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It's a clubby atmosphere at the top of the auto industry. The number of large luxury sedans that chauffeur the world's premiers, presidents, and other less popularly elected leaders is a set of exactly two: the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the BMW 7-Series. They may not like each other very much, but it's a duopoly neither wants to break up.
Keen on just that: the Audi A8, a flagship four-door that's been inching closer to accomplishing that feat with each generation. Built on a space frame made of aluminum, the A8 has some natural advantages in weight that it's now beefing up with design, technology and brio. Along the way, it's uncovered some Achilles' heels, and found some angles to play.
It may look conservative, less so now than in the past, the A8 has a cabin that's gushworthy. One of the best-detailed we've been in, ever, the A8's cabin is radiant across a range of trims and colors, from the luxury-framed walnut to the performance-tinged carbon trim. It's so carefully detailed in wood, leather, and aluminum, the sueded headliner takes a long time to catch your eye.
It's relatively lean at between 4,400 and 4,800 pounds, with standard all-wheel drive, and that lends the A8 a better set of manners than you'll find in its more protective, remote cousins. It drives with the verve of a smaller car, and that's only accentuated by some new powertrains for the 2013 model year. We'd select either of the twin-turbo V-8s--with 420 horsepower or 520 hp in the S8--over the 333-hp supercharged six if it were our money, but the W-12 seems indulgent in a car dedicated to being less conventional.
Fuel economy sets the A8 apart, as high as 28 mpg highway, mostly due to those new-generation powertrains and a well-calibrated eight-speed automatic, and despite standard quattro all-wheel drive.
Quattro makes the A8 feel more surefooted in the corners yet not more cumbersome overall. It's light, but surefooted, and part of that is due to Audi Drive Select, the computerized godhead for powertrain, steering, and suspension feel. Drive Select gives drivers the choice of Dynamic, Comfort, Auto, or Individual modes. Overall, it's an excellent setup that brings out the best in this big sedan, whether you're in tight switchbacks or cruising on the highway. The only letdown is that the steering feel (or lack thereof) leaves enthusiasts much to be desired.The A8 comes in standard-length A8 and extended-length A8 L models, depending on which drivetrain is specified. We'd recommend the A8 L and its five inches of additional wheelbase and overall length. Nearly all of it goes to rear legroom: you get a roomier rear seat, with easier entry and exit, and no significant sacrifice in maneuverability. Trunk space is abundant in both versions. Included in the W12 and available in V-8 models are lavish individual seats in back that might just be cause to get someone else to do the driving. Four-zone climate control keeps everyone comfortable, the rear seats are power-adjustable, and the right-side one includes a footrest while the left-side seat includes massage and recline functions. We'd also recommend you spring for the two-panel panoramic sunroof as it brightens the interior without interfering with headroom.
The Audi A8 comes with the latest version of Audi's MMI system, which is completely redesigned versus the previous generation. Once again, you get a rotating controller to scroll through menus, but the special new feature is MMI Touch--a scratchpad that makes address or info entry much easier by simply scratching out individual letters. Steering-wheel controls also let you see an abbreviated list of options, and a new Google Maps–based navigation system uses its own data connection to get live-updated mapping and routing information. That system and an integrated wi-fi hotspot have been made standard, though the data is on subscription from T-Mobile.
Serious audiophiles will want to go for the top Bang & Olufsen Advanced sound system, which has 19 speakers, including small tweeters at the front of the cabin that emerge at startup, along with more than 1400 watts of power. Also on offer in back is a rear-seat entertainment system with its own 20-gig hard drive and two 10.2-inch screens, or—for the classic executive car need—a folding table.Prices start from $73,095 for the base A8 3.0T, rising to $79,395 for the long-wheelbase model. The S8 begins at $110,895; and for the uber-Audi, the A8 L W12, you'll pay $137,495, including a $2,100 gas-guzzler tax.