06 AUDI A8 55 TFSI

Ingolstadtís four-wheeled driving retreat

BY LOUIS CORDONY

YOU DONíT TIRE watching the new Audi A8 come to life. Thumb the start button and its air vents swivel open, the door mirrors fold out and the finely crafted seat underneath you slides towards a gorgeous steering wheel.

The action injects some muchneeded excitement into your first encounter with what is, objectively, a plain-looking limo. Now longer, higher and thinner than before, itís more slabsided than the old A8ís powerful lines and menacing stance.

An S8, with a 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8, is on the way to fix that. Hopefully. But for now, the hottest ticket in its range is this 55 TFSI that packs a 3.0-litre turbo V6 mated with an eight-speed automatic. Its 250kW and 500Nm can waft it to 100km/h in 5.6 seconds.

It feels brisk, but burdened. Clearly, with 1900kg-plus, even the shortwheelbase versionís chassis, boasting aluminium, magnesium and carbonfibre construction, has failed to shave meat off its bones. Granted, itís packed with a 48-volt powered alternator system, 17 speakers and enough radars to detect spacecraft.

Surprisingly, Audiís engineers set out to make it handle nothing like it looks. Thinner A-pillars and a nice, adjustable driving position set the mood, as does steering with positive off-centre feel and genuine feedback.

Charging through corners reveals surprising enthusiasm and cohesiveness, while optional rear-wheel steering helps drive its nose into apexes, and tighten its turning circle, at the cost of a little precision.

Obviously, without an S badge on its boot, thereís a limit to its ability. While it feels comfortable at seven tenths, youíll hear the Goodyears squealing for mercy once you crack the windows in its vault-like cabin.

And its ride? Beautiful. It hovers along on 20-inch wheels and smooths out potholes. Itís hard to think how a surface-detecting system to be introduced at a later date could improve things.

Inside, Audi sticks to its guns with a clean, minimalistic design. A slick dual-pane centre console is key to this, even if prodding its touchscreen controls proves tricky on the move. Everything else works with thoughtful functionality. Itís plenty classy, too.

The Premium Plus package is a fair chunk, at $11K, but itís almost worth it for the massage front seats and sweetsmelling air ioniser. They turn the bunker-solid cabin into a rejuvenating retreat from city commutes.

The only thing that might test your Zen is a throttle pedal thatís either extremely sensitive in Dynamic, or numb in Comfort. Otherwise, this limo is Audiís best yet.