Mercedes-Benz and BMW. You know them as a couple of German luxury brands. Audi, the third upscale German brand, knows them better and obsesses over both, day after day, month after month, year after year.
Beat 'em, that's what Audi wants to do. Beat 'em in sales, prestige, profits, performance, design, innovation - beat 'em like a dusty rug.
Germany's luxury car makers are a competitive lot. Audi, from southern Germany's Bavaria, like BMW, has been playing the upstart, the up-and-comer, the poor cousin for years. That can't change fast enough for Audi. Cars like the fabulous $103,700 A8 sedan suggest Audi may yet make a case for world luxury car dominance.
This Audi's performance numbers are strong and the heady array of electronic doodads is impressive. The third generation of Audi's so-called Space Frame, an all-aluminum structure, feels incredibly tight and rock-solid, which is what buyers want in the cutthroat world of "I've got more money than you" conspicuous consumers.
The newest A8 is a monster size, too - and we're not even talking about the long wheelbase version of the A8 - the A8L (A big boy, that, and another story entirely). For today, we'll stick to putting the microscope on the regular wheelbase A8, which certainly is a sizable enough car in its own right.
How big? The basic A8 is longer and wider than the BMW 750i ($108,600) and wider, too, than a Mercedes S-Class (S550, at $123,500). Big as it is, the A8's aluminum construction helps keep the car's heft in check. The A8 is lighter than its comparable German rivals.
By enjoying a slight edge on the scales, the 2011 A8 is positioned to get something impressive out of Audi's utterly familiar, normally aspirated 4.2-litre V-8, which at 372 horsepower lags the turbocharged or larger-displacement V-8s of its main competitors.
The A8's power-to-weight ratio is smack in between that of the short-wheelbase BMW 750i and the Mercedes-Benz S550. You guessed it: the A8's acceleration is on par with the 750i, S550 and the Jaguar XJ, too.
We all like big saloons (that's what they call these in Europe) that freakishly and powerfully whoosh away in a blink. That's the A8. Quiet, quiet and quiet, and very fast for a mini-limo. Audi has wisely tied the V-8 to a seamless eight-speed ZF transmission designed to smooth out any stoplight sprint. Shifts are silky smooth.
Those with teenagers should dial up the Sport/Dynamic modes, brake-torque the thing and win "dad, you're cool" looks as this elegant sedan flies through the gears to 100 km/h in five seconds or so. Audi only upgraded the 4.2-litre here, yet it remains completely competitive against everything in the class, new or not so much.
What goes fast, needs to stop - which brings me to the braking system. The pedal feel is just right - moderately firm - and the binders themselves are wholly confidence-inspiring. Stops, even emergency-like ones, come fast and in a controlled way.
The rest of the safety story: well-tuned traction and anti-skid systems are in play and crash tests of all Audis have always been successful from Audi's point of view.
However, the A8 is nose-heavy; something like 56 per cent of the weight sits on the front tires. To compensate, the powertrain engineers dialled in rear-bias to make the all-wheel-drive A8 feel like a rear driver. As a result, if you drive aggressively, you'll have a lot of fun tossing around this big boat.
Just in case of trouble, the A8 has the full load of driver-assist electronics on board its flagship - from infrared night-vision camera to electronic lane assist and adaptive cruise control, to a pre-sense system that prepares the passengers and cabin for an impact when it's unavoidable.
Ah, the cabin. Gorgeous and functional, too. The third-generation MMI (multi-media interface) has a touchpad that allows you to trace letters with your finger to set navigation destinations or search for phone contacts - or you can simply rotate a knob to select letters.
Grander is the delicious craftsmanship in what can only be described as an elegant and stylish cabin. Alcantara, leather, pretty wood, shiny aluminum, high-definition screens - all of that is there, carefully integrated in a luxurious jigsaw. The power seats (with massaging features) have 18 adjustments and the available Bang & Olufsen stereo, 19 speakers and 1,400 watts of power. What else could anyone want?
Answer: I'm not wild about the console-mounted shifter, which is difficult to operate. Something different, please. But all the rest simply is state of the art.
The world of executive sedans is now packed with big, urbane missiles capable of gliding down the autobahn at ungodly speeds. The A8 is in this pack, along with the S-Class, 7-Series, Jaguar's XJ, the four-door Porsche Panamera and even the Aston Martin Rapide.
Audi wants its share of this segment and will claim it with this boldly styled and handsomely executed rolling homage to ego and wealth.
2011 Audi A8 4.2 Premium
Type: Full-size luxury sedan
Price: $103,700 ($1,995 freight)
Engine: 4.2-litre V-8
Horsepower/torque: 372 hp/328 lb-ft
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.9 city/8.1 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7-Series, Jaguar XJ, Porsche Panamera, Aston Martin Rapide