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2011 Audi A8 4.2 FSI Quattro: The sweet smell of success

Warren Brown
Friday, December 10, 2010; 10:25 AM

Luxury is non-democratic. It is attractive precisely because it is exclusive.

Luxury does not imitate. It is, instead, imitated. It sets standards. It usually is the first to innovate, or to apply innovations deemed by others to be too expensive, too risky or simply unnecessary.

Luxury has a feel all its own. It even smells rich.

Luxury is superior without apology. But because it is blessed with genuine self-confidence, it usually does not embrace arrogance, which is inherently flawed by the germ of self-doubt.

Luxury on wheels is the 2011 Audi A8 4.2 FSI Quattro sedan, the subject of this week's review, and arguably the standard by which all other luxury cars should be judged.

What immediately catches the eye and offends the aesthetic sensibilities of some observers is the A8 4.2's egregiously wide-mouthed grille, which prompts thoughts of the gaping mouth in Norwegian artist Edvard Munch's "The Scream." Love it or hate it, you will neither ignore nor forget it, nor will you mistake it for anything else.

That grille is a bold statement that the A8 4.2 is different. It's a valid statement, too. Consider the car's body.

The A8 4.2 is an all-wheel-drive full-size sedan that feels as tight and light as a much smaller rear-wheel-drive sports car. Credit here goes to patented Audi Space Frame (ASF) technology, which uses aluminum and strategic applications of lightweight, high-strength steel to increase vehicle-body stiffness while reducing overall body weight.

The use of ASF technology in the 2011 A8 4.2 yields a 25 percent improvement in body rigidity and a 20 percent reduction in weight in comparison with the 2010 model. Increased stiffness improves vehicle handling. Lighter weight improves fuel economy.

Look at the A8 4.2's headlights. They are light-emitting diodes (LEDs), smartly arranged at the lower corners of the car's front end, where they promote maximum night vision without blinding oncoming traffic. The car's high-beam and daytime running lights use the same technology, providing maximum light at reduced energy cost.

Step inside the A8 4.2's cabin. Many luxury automobile manufacturers use high-grade interior materials to impart a sense of wealth and well-being. But few use those materials as creatively or install them as expertly as Audi.

In the A8 4.2, supple leather blends with hand-polished walnut wood and brushed aluminum as if they are natural siblings. I've driven every luxury automobile there is to be driven (with the notable exception of the $1.5 million Bugatti Veyron 16.4 super sports car). It is difficult to recall one that tops the A8 4.2 in interior fit and finish.

But I wish Audi would abandon the notion of "German exceptionalism" in the matter of instrument-panel gauges and controls. German exceptionalism says Germans are smarter than everyone else in the way that "American exceptionalism" boasts that Americans are overall better than everyone else.

Both are lies, or are at least the results of national delusion. But, as manifested in the A8 4.2, German exceptionalism can be downright irritating.

After a week in the car, I was still struggling to master Audi's patented Multi Media Interface (MMI) system, which uses hard and soft keys and a retractable eight-inch video screen to control and monitor the A8 4.2's many functions. MMI constitutes technical overreach. Example: Push a button to bring up fan controls on the screen. Turn center-console knobs to raise or lower fan speeds on the right and left sides of the car. Make sure you turn the knobs before the fan logos disappear from the screen. Otherwise, try and try again. Who really needs that hassle just to operate a fan?

But other innovations, notably the A8 4.2's patented "fuel stratified injection" (FSI) engine (gasoline-powered 4.2-liter V-8, 372 horsepower, 328 foot-pounds of torque) and eight-speed automatic, are most welcome.

FSI technology injects a highly precise amount of gasoline (premium recommended in this case) into engine cylinders. The fuel perfectly mixes with available cylinder air to produce maximum engine power at minimum fuel expenditure. That power is translated to the A8 4.2's wheels - usually 40 percent to the front, 60 percent to the rear - via a fuel-saving eight-speed automatic transmission.

All of this is done so quickly, quietly and smoothly, it is absolutely necessary to monitor your speed, a task made easy by a huge, clearly visible mph reading on a screen directly behind the steering wheel.

Luxury means having what you want when you want it. In the A8 4.2, that means an adjustable air suspension that can give you a comfortable ride with sports-car handling in curves and turns (Auto setting), a hard-feel ride with crisp handling (Dynamic setting), or a limousine-soft ride with cruise-ship handling minus the wallow (Comfort setting), all at the movement of the practical equivalent of a computer mouse. You can also choose a Lift setting, which adjusts vehicle height depending on speed.

The A8 4.2 is so loaded with amenities and technology, I could write a book on it. But I don't have that kind of space here.

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