It’s not a particularly active market segment, but the small slice reserved for large sedans such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7 Series and now the new Audi A8 is one worth squabbling over all the same. Stuttgart’s S and Munich’s Seven have this market down, although Audi is keen to make a significant impact with its all-new A8. It has some work to do. Significantly bigger than the car it replaces, the A8 is longer, wider and higher than its predecessor. Including wing mirrors, the car is 2 111 mm wide, 5 137 mm long and 1 460 mm tall, and its wheelbase is longer by 48mm.The car may be all-new, but its design is merely an evolution of the previous car’s styling, which means it is, by appearances, obviously an Audi and an A8 albeit with a few “adjustments”. According to Audi AG project designer on the A8 Torsten Wentzel, “spaciousness, lightness and elegance” were the key considerations when the new car’s design was being plotted.While the familiar Audi trait of the single-frame grille is in place, it is more dynamic for its application in the flagship with its chromed creases and curves lending the piece a 3D-like appearance, particularly when viewed from above. Light clusters are squared off too, according to Audi AG project designer Torsten Wentzel to make the long car appear more compact than it is. Aluminium ASFBut back to the A8’s dimensions – despite the car being quite a bit bigger than your average runabout, itseems to shrink around the driver and feels no bigger than your trusty hatchback. Seated behind the wheel, it’s actually aloof enough to allow the driver to forget he or she is driving. Driving the A8 car is effortless – you could be tootling at 60 km/h or blazing at well beyond the national speed limit and be none the wiser. The car feels exactly the same. The standard air suspension could have something to do with this since the car is eerily stable at all times, as too the beautifully weighted steering that always places the car precisely as planned. It’s hard to believe this is a large sedan weighing close to two and a half ton. As with its predecessors, the new A8 makes generous use of aluminium; it uses the Audi Space Frame (ASF) to keep the car’s weight down and body rigid.So it feels compact and has an okay-ish exterior design, but the new A8’s cabin is exquisite. The quality of materials is sumptuous, the fit and finish top class and the overall design worth considering over a glass of wine. The A8 also comes with a range of items and driver assistance systems befitting its status as a flagship model. Side assist, lane assist, adaptive cruise control, speed limit display (available from late 2010, it detects the road signs and displays these as graphics in the driver display), night vision assistant, Bang and Olufsen sound system, full LED headlamps, telephone and online systems are among the standard or optional equipment on offer.The facia is arranged a three tiers; with the top level containing the key driver data via the instruments and new Multimedia Interface display, the second level has the heating controls and MMI controls, while the third houses the new space-age gear shift lever and associated paraphernalia in the centre console.Flagship-worthy gimmicksThe A8 interior shows off a range of firsts including the standard MMI touch to supplement the standard voice control system, ambient lighting in a range of colours and a stylish new gear lever that doubles as a hand/arm rest when operating the MMI’s touch pad. Audi’s MMI is generally the more user-friendly of its ilk, and while the A8’s new toy seems a little fussy at first attempt, it should become child’s play to those prepared to shell out the cash for the car. And the substantial sum also allows you to sample some decent powerplants. The new A8 is launched with a 4.2 FSI engine that also sees the debut of an eight-speed tiptronic to South Africa. Channelling 273 kW and 445 Nm to the four wheels via the quattro permanent four-wheel drive system, the new transmission’s shifts up or down were swift and smooth, with or without using the paddle shifts. The power delivery of the V8 engine can also be described as swift and smooth, and the powerplant was more than adequate at hauling the A8’s body around when some urgency was required. However, those eager to sample smaller powerplants should squirrel away their monies until 2011 – the 3.0 TDI and 4.2 TDI will be introduced in the first quarter, while the supercharged 3.0 TSI follows by mid-year. The more athletic S8 has been earmarked for South African buyers, too, while Audi let on it is considering introducing a limousine derivative here for the first time. The longer wheelbase adds about 130 mm to the overall length of the car, although the only benefit derived from this is larger rear quarters (including a comfy footrest) for passengers seated on the bench. It will probably come to SA, but we’ll let you know when that happens.For now, the “regular” 4.2 V8 will have to do. This A8 is as spacious and comfortable, and as advanced and standoffish as its key competitors, but whether the flagship Audi has the presence to take on the segment leaders, remains to be seen. The roll out of additional, cheaper, models next year will probably aid Audi SA’s efforts to have its A8 seen as a worthy competitor. We’ll have to wait and see. Price:A8 4.2 FSI quattro Tiptronic - R1 096 000Which one gets your vote - the Merc S-Class, BMW 7 Series, Lexus LS or Audi A8? Or would you hang around to see the Jaguar XJ?