Drive: Audi A8 to Dorset
Check controls, prepare for take-off
Sunday 17 August 2003
Audi A8 4.0 TDI Quattro Tiptronic £56,850
Acceleration: 0-62mph 6.7sec
Maximum speed: 155mph
Average fuel consumption: 29.4mpg
Insurance group: TBA
There is a certain sort of Londoner - think Brian Sewell - who holds the view that Britain outside the Circle Line is a frightful place full of kitsch buildings, inedible food and football hooligans.
Well, I sympathise. But how can you confine yourself to W1 when there are exceptions to the rule like the pretty and civilised village of Hilton in rural Dorset, where I have recently enjoyed the use of a weekend cottage? The only problem is how to get there without injury to body or senses on the way.
The ideal solution would be to fly (it's one of the few benefits left to being royal - from back door in London, via helicopter, direct to front door in the country). Since that option is not open to me, I am left to struggle along in a car. And rattling down the motorway in a 10-year old Golf couldn't be further away from a princely experience. But in a new Audi A8... that's another story.
"It's like BA Club Class," said my boyfriend as we set off in a top-of-the-range diesel model. He's right: this is surely the nearest you can get to a luxury airliner without leaving the ground. The seats are so enormous, and the space between passenger and driver so wide, that you are literally in a different climate zone (we had individual air-conditioning controls for our seats - I chose Spain, his was like Siberia, and they barely crossed over).
This being a four-litre giant, it is also extremely fast - which might be fine for the autobahns, but on anything except the clearest and straightest motorway stretch it is something of a hazard. No sooner had I hit the A40 than the speed cameras were flashing (well, you try doing 40 miles an hour in this car - the automatic transmission barely moves out of first).
It was a relief to reach the motorway. I've given up any idea of scenic driving in Britain - even country lanes are too crowded - in favour of late-night journeys on fast roads. For all you see of your surroundings, you might as well be 5,000 feet up - an effect enhanced by the little arrow on the Audi's satellite navigation system, which shows you moving along like a 747. And we soon became best friends with the disembodied voice ("The Lady", we called her) telling us which way to turn.
I never wear anything except jeans for work, so there was some amusement when my parents joined us in Dorset and found me at the wheel of what is an unashamedly executive car. My father, on the other hand, is the real thing: director of a City firm, smart suits, polished shoes, Financial Times, the lot. In short, he is the A8's target market.
While I was sniffy about its pumped-up design (what happened to the sleekness of the classic Audi 100 I remember from the Eighties?) and the excessive and vulgar automation of everything - including a self-opening/closing boot and fingerprint recognition for starting the car - he was very impressed. "You can't fault it," he said, as he looked in the huge boot (ooh, at least six golf bags, I'd say). My mum, who thinks dad's Toyota Camry is like a Rolls- Royce, enjoyed the smooth ride and found "Navigation Lady" mesmerising too. "Amazing," she murmured, every time the voice piped up to say, "Turn left now".
We set off for nearby Ringstead Bay - a beautiful beach, and my favourite place for sea swimming in Britain. It was raining when we got to there, but this bit of coast is spectacular in any weather. There is a free National Trust car park and a wonderful walk across the cliffs to Lulworth Cove. We did a circuit and then enjoyed a crab sandwich and a cup of tea at the excellent Ringstead kiosk.
I don't think the car enjoyed the country drive as much as we did ("Slow down!" screamed a walker as I passed him in a lane; "I'm trying, I'm trying," I mouthed back in the mirror). But then it didn't like the narrow, gridlocked streets of London either.
When it comes to flying along the bits in between, though - let's just say Boeing would struggle to match it.
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