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When it comes to full-size luxury performance sedans, there are few contenders for best of class — the BMW 7 Series, the Jaguar XJ Series, the Mercedes-Benz S Class sedans, and now the Audi A8 L. The Audi, though, has several characteristics that distinguish it from the rest of the pack. Most importantly, its rolled aluminum frame — developed jointly with Alcoa — makes the A8 L stronger for its weight than the competition. Indeed, the A8 L is the first and only premium luxury car to earn dual five-star safety ratings for both driver and front passenger under guidelines issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). And in addition to front and side protection for the forward riders, the Audi also includes side air curtains for rear seat occupants. On its 2000 model, Audi’s main upgrade is a more powerful five-valve 4.2 liter 310 horsepower engine. The Audi A8s now feature all-wheel drive along with the Tiptronic auto/quasi-manual transmission. But to be honest, the automatic transmission is so sensitive and adaptive to varying driving conditions that you’ll probably have no interest in shifting manually. While the A8 L is not quite a “four-door Porsche,” road handling for a car of this size is exemplary. The A8′s acceleration is steady and precise, devoid of the annoying vibrations you get from front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive cars. The A8 L does not exhibit the sort of “peaks” in its acceleration curve such as I’ve experienced with the BMW 740i, and the back end isn’t as bouncy as the big Beamer’s. But the A8 L is not quite as smooth on the highway as the Mercedes S Class. And I also find the Mercedes to be nimbler than the A8 L in city driving. But then it’s probably impossible to make a front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive car that steers as precisely as a rear-wheel drive car. Seating comfort for the driver and all passengers in the Audi is outstanding. My A8 L was even equipped with electrically adjustable lumbar supports in the rear seats. The climate control system is first-rate, and the sound system is one of the better Bose installations I’ve heard, though serious audiophiles will probably wish to replace it. Sadly, the driver’s controls in the A8 L are overly complicated — like those of every car in this class. The main console incorporates readouts for non-essential functions, and it’s almost impossible to operate the A8 L’s various comfort controls without taking your eyes off the road. A vehicle in this class should have much better ergonomics; the driver should be able to operate almost everything by feel. The verdict: Audi calls the A8 L “elegance without arrogance,” and it’s one of the finer luxury sedans available. It’s safe, fast, roomy, nimble, and a pleasure to drive. It may not be the best, but it’s a damned fine car. M.S.R.P. — $67,900 MILEAGE — 17 city/24 highway WARRANTY — 4 years/50k miles, with free scheduled maintenance and 24/7 roadside assistance. 12-year limited anticorrosion warranty.

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