sales volumes that would make Audi No. 1 in the world of premium cars - Audi is expanding its offerings, while insisting all of it represents "profitable growth," in the words of CEO Rupert Stadler.

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There can't be much profit in the tiny A1, even if Audi benefits mightily from sharing parts and technology as part of the colossal Volkswagen Group of 10 brands - the same VW Group that, with equal chutzpah, says it will be the biggest car company in the world by 2018.

The biggest and best profits for Audi, however, seem to be linked to Audi's plan to reposition itself in the big sedan segments. The A1 may be the down-market entry, but the big sedans will take the brand further upscale where there is more money to be made.

Peter Schwarzenbauer, Audi AG board member for sales and marketing, said he expects the new A8 (regular and long wheelbase), A6 and forthcoming A7 five-door sedan to account for 25 to 30 per cent of worldwide sales. Perhaps more. The redesigned long-wheelbase A8 sedan will debut in November, followed by the A7 next year and a redesigned A6 sedan in 2011. These three will keep pushing Audi upward, say company officials.

A key growth market in all this is the United States, though to a lesser extent Canada matters, too. Audi Canada surely would like to see sales in the range of 20,000 a year by no later than 2015, if not sooner. In the U.S., Audi is pushing toward a goal of increasing sales and market share - up to perhaps as high as 200,000 vehicles a year by 2018, which would be more than double 2009's total of about 83,400.

Growth of any sort in the car business is linked to new models and technologies and, on that front, Audi already has an impressive line of vehicles. But more are coming, including a gasoline-electric hybrid version of its compact Q5 SUV, which will be introduced at least in the U.S. next year. The A3 TDI model, which comes with a turbocharged clean-diesel engine, is doing well, even if the body style is aging. Likewise, the TDI version of Audi's large SUV, the Q7 (which is based on the architecture of the Volkswagen Touareg and Porsche Cayenne) is strong.

Then there is the Q5, which is based on the architecture of Volkswagen's Tiguan. In Canada, it has proved to be a great sales surprise, one bigger than Audi expected. Alas, it will not be getting a diesel engine any time soon - even if strong consumer demand in Canada would justify this move. The rest of the Audi lineup is bigger than you might expect from a company that sold about 14,000 vehicles in Canada last year: A4, A5 coupe and convertible, TT coupe and roadster, and R8 sports car.

The A8, though, is the flagship, even if the R8 is the performance icon for Audi. Moreover, the premier A8 is the L version, which goes on sale in November, to complement the new A8 now in dealerships. The A8 L will start at $106,200 while the more pedestrian A8 starts at $99,200.

For 100 grand or more, the A8 gives you Audi's Aluminum Space Frame and FSI direct fuel injection, along with grand styling and, in the case of the A8 L, size. The big Audi, the limo Audi, is some 130 millimetres longer than the base car and, at 5,267 millimetres in overall length, is simply huge. The nose, the grille especially, is almost snarly and the LED headlights - LED has become an Audi signature design feature - are bold beyond description.

This all-wheel-drive quattro A8 is not just a looker, though; it moves, too.

Fast: On the autobahn I had it up beyond 200 km/h. Calm: The ride is exceedingly calm and composed. Drivers can play with ride and performance settings - comfort or dynamic - through Audi's Drive Select program. As usual in this segment of the market, you can dial in suspension damping, steering effort and throttle response.

Even at that, Audi likes to tune its big saloons a tad on the comfort side, including the dynamic setting - at least compared to BMW's 7-Series and Jaguar's new XJ, not to mention the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The ride is comfortable, but not soft. And the handling responses are a surprise given the gentleness of the ride.

With power, it's a similar story. Here in Canada we'll get just the A8 L with Audi's 4.2-litre FSI V-8. At 372 horsepower, this is a strong and delicious performer, though the horsepower numbers fall shy of Jaguar's base 5.0 L with its 385 hp. Nonetheless, the Audi will do 0-100 km/h in 5.8 seconds, the engine power going to the wheels through Audi's close-ratio eight-speed automatic gearbox.

What we're not getting in Canada is perhaps as big a story as what's planned, however. The Americans will have the option of Audi's W12 (6.3 litres, 500 hp) and it does the 0-100 km/h sprint more than a second faster at 4.7 seconds.

The Europeans, meanwhile, also have the choice of buying Audi's 4.2-litre V-8 turbodiesel. At 350 hp and a whopping 590 lb-ft of torque, it is quicker than the gas V-8 (to 100 km/hour in 5.6 seconds) yet fuel economy is a miserly 7.8 litres/100 km in Europe. This is, perhaps, the ideal engine for such a big saloon.

The rest of the car? The cabin is both big and rich. As you might expect from a car designed for those who both drive and who are driven, the rear seat has expansive leg room and even reclining seats. Broadband Internet was available in my test car, too, so I was able to answer e-mails sitting in the rear. When not working, a folding table, power footrest and entertainment system are there to help you relax.

Naturally, the materials are first-rate. From the brushed aluminum trim to the brushed Alcantara leather, to the soft leather of the seats which both heat and cool - beautiful.

Audi has also revised the MMI (multi-media interface) control mechanism and it is simpler to operate than before. The MMI now also comes with a touch pad which allows you to trace in letters and numbers, for, say, the navigation system. The navi even has a Google Earth option.

Oh, yes, this is a lovely saloon, a world-class ride. Audi, it seems, is completely serious about this world domination thing.

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