DUSSELDORF, GERMANY?Like something from a Dr. Seuss storybook, the delightful structures lining Dusseldorf?s harbour seem too fantastic to be real.
Der Neue Zollhof, the Rheinhafen centre of arts and media, is a jumble of three unusual buildings arranged like a gigantic sculpture on the waterfront.
The work of Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry, their whimsical design creates the perfect foil for the vehicle we?ve parked in front of it.
Juxtaposed against this fetching backdrop, the 2015 Audi A8 is the embodiment of precision engineering, with taut aluminum skin machined into perfect creases and sharp angles.
The flagship of Audi?s lineup, the A8 returns with a mid-life refresh ? keeping its signature solidity intact, but gaining cargo capacity and some key technology features.
Outwardly, there are few significant changes. The jawline is more chiselled, its rump more sculpted, and there?s a strip of chrome brightwork to connect the redesigned taillights. But otherwise, it retains all of its stylish gravitas.
Audi?s long been the established benchmark for interiors ? and the cabin of the A8 takes it one step further.
It isn?t just the level of craftsmanship. Sometimes, the touches are so subtle that the impact is subliminal: The way the doors close with an authoritative thud. Or the way surfaces are firm, yet yielding to the touch, and pebbled with interesting textures.
One thing Audi gets just right is switchgear. Even the humblest knob feels well-engineered, like fine cabinetry whose components glide soundlessly on well-oiled bearings.
The long-wheelbase models include seats that heat, cool and massage tired buns, and recline like your favourite lounger.
Competition in the premium full-size sedan segment is heating up, with some superb new entries from all corners ? so cutting-edge technology is now expected in this price range.
Mercedes Benz upped the ante with its S-Class, a smooth cruiser that stops just short of driving itself. Aside from a cabin that functions as a mobile executive office, the Mercedes boasts headlights that can spot pedestrians or obstacles and alert the driver, automatically dim when they detect oncoming traffic, and swivel to illuminate the roadway around corners.
Audi has countered with its new Matrix LED lighting system, which functions similarly but has no moving parts.
Comprised of about 25 segments containing small diodes, lenses and reflectors, the Audi headlights deactivate certain portions to dim the lights when oncoming traffic is detected.
And like the Mercedes system, the Matrix headlights work with the car?s sensors, cameras and GPS systems to warn of pedestrians and animals at night, and to anticipate corners and adapt accordingly.
However, just like the Mercedes system, these intuitive headlights aren?t legally approved in North America. It seems almost ludicrous that a safety innovation with no apparent downside wouldn?t be welcomed with open arms, but that?s what happens when innovations move faster than lumbering bureaucracy.
As consolation, there are about 15 driver-assist systems on the new A8, including adaptive cruise control, lane assist, park assist, night vision and heads-up display. Our models will retain the car?s current LED headlights with automatic cornering.
Europeans will receive a full roster of six engines, while Canadians will make do with the existing four: a 3.0-L V6 supercharged, a 3.0-L TDI diesel, a 4.0-L V8 and the W12.
All are mated to an 8-speed ZF transmission, and return with improved horsepower and efficiency numbers, thanks to some creative massaging of the fuel-injection systems.
Although the colossal 500-hp, 12-cylinder W12 was an absolute blast rocketing down the autobahn, the V6 TDI, with its more humble allotment of 258 horsepower and 428 lb.-ft. of torque, was my favourite overall.
As smooth-running as its gas counterparts, this oil-burner has a fuel consumption rating of 5.9 L/100 km combined, which would be decent enough for a small economy car, but is very impressive for a large luxury liner.
Over narrow roadways slicing through still-lush cornfields, the A8 felt balanced and luxurious throughout the model lineup.
Thanks to a combination of its rigid, aluminum structure, an all-wheel-drive system with a 40/60 front/rear torque split, and adaptive air suspension, the A8 glides serenely over any pavement.
The driver can toggle through the Drive Select system, from Comfort to Sport, which adds weight to the steering and quickens throttle and transmission response. The adaptive damping system adjusts the suspension height according to speed.
Although the A8 didn?t set our pulses racing the way Audi?s R8 does, it?s a first-rate way to be pampered.
It should arrive in Canada during the second quarter of next year. Although pricing is not yet available, it?s expected to be on par with the current model, which ranges from $90,700 to $173,000.
Price: TBA but estimated from $90,700 to $173,000.
Engines: 3.0 L V6 TFSI, 3.0 L V6 TDI, 4.0 L TFSI, W12 TFSI
Power/Torque: 310 hp/325 lb.-ft., 435/443, 520/479, 258/428, 500/461
Competition: Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Porsche Panamera, BMW 7 Series, Jaguar XJ
What?s Best: Superb craftsmanship.
What?s Worst: Innovative lighting system unavailable to North Americans.
What?s Interesting: Premium leather is sourced only from male cowhides and treated with vegetable dyes, then sealed with an ultra-thin paint layer