The Detroit News's view

Audi’s flagship sedan, the A8, used to stand apart from its premium German counterparts in that it was the only luxury sport sedan to offer all-wheel drive.

Now, you can order a 4Matic system on the Mercedes-Benz S-class, and soon you’ll be able to purchase an all-wheel-drive sibling to the A8 — the new Volkswagen Phaeton — from Audi’s parent, Volkswagen AG.

Despite increased competition in the segment, the redesigned 2004 A8 L remains a world-class entry.

We drove a $74,690 A8 with such options as an $1,100 cold-weather package with heated front and rear seats and steering wheel and $1,900 19-inch wheels and tires.

SHE: I was out watering my impatiens at 7 a.m. one morning this summer when our neighbor Dave and his dog Chewie came by. He asked me whether I liked the new A8 in our driveway. Turns out it was a trick question because he had just bought the 2004 model. He wanted to see if our impressions matched up. But they didn’t quite mesh. I find the exterior way too subdued and understated for such an expensive car. He finds it delightfully subtle. I felt like I was talking to you.

HE: Ah, yes, another sophisticated, intelligent male, no doubt. I’m surprised you gave the new A8 L only four stars after telling me all the things you liked about it. In fact, I gave it our highest five-star rating because, frankly, the few things that are wrong are really minor — a slight lag with the electronic throttle, a wide center console that cuts into your legroom and some visibility problems with the rear headrests. In most respects, the new A8, like its predecessor, is truly top-drawer in the class.

SHE: I see they really cleaned up the cabin, with fewer buttons and controls. They’ve been replaced by that new Multi Media Interface, or MMI, which is Audi’s answer to the BMW iDrive. This was my second experience with the MMI. I thought I was used to it the first time, but I still found myself slightly confused over how to find audio and navigation controls. It takes some getting used to, although I’m sure it’s worthwhile. Given that complexity, and the car’s rather bland exterior appearance, I couldn’t justify giving it a five.

HE: I do have a concern that, with the new VW Phaeton coming into North America in a month or two, the big Audi no longer will seem so special. The two cars share a lot of pieces under the skin, including the all-wheel-drive system. But the A8 still has a distinctive personality. For long-distance touring in all kinds of weather on all kinds of road surfaces, it’s still my favorite ride.

SHE: The Audi has some stuff you rarely see on a vehicle, including front vanity mirrors with a magnifying function. I’m not sure if that’s for tweezing your eyebrows or what. And you even get vanity mirrors in the rear, which is roomy and outfitted like a limo even down to the optional heated rear seats. In short, the A8 gives you overkill on the convenience features, including a huge trunk that closes with the touch of a button. Now that’s a cool feature.

HE: Darn, I kept forgetting to tweeze my eyebrows when I was driving the A8, which has a delightfully supple and controlled ride. The 330-horsepower 4.2-liter V-8 supplies ample, if not overwhelming power, and the six-speed automatic is a Tiptronic-style gearbox that permits you to shift manually. And by the way, I thought the MMI was far more intuitive and easier to use than the iDrive in the BMW 760Li we recently tested. I also appreciate some of the advanced technology on the Audi, including such options as front and rear Parktronic parking assist and adaptive cruise control.

SHE: What I like best about the A8 is the stunning attention to detail when it comes to safety. You are literally swathed in air bags and air curtains from the front to the rear. There are even knee air bags to protect vulnerable legs in the event of a crash — which shows an uncommon commitment to safety. You also get standard antilock brakes and stability control.

HE: The bottom line is the new A8 L has all the key ingredients that make a great luxury performance sedan — excellent performance, smooth ride, comfortable cabin, outstanding safety. The fact that it comes in a relatively plain exterior wrapper doesn’t bother me, particularly since Audi paid so much attention to creating a premium environment on the inside.

SHE: OK, next time you can water the impatiens and have a meeting of the A8 fan club with Dave.

2004 Audi A8 L

Type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger luxury sedan

Price (Includes $690 destination charge): Base, $68,500; as tested, $74,690

Engine: 4.2-liter V-8; 330-hp; 317 lb-ft torque

EPA fuel economy: 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway

Key competitors: BMW 740i, Cadillac STS, Infiniti Q45, Jaguar XJ8, Lexus LS 430, Mercedes-Benz S430, Volkswagen Phaeton

12-month insurance cost (Estimated by AAA Michigan. Rates may vary depending on coverage and driving record): $2,368

Where built: Germany

Paul’s rating: World Class

Likes: World-class quality. Supple, controlled ride. Powerful 4.2-liter V-8. MMI is easier to use than BMW iDrive. Huge trunk with power close. Great Bose sound system. Beautiful wood trim. Front and rear parking assist.

Dislikes: Slight lag with electronic throttle. Massive center console cuts into driver’s legroom. Rear headrests cut down visibility.

Anita’s rating: Above Average

Likes: Outstanding safety features, including front knee air bags. All-weather security of all-wheel drive and stability control. Love the lighted flip-down vanity mirrors in rear and front magnifying mirror. Roomy rear compartment, outfitted like a limo. Extremely comfortable. Excellent four-year/50,000-mile warranty.

Dislikes: Multi Media Interface is too complicated. Some tire noise. Rather bland styling.

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