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The Audi A8 - Excess all areas

Boasting one of the world’s finest power-plants, the Audi A8 cruises effortlessly into poll position for anyone considering a luxury saloon, albeit one overloaded with often tedious gadgets. Motoring correspondent Anthony Ffrench-Constant climbed aboard for a spin.

News that Audi looked to yacht design for inspiration when shaping the Mercruiser throttle-style gear lever of the new A8 rekindles distant, decade-old memories of a riveting afternoon spent interviewing a super yacht designer called Tim Heywood. We’re not talking Sunseeker here. As Tim put it, ‘If you’ve just won the National Lottery, forget it. It couldn’t possibly be you’.

Budgeting an eye-watering £1,000,000 per metre even then, Tim rarely produced anything less than 65 metres in length, with 150 metres – that’s about one and half football pitches in real money – more the norm. Taking pride of place in Antibes’ Super yacht Alley, that’s the sort of vessel that requires the writing of a cheque for £2,000 just to start the engines.

So your £8 million jackpot is inevitably going to leave you with something of a shortfall in the stateroom, swimming pool and helipad stakes. Let’s face it, you’re going to feel something of a Charlie sploshing into Monte Carlo harbour of a Grand Prix weekend in your best blazer and scrambled-egg cap, behind the helm of an eight metre, gold-leaf gunwaled rowing skiff.

And if that gunwale detailing sounds a tad far-fetched, think again – your million-a metre super yacht budget encompasses even toothbrush choice, and I can still remember Tim listing some of the more extreme foibles of the fantastically rich; a giant desk mounted on a naval gun-turret turntable, in case our mogul gets bored with the view; a yacht equipped with touch screen technology and five F16 fighter joysticks to steer the thing; and, of course, a yacht’s name hewn in vast, gold leaf-on-wood letters to replace the gold plated brass originals when the owner’s not in residence…

Now, I mention this because I can only assume that Audi had the same highly select bunch of gadget-obsessed, hilariously rich super yacht owners in mind when they created the new A8. After all, who else would be happy to fork out some £13,000 per metre on a car and then spend very nearly half as much again on supernumerary goodies from the options list? Precisely the outcome in the case of the 4.2 TDI Quattro SE Exec I drove, the interior of which had been so ruthlessly pebble- dashed with additional flummery that the basic, £65,390 price rose to a whisker over £95,000.

And what baffles me about this is that the car’s basic specification already includes every conceivable item of standard equipment, from a digital radio and hard drive-based 3D satellite navigation to full leather, electric everything and so many airbags that, if they all went off together, comparisons could readily be drawn with a toddler trapped face down in a play school ball pit.

Scanning the options list kindly provided by Audi in the vain hope of accounting for the extra £29,660 is a bit like frantically reviewing your monthly bank statement in the vain hope that they’ve made a mistake; nothing glaring stands out, but it all adds up. Ironically, moreover, much of the very latest tech’ to be lavished on the A8 falls into the realms of standard equipment anyway.

Even disregarding goodies we’ve come across before from other manufacturers, such a solar-panel sunroofs, infra-red night vision for pedestrian spotting, self-dimming headlamps, massaging seats and a safety system that slams on the brakes when you’re too bone idle to do it yourself, Audi has still managed to conjure one or two notable, everything- but-the-kitchen-sink-status toys.

A description of the ‘Multi Media Interface’ alone must, surely, consign the owner’s manual to phone directory stature. For starters, the satellite navigation’s GPS input is now deemed sufficiently accurate to feed performance altering information not only to the adaptive cruise control and headlamp cornering light systems, but also to the 8-speed gearbox, automatically holding the car in a lower gear if a sequence of bends lies ahead.

A GPS module fed with web-sourced news and weather information from Google is on the way later this year, as are Google Earth images for the navigation screen and full internet connectivity, effectively making the A8 a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. The system even features a new touch pad on which you can draw the letters or numbers of destinations or phone numbers.

Sadly, this pad relegates right-hand drive owners to the use of the left hand index finger, meaning that the letters of, say, ‘Birmingham’ can be painstakingly kindergartened into shape in the twinkling of an entire evening. Sorry, Audi, but it remains far quicker to use the turn and push alphabet dial of yore (which is still there, mercifully). And isn’t it just a tad arrogant to conjure a device which so effectively dismisses a British market that’s been so good for the brand of late, or is this merely the first car specifically created for southpaws?

But all this constitutes merely the tip of the technological iceberg. Indeed, On first contact with the new A8, such a tsunami of new toys assault the senses that it takes a few hours of fiddling, button stabbing and general monkeying around to summon the resolve to put it all on the back burner and have a closer look at the basics on offer.

Externally, the Big Grille, which first gently turned me off what was always my favourite Teuton, remains. Sadly, the rest of the car has also been styled in the manner of a giant A4, Audi clearly considering brand recognition more important these days than true model differentiation.

On board, quality still oozes from every pore, and build quality is predictably exemplary. But I do feel the company has taken a firm stride in the wrong direction with the introduction of a BMW-aping ‘big spar’ dashboard design, which spans the cabin full width to the detriment of what was always an Audi ace-in-the-hole – the centre console. As a result, the sat’ nav’ screen has migrated north to a pop-up location atop the dash, whilst all other ex-centre console switches now lie almost flat at the front of the transmission tunnel, making then harder to use and – with bright sunlight streaming through the windscreen – read.

The classic, four dial driver’s instrument binnacle has also been tinkered with; narrow fuel and temperature gauges now boasting vertical, LED illuminated scales, allowing the speedo and rev counter to be prised far enough apart to accommodate a larger information screen on which you may watch passing pedestrians glow after dark. There’s a whiff of new car gratuity to all these switchgear migratory mitherings… Different?

Yes. Better? I think not.

Mercifully, however, (and when you finally get round to it) the driving experience itself is better by far. The 4.2 litre V8 turbodiesel is a sublime power plant, boasting 346bhp and a massive 590lb ft of torque from just 1750rpm. Its potency barely blunted by attachment to permanent four-wheel drive, it’ll bung the big Audi to 62mph in only 5.5 seconds and surge relentlessly on to a governed 155mph.

Given enough torque on tap to spin London Eye spectators clean out of their viewing bubbles, I would, though, question the need for an 8-speed transmission here. Under almost anything other than motorway conditions, the car hunts through endless gear changes with the relentless fervour of the man who’s lost the winning lottery ticket somewhere in the house, and it’s a good job that they’re almost entirely smooth. I can only assume the company’s superb and utterly oleaginous double clutch DSG gearbox is in absentia because it cannot yet handle so much torque. A pity.

More significantly, the new A8 rides and handles in a far superior manner to its often bone-jarring predecessor. Audi’s ‘Drive Select’ adaptive chassis kit is fitted as standard, offering a choice of ‘comfort’, ‘dynamic’ and ‘auto’ modes. The latter so adroitly shuffles between straight-line ride comfort and taught cornering characteristics that there’s rarely the need to bother the buttons.

The steering now offers all the feedback you could wish for in such a large machine, imbuing the A8 with a previously unavailable sense of true agility and far more poise. So much so, in fact, that only when standing on superbly powerful brakes are you reminded of just how much mass you’ve been chucking around.

Overall, this is a very fine car indeed, boasting one of the world’s finest power plants and to marked improvements in both ride comfort and dynamics. However, one glimpse at the current crop of ludicrously over-styled, French curve-crazy Sunseeker yachts is enough to confirm my view that I’d still rather concentrate on the getting the basics right than blow the budget on a joystick-controlled revolving desk.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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