'Taken on its own terms, the Audi has much to commend it'

Sean O'Grady gets to grips with the new A8's advanced aluminium frame, radar-assisted system cruise control – and massage function

It is not so terribly long ago that a heater was offered as an optional extra on many cars. Nowadays, on the all-new Audi A8, for example, you can see in the dark. Night vision is there. I really ought to have tried it out, but, to be frank, I didn't realise it was there, and I never once thought to myself, even on the darkest, murkiest of nights: "Gosh, wouldn't it be handy if I could have night vision on my sat-nav screen?" After all, if you're looking at the screen, you can't be looking at the road, surely? Without compromising myself unduly, I would have to conclude that such a leap forward in technology might primarily be of use to what we must now term Britain's "dogging community". For them, it may be worth every penny of the £2,000 that Audi asks for its "night vision assistant with pedestrian detection". For me, though, it was a case of what you don't have, you don't miss.

I have another confession to make. I preferred the old A8, less highly styled inside and out as it was. This one, even more than its predecessors, looks as though it is an exercise in out-S-Classing the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It has extra curves, sculpting and swages, and looks, for better or for worse, like an A4, and not as stylish as a contemporary S-Class anyway. The old one was slab-sided and rather bluff, which suited it. Indoors, too, the old A8 was a very straight affair, boring even, but, again, it suited it. The new one is more swoopy and fussy. What has apparently really gone awry, though, is the build quality. This is the sort of thing motoring journalists always go on about but is usually just an excuse for some semi-racist digs at a Korean, Malaysian or Italian car, and a cue to go on about the granite "Teutonic" integrity of whatever German-branded product is sitting alongside (even though it might have been made in Spain or South Africa). In this case , I would like to query the "Teutonic" build quality of my test A8, which was made in Neckarsulm in Germany. First, the sat-nav/night vision screen refused to emerge fully from its dashboard cubbyhole. Only a little old-fashioned, but gentle, jiggling would coax it out. Second was the sound of a mosquito trapped in the door panel. Maybe Neckarsulm has pools of stagnant water harbouring parasites and dengue, but I rather think it was probably just wind noise from some slightly misaligned bit of the door assemblage. But it was annoying and obviously not what you would expect in a car costing £84,755 (as tested). The old one felt more solid.

Otherwise, and taken entirely on its own terms, the Audi has much to commend it. It does all the usual limo stuff with aplomb. Despite my reservations about the new styling, they've made the distinctive Audi grille more distinctive on this flagship car by adding horizontal chrome strips, which lift it tastefully. The advanced aluminium frame construction means low weight, superior performance and excellent economy (especially in the diesel models), and the air suspension worked well, though gigantic alloys didn't help the low-speed ride. I loved the radar-assisted system cruise control that will brake for you, too. My petrol V8 does 0 to 60mph in 5.7 seconds, which seemed and sounded perfectly fine to me. Listening to digital radio via the Bose sound system was an even greater aural treat, and I did use and enjoy the massage function in the seats. A useful optional extra, that.

So, whatever the ambitions of its maker, this Audi does not provide any knockout blows to its more established competitors from Mercedes-Benz or BMW. To beat those, you need to turn to Jaguar or Lexus (for different reasons). Personally I'd like to see Audi extend its range of breathtakingly fast estate cars by engineering an A8 Avant model with all the usual supercar-style performance enhancements you find on the A6 versions. Absent of that bit of fun, I'd opt for a lightly used Bentley Continental Flying Spur, the Audi's British sibling, with craftsmanship, pedigree and another four cylinders thrown in.

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