Audi's premium flagship, A8 L, gains aggressive new styling, impressive performance and a wealth of electronic features for 2004.

Going up against archrivals BMW 745, Mercedes-Benz S500 and Jaguar XJ8, the big sedan brings together the contradictory forces of luxury and sportiness into a grand-touring sedan of strength and substance.

Still, A8 has given up some of its previously exclusive features to the competition. All-wheel drive can now be found on the Mercedes. And A8's signature feature, a lightweight all-aluminum space-frame structure, has been adopted by the latest Jaguar XJ8.

And the big Audi now has something similar to the BMW's most controversial feature, the I-drive system that allows the driver to control myriad functions through something akin to a computer mouse. BMW insists that it's the best way to make adjustments and receive information with the least amount of distraction to the driver. Many disagree.

The A8 system is called Audi Multi Media Interface, also designed to give the driver one-handed control of the audio system, communications, GPS navigation and suspension dynamics. Although it's less complex and more intuitive than the BMW's, MMI still seems like much ado for such simple tasks as changing the radio station.

The more things change, the more I wish they'd stay the same.

What it is

A high-end, high-priced luxury machine that packs many modern performance features along with traditional luxury appointments. The back seat is huge, the L (as in long) version of A8 being the only model coming to the United States: Europeans can choose a 5-inch shorter version.

Engine and transmission

A high-tech aluminum V-8 with four camshafts and variable valve timing delivers a beefy 330 horsepower, enough to motivate this big car to reach 60 mph in just over six seconds, according to Audi. Lightweight aluminum helps cut curb weight by about 300 pounds compared with a comparable steel structure.

Power from the smallish 4.2-liter engine is spare off the line, but the muscle builds as the revs climb, accompanied by a subdued howl. Smooth and sophisticated, as befitting a top-drawer sedan, if not sharply quick.

Audi's famous quattro all-wheel-drive system delivers the power to the pavement.

The six-speed automatic transmission has Tiptronic manual shifting derived from Porsche. The automatic shifting is seamless.

Handling and drivability

The quattro drive system helps make A8 sure-footed, along with the electronic stability control, highly responsive steering and powerful brakes.

But Adaptive Air Suspension system is the star of this show. Fully pneumatic suspension replaces conventional steel springing for continuous load leveling and stability control, plus automatic firmness and height adjustment.

There also is a three-position manual height and firmness adjustment for co mfort, performance or lift, which adds about an inch of ground clearance. I preferred the performance setting, called Dynamic, which made the suspension about an inch lower and stiffer. The comfort setting is way too soft. Mushy, even.

You can leave the settings in automatic, which allows the electronics to decide between comfort and performance. The aluminum structure, all new for 2004, feels stiff and resonant.

Styling

The A8 L looks beautifully purposeful, hunkered over its huge wheels with stylishly short overhangs and sharply faceted accent lines. With the redesign, Audi completes a family resemblance that began with the A6 sedan.

Interior

Traditional values, with clean, uncluttered lines and wood trim, give the cabin a sense of warm security. Aside from a complete collection of comfort and convenience features, the test A8 included:

A GPS navigation system that unfolds gracefully from the center of the dashboard or disappears altogether. It includes the driver information display for a variety of features.

Integrated digital phone with voice recognition.

Twelve-speaker Bose audio with six-disc CD changer.

Dual zone climate control.

OnStar communications.

Four-position side air bags and curtains, plus knee air bags for the front seats.

The back seat is limo-large, with loads of accommodating features.

Pricing

Base price for the A8 L is $68,500, which undercuts the competition by a few thousand. The test car included a convenience package with electric rear-window sunshade, rear vanity mirrors and tire pressure monitoring system, $1,200; 18-inch wheels with all-season tires, $1,150; cold weather package with heated seats and steering wheel and a ski sack, $1,100; Parktronic radar-assisted parking system front and rear, $700; dual-paned security glass, $600; and shipping, $690, for a total of $73,940.

Bottom line

Though Audi's flagship has never sold nearly as well as the S500, 745 or even the XK8, the A8 L could make some major inroads, offering a distinctive, well-equipped, performance sedan for the well-to-do.

Audi A8 L

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, all-wheel drive.

Base price: $68,500.

Price as tested: $73,940.

Engine: 4.2-liter V-8, 330 horsepower at 6,500 rpm, 317 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic with Tiptronic.

Wheelbase: 121.1 inches.

Curb weight: 4,399 pounds.

EPA mileage: 17 city, 24 highway.

Highs:

Handsome styling.

Roomy interior.

Innovative features.

Lows:

Complex electronic control.

Soft off-the-line pickup.

Mushy "comfort" setting.