Audi sharpened its flagship for 2008, not that there was anything wrong with last year's broad-shouldered A8. The luxury division of Volkswagen calls it "honing the character" for improved drivability, comfort and refinement.
The concept is a full-size luxury sedan that drives with sports-car finesse while still coddling the humans inside. Though the changes seem subtle compared with the pre-honed A8, already a favorite among well-financed driving enthusiasts, it gradually dawns on you just how responsively this car maneuvers.
You also notice the lush ambience of the businesslike interior, the supremely comfortable seats and, more than anything, the awesome capability of the 1,000-watt, 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system. That's the premium audio brand of the upper crust, and it turns //the// A8 into a rolling concert hall.
You know something's up when you turn on the ignition and tiny tweeters rise on either side of the dashboard. Whether the music is funky guitar or symphony orchestra, the B&O delivers every nuance, each smidgen of sound in lifelike tones.
There's something about the crystal clarity of a Wynton Marsalis trumpet solo on this potent audio system. On the other hand, you hear too many strained or slightly off-key singing voices, which that you might have overlooked on a lesser system.
The excellent audio provides fitting accompaniment to the A8L, the long-wheelbase version of the all-aluminum, all-wheel-drive sedan. Despite the extra length, which mostly goes to back-seat legroom, A8L impressed with its handling and overall performance.
The back seat is as roomy as a "Home, James" limousine for CEOs and other captains of industry. Or sports figures and rock stars.
Of course, you'd need some kind of wealth to afford //the// A8L's thirst for premium gas.
Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, all-wheel drive.
Engine: 4.2-liter V-8, 350 horsepower at 6,800 rpm, 325 pounds-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
Wheelbase: 121 inches.
Overall length: 204.4 inches.
Curb weight: 4,409 pounds.
EPA rating: 16 city, 23 highway.
HIGHS: Taut drivability, evocative styling, superb audio system.
LOWS: Pricey with options, modest fuel mileage, soft off-the-line acceleration.
PERFORMANCE: A remarkably smooth and quiet motivator for this heavyweight, with plenty of muscle for passing and merging. Hot rodders might notice the leisurely takeoff from a stoplight, though it quickly picks up the pace. For more power, there's a mighty, pricey and gas-guzzling W-12 engine that churns 450 horsepower. The automatic is right on the button, with a good-functioning paddle shifter.
DRIVABILITY: Here's where the "honing for character" comes in, with firmer and more responsive steering and an air-suspension system that seems to sense road irregularities ahead of time. Those changes, plus a load of electronic enhancements, all-wheel drive and Audi's usual engineering precision, add up to a large sedan that drives like a sporty compact.
STYLING: The purposeful and distinctive look carries over from its 2004 makeover, with massive grille and heroic proportions.
INTERIOR: In spite of the daunting array of technology stuck in here, A8's dashboard and switchgear are intuitive and easy to use. Other automakers (hint: BMW) could learn from Audi's console-mounted dial system that nicely handles a complex number of functions, ranging from audio to suspension adjustments.
The traditional wood-and-leather treatment is good-looking and well-crafted. But a $6,400 leather upgrade? Yikes.
BOTTOM LINE: I suppose that anyone purchasing a car costing nearly $100,000, including expensive options, won't be too worried about gas prices.
Base price: $74,690.
Price as tested: $98,665.
Leather upgrade, $6,400.
Bang & Olufsen audio system, $6,300.
Sport package, with 20-inch alloy wheels, performance tires, multi-function steering wheel, adaptive air suspension, $4,000.
Adaptive cruise control, $2,100.
Front-seat ventilation and massage, $1,500.
Paint upgrade, $750.
Power door-close assist, $600.
Dual-pane Security glass, $600.
Four-zone climate control, $600.
Rear-seat lumbar adjustment, $350.