If 2002 saw unprecedented activity in the small car and supermini sector, then this year we will witness the same kind of action at the other end of the spectrum. Here we test the new Audi A8 3.7 quattro which went on sale at about the same time as the new Jaguar XJ. It comes after Mercedes-Benz gave the S-class a thorough going-over last October, while BMW is now completing the new 7-series range with six-cylinder petrol and diesel models and a top-of-the-range V12 version.
And soon Volkswagen will enter the luxury car sector with the new Phaeton, so drivers now have the greatest choice of luxury cars for quite some time.
The Audi A8, like its predecessor, brings an aluminium body and space- frame technology to the sector and, at present, is offered in 3.7 and 4.2-litre V8 models, both offering four-wheel drive.
The A8 has always been the epitome of understatement in this sector. The latest A8 looks splendid, particularly in silver with 19-inch 12-spoke alloy wheels (a £550 option).
Its modern, elegant appearance and clean lines makes the A8 the antithesis of both the Jaguar XJ and the BMW 7-series.
The contemporary styling – unmistakably Audi – seems the complete opposite of the traditional-looking Jaguar, and although BMW must be applauded for pushing the envelope of conventional design, the Audi is refreshing for its simplicity.
The trademark Audi tight panel gaps are evident and the straightforward theme continues to the interior.
BMW has suffered much criticism for its i-Drive controller – a large circular knob positioned on the centre console which operates secondary controls such as heating and ventilation, audio and navigation.
Audi has its own version, called a multi-media interface, which operates along similar lines. It seems slightly easier to get to grips with and uses a hi-tech flat screen that pops out from behind a piece of wood veneer in the centre of the dashboard. Apart from the position of the ignition (it is on the dashboard like in a Mercedes-Benz) which puts the key or keyring in contact with the right knee of taller drivers, it's easy to get comfortable.
The V8 engine burbles into life and then remains virtually silent when driving normally. The six-speed automatic transmission slurs upshifts to the point that they are almost undetectable, but drivers can also take advantage of a sequential manual shift if desired with F1-style paddles behind the steering wheel. Shift down a couple of gears or floor the throttle and the V8 burble turns into a distant roar.
Fitted with air suspension as standard, the A8's body can be adjusted as the car sees fit in automatic mode – lower on the motorway or set manually in either 'dynamic' (stiff) or 'comfort' mode. It means the A8 can be set up to cater for most driving tastes and is surprisingly nimble.
Although the four-wheel drive system encourages the A8 to understeer at the limit, you really have to be pushing to reach it. Even in the wet, the A8 has impeccable manners.
It's strange when a car as clinical as the A8 can really allow you to form an emotional attachment, but it does. It might be true that it would be more expensive to run than the rivals, but the next time you speak to your fleet contact from Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz or BMW, ask them a question.
Assuming they couldn't choose their own car from this sector, ask them what their second choice would be.
I bet they'd pick the A8.
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £50,870
CO2 emissions (g/km): 286
BIK % of P11D in 2003/04: 35%
Graduated VED rate: £160
Insurance group: 18
Combined mpg: 23.7
CAP Monitor residual value: £18,100/36%
Depreciation (53.11 pence per mile x 60,000): £31,866
Maintenance (4.70 pence per mile x 60,000): £2,820
Fuel (16.11 pence per mile x 60,000): £9,666
Wholelife cost (73.92 pence per mile x 60,000): £44,352
Typical contract hire rate: £1,091 per month
Three rivals to consider
IF you are looking for nice round numbers you are going to be disappointed. These cars are priced just above or just below the £50,000 mark. The three V8s are just about evenly matched on power, but the six-cylinder Mercedes-Benz looks pricey. Although the Jaguar just falls short of the other two on power, unlike the BMW it has an aluminium body, and unlike the Audi it doesn't have to carry the extra weight of driving the front wheels as well as the rears, which balances it up.
SMR costsP> BMW'S Concours scheme covers servicing for five-years/ 75,000-miles for a one-off payment of £500 and it seems to pay dividends, making it £924 cheaper than the A8 over three-years/60,000 miles. The Audi cannot match the Jaguar either, although the difference is smaller, working out at £300. The most expensive car in this area is the Mercedes-Benz, which results in a typical bill over three years of £3,096, compared to £2,820 for the A8.
IN this sector, low-20s mpg is expected, but the Audi is the most costly. Having the least powerful engine here (and six cylinders) might explain the advantage of the Mercedes-Benz over the Audi. The BMW is better thanks to its Valvetronic technology, while the Jaguar's lightweight aluminium body makes it best of all. The difference between the Audi and Jaguar over 60,000 miles is £1,026, although these are projected figures which do not take into account individual driving styles.
ACCORDING to CAP Monitor, in percentage terms the Audi and BMW are matched, predicted to retain 36% of cost new after three-years/60,000 miles, while the Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz are equal on 39%. Our pence per mile figures show the Audi slightly worse than the BMW, perhaps because it is still new and fleet discounts have not yet been finalised. Meanwhile, the Jaguar's significant list price advantage gives it a healthy lead on depreciation, working out at more than six pence per mile less than the Audi.
THE Audi fails to win the running costs argument, proving significantly more expensive than its rivals over three-years/60,000 miles. It works out at an extra £2,358 over the Mercedes-Benz (for many the benchmark in this sector), while compared to the new Jaguar XJ – the only car here projected to cost less than £40,000 to own over three-years/60,000 miles – the Audi is £5,052 more expensive over the same period. The BMW falls between the Mercedes-Benz and the Audi.
Emissions and BIK tax rates
NO real surprises here and anyone choosing one of these cars would be entitled to take a cash alternative to select the car of their choice. That the Audi has the worst score for emissions is not that important. However, the Jaguar just sneaks under the current maximum threshold for company car tax with 34% compared to 35% for everything else. This, combined with its lower P11d price, makes it a compelling choice if drivers are paying BIK on their cars.
IT would be so easy to rule out the Audi simply because it is bottom of the pile when it comes to running costs, but it is a supremely accomplished performer – discreet yet imposing, brawny yet nimble, hi-tech yet simple. We have to award victory to the Jaguar XJ8 3.5 SE, such is its running costs advantage, but we do this provisionally because we have not spent enough time in the car (and significantly no time at all on UK roads) to gain a good impression of how it would function over three years.