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The reports and spy photos are just now beginning to roll in. The photograph seen here was shot in Africa during extreme weather testing and is the first to be snapped of the hunky new A8.

The new Audi flagship is the set to hit UK dealer showrooms in February 2002 with an estimated starting price of £45,000 (65,000 USD) for the entry level V6 equipped model. The unveiling of the replacement to the current 8-year old A8 was delayed by the desire of parent company Volkswagen's foray into the high-end luxury market with their as yet to be named D1 flagship.

The D1 is scheduled to be released in the UK at the end of 2002, with VW claiming it won't be in competition with the new A8. Other top of the line luxo rivals cruising the streets will be the totally redesigned BMW 7 Series, due March of this year with a starting price of £40,000 (57,500 USD), and the well received and very popular new Mercedes S-Class starting at £41,500 (60,000 USD).

The styling of the new A8 stays true to the lines and shapes of the newly designed Audi cars coming just before it. Styled in-house by Audi design boss, Peter Schreyer, this new car looks very much like a bigger and bolder A4 or A6. With its split chrome grills, trapazoidial headlight housings, massive wheel arches and high waist line it fits into the family quite nicely. Another key external design line to take note of is its sharply raked rear roofline giving the big car a much more sporty and coupe-like look.

On the inside, true Audi attention to detail and fine craftsmanship abounds. The talk is that much of what was seen in Audis recent concept show car, the Avantissimo, will make its way into the production A8. Most notable is the "Multi Media Interface", or MMI for short. This new technology is quite similar to that seen on BMW's new 7 Series. Audi's MMI uses a singular rotary dial located in the center console, along with speech recognition technology, which controls the menu screen located just above it. This menu accesses various functions such as DVD, MP3, digital radio, Internet and satellite navigation.

External dimensions will be larger,with a 70mm increase in wheelbase. This increased size is supposed to lead to an abundance of internal spaciousness, especially for rear seat passengers. The car is said to weigh in at roughly 1,550 kg, some 700 kg less than its rivals. To help keep that weight down, aluminum abounds in this update. The car will retain an aluminum spaceframe chassis and aluminum body panels. And don't forget Audi passenger safety - no fewer than eight air bags will be standard, with highly advanced front air bags which deploy in stages.

As with all Audis, especially in Europe, a wide range of both petrol and diesel engines will be available. Also present will be Audis renowned quattro all wheel drive and a specially designed air suspension. This highly advanced suspension is similar to that found on the Audi allroad. It consists of continuously variable dampers, which can alter the ride height of the vehicle. The system drops the car down at higher speeds to improve aerodynamics and reduce fuel consumption.

Some of the engines you can expect to see on the new A8 are a reworked and re-tuned 3.0 liter V6, a 4.2 liter V8, and a 6.0 liter W12, the choice of the truly power-hungry automobile enthusiast. Some diesel engines to hit the European market will be the 2.5 liter V6 and 4.0 liter V8, with the 5.0 liter V10 turbo diesel from the Volkswagen D1 rumored to make its way over as well.

You can also expect to see some race bred technology from the Audi R8 Le Mans cars on one or more of the new A8 motors. The direct injection technology should show up first on the A8 in the near future. Something else you can expect see is one hot little engine : a twin turbocharged 4.2 liter V8 now under development by Audi-owned Cosworth Technology said to put out up to 430bhp and 443lb ft of torque! This will most likely find its way into an all new S8 sometime in late 2003, early 2004. A new six speed automatic will be standard on V8 models and above, with CVT on the lower-end models. The more powerful engines will also get quattro standard to help put down power, while the others will remain front wheel drive.

Fans of Avants will be happy to know they may be seeing a new big brother in the Audi line up. A very big brother indeed as the talk is that the well received Avantissimo concept car will be making its way into production as an estate (or Avant) version of the A8 sometime in 2005. Internal studies by Audi seem to show that luxury buyers are seeking more room and practicality, hence the surge in upscale trucks and SUVs.

Once again, things look very promising for the Audi lineup. With a bigger, badder, more powerful A8 coming down the line, the top of the Audi family tree looks to be in good hands. We're looking forward to seeing more of the car when the new A8 is officially unveiled at the Paris Motor Show next autumn. Oui oui!

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