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2004 Audi A8L sedan

I’ve figured it out. There is no blue grass. Horses need jockeys. Most people don’t really mean what they say when they say they want an environmentally friendly car.

The first two epiphanies were the offspring of close observation. The last one came on a long drive through Kentucky, West Virginia and North Carolina (I-64 eastbound, I-77 southbound, U.S. 52 moving southeast) in the 2004 Audi A8L sedan.

The grass thing was easy. I simply didn’t see any blue grass on the trip through Kentucky, the Bluegrass State. All of the grass was green, just as it was in West Virginia and North Carolina. In fact, the North Carolina grass seemed greener than any Kentucky grass. So there.

I wanted to stay in Louisville to watch the Kentucky Derby. But my driving schedule dictated otherwise. So, I watched reruns of that recent race on the tube when I arrived in Winston-Salem. This is what I noticed: Funny Cide, the winner of that 129th Derby, is a darn good horse. But Jose Santos, the man who rode him, is an even better jockey. Santos rode with passion, expertise and grace. It was his best ride in years. I don’t think Funny Cide could have won with another jockey.

Now, take people in general. They’re funnier than Funny Cide. They say they want an environmentally friendly car. But they mean they want one that gives them everything, even if some of those things mean burning more fuel.

German automaker Audi knows that. The company is locked in a battle with BMW and Mercedes-Benz for a share of what the auto industry calls the “Tier One” luxury car market. Tier One includes models such as Aston Martin, the BMW 745i, the Jaguar XJ Series, the Infiniti Q45, the Lexus LS 430 and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It soon will include models from General Motors Corp.’s Cadillac division.

All of those cars are, or will be, aimed at people who advocate environmental progress in one voice while demanding the hottest-performing cars in another.

With its new A8L, Audi’s strategy is to give those buyers everything they want — including a good environmental conscience — at the lowest possible super-luxury price. In this case, that’s a base price of $68,500.

Audi knows that sex sells, even in a seemingly puritanical era. Sex in the auto business manifests itself in power and speed. So, Audi has installed a 330-horsepower, 4.2-liter, V-8 engine in its A8L. The previous A8 had a 310-horsepower engine. The new car moves from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 6.3 seconds, too slow to appease shameless speed freaks, but fast enough for people who want to drive on the wild side while appearing to remain responsible.

The A8L relies on lots of high-strength aluminum to reduce vehicle weight and, thus, to reduce the potential fuel penalty from the horsepower increase. But part of giving luxury-car buyers everything they want also mean s giving them standard all-wheel drive, which consumes more fuel than two-wheel drive. The A8L has all-wheel drive.

Superior handling, in the form of an adaptive air suspension system, also is a part of the A8L package. A touch of a button allows you to float like a butterfly or zoom in and out of curves like a high-powered bee.

And, of course, the A8L is loaded with every conceivable comfort and electronic option, including its standard Multi Media Information (MMI) system, which allows you to manage and monitor practically all of the car’s functions, including mileage.

I averaged 24 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving — not great, but good enough to salve the conscience of being behind the wheel of a very fine automobile.

Nuts & Bolts

Complaints: The “Comfort” level should be eliminated from the adaptive air suspension system. The setting gives the car a steady ground clearance of 4.7 inches, the same as the “Automa ic” level’s initial clearance. But the Automatic setting allows the car to deal better with the realities of the road and extant speed. The Comfort setting simply stays there, giving the A8L the feel of a wallow-mobile. My favorite setting was “Dynamic,” which rendered the car light, tight, a driving delight.

Praise: One of the best cars to ever wear the Audi badge — bigger and more powerful than its predecessors and priced right for its class.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent in all three categories, especially in the Dynamic suspension setting.

Head-turning quotient: Elegantly understated, undeniably rich. It evokes lust, envy, anger and praise.

Body style/layout: Full-size four-door sedan with front engine and all-wheel drive.

Engine/transmission: The A8L’s 4.2-liter V-8 develops 330 horsepower at 6,500 revolutions per minute and 317 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm. The engine is linked to a six-speed automatic transmission, which also can be operated manually.

Mileage: I averaged 24 mpg in mostly highway driving.

Capacities: The A8L seats five people and holds 17.7 cubic feet of luggage. Fuel capacity is 23.7 gallons of gasoline. Premium unleaded is required.

Safety: Dual-stage front air bags, front and rear (four) side bags, curtain air bags (for head/face protection for outboard occupants), knee bags for driver and front passenger, child-safety-seat latches.

Price: Base price is $68,500. Estimated dealer invoice on base model is $65,000. Price as tested is $69,190. Options such as 19-inch or 18-inch alloy wheels could add thousands of dollars to the final price.

Purse-strings note: Audi finally has a top-tier contender. It’s a buy.

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