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Flaunt your wealth with an Audi A8

Are you ready for "the first luxury car of the 21st century"? That's what Audi is calling its flagship A8 luxury sedan.

Not impressed? Don't blame you.Between Madison Avenue, politicians, stand-up comedians, cultists, Y2K worry warts and journalists like me, I suspect you're already up to here with millennium hype, and it's still more than six months away. Alas, I'm afraid it's going to get worse before it gets better. Much worse.

But take heart. Centuries only change once every hundred years and millennia every thousand, so you only have to face it once in your lifetime (assuming you don't live into triple digits or believe in reincarnation).

I mean it's not like the NBA finals or something.

Anyway, if Audi wants to declare its A8 to be the first luxury car of the 21st century, then I guess it's their prerogative. It's a free country and all that. I don't even have a problem with them declaring the A8 to be "simply the best car in the world." I'll let the other upscale carmakers challenge them on that.

Besides, who's to say its not. When you market a car that costs way more than what most people earn in a year you'd better believe your car is something special. If not, who will? No point in being humble when only CEOs, rock stars and basketball players can afford it.

Audi has been busy reinventing itself in recent years. Its entry-level A4 sedan has been an unqualified hit, albeit in a price niche significantly below the A8's. (And according to reports, it is very hard to get; some people have waited months for their cars to come in.)

For reasons of price alone, the A8 is unlikely to become much more than a showcase for what Audi can do when money is not much of an object.

That said, it's a pretty fine showcase. The A8 employs aluminum space frame body technology, the first of its kind, that saves a lot of weight without sacrificing any of the things that buyers want in a top-end luxury car.

Audi says it was determined to undercut the luxury segment's "excessive weight spiral" noting that a lighter full-size sedan offers many advantages, including better fuel mileage and easier recycling after the end of its life cycle.

Audi sniffs that while other manufacturers see fit to simply "add more bulk and excessive horsepower" to their luxury cars, it chose to reject that route inits pursuit of the world's finest luxury car.

Audi says its aluminum space frame structure is 40 percent lighter than traditional steel while offering 40 percent more rigidity than conventional unibody construction.

The A8 comes in two versions, both powered by V8 engines. The front-drive 3.7 weighs 3,682 pounds. The 4.2 Quattro (all-wheel-drive) weighs 3,902 pounds. The displacement, in liters, of the two engines is signaled by the model number.

For comparison, the Mercedes-Benz S class sedans range from 4,480 pounds to 4,650 pounds and the BMW 750iL weighs 4,553 pounds.

For those who hold to the theory that reducing a car's weight also lowers its safety quotient, the A8 was the first car to come with six airbags, including side airbags for both front and rear outboard occupants (the A8 seats three across in the back seat).

Happily, I did not have to test any of the airbags, and the space frame construction translated into a very taut, solid, quiet, well-handling ride that I could live with quite nicely even if I couldn't make the payments.

In a time when even Honda Accords and Ford Tauruses come with power everything, Audi has had to stretch itself to come up with luxury goodies for the A8 that are not found in lesser marques. Virtually everything in the car is motorized, including the tilt steering wheel, the head rests and even the seat belt anchors. If it moves, it's motorized.

Overkill? Sure. All those buttons and motors that most drivers will set once and then never touch again (it also has seat position memory for four drivers) add a lot of expense, but that's the point I suppose. If you have the big bucks, you must spend them on something, and push-button everything is one way.

Real burled walnut trim and elegant leather are others, and the A8 has them. Dual automatic climate controls, a fine Bose stereo system, a trunk so elegantly finished you could hold a board meeting in it. The A8 is a gorgeous piece of engineering that is a delight to behold and touch . . . it even smells good. A treat for the senses in every way.

For 1999, the A8 Quattro (my test car) has a base price of $65,000, up a mere $500 from the last one I tested in the fall of 1997. My test car had four options packages: a cold weather package for $1,000 (ski storage sack, heated mirrors and steering wheel); a warm weather package for $1,000 (solar sunroof and power sunshades); an electronics package for $1,400 (auto-dimming outside mirrors, rear seat power headrests and xenon headlights); and 17-inch polished wheels for $1,000.

With $500 in transportation charges the bottom line was the aforementioned $70,100.

A 5-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic (developed by Porsche to simulate a manual shifter) is standard as are most of the other bells and whistles.

Fuel economy is rated at 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway driving, not bad for a car of this class.

E-mail (max@desnews.com) or fax 801-236-7605. Max Knudson's car column runs each Friday.