As Tom Petty's Free Fallin' blasted across the hip Valencia waterfront gallery-cum-restaurant where Audi had chosen to launch its new A8, I suggested that it might have been better to have seen the recently deceased rocker in the ground before using his songs to push more tin.
You know it's an Audi launch; the staff are aloof, the translation headphones are high-end Sennheisers and there's absolutely no sense of irony. Mind you, you have to hand it to these guys – Like BMW and Mercedes-Benz, Audi's luxury limo division might have one knee on the canvas but they're still punching.
Received wisdom is that they've all been out-sold, out-gunned and out-performed by Tesla's Model S in vital North American markets. Yet Merc and BMW had their flagships in for a dry-dock refit last year and Audi is just launching this all-new Mark III A8. The fact is, the Tesla is really in a class below these cars, where it still isn't the number one best seller doesn't seem to bother those peddling the myth.
The UK market is a strange one, because I've never actually met anyone who owns a luxury limo. Perhaps I don't move in the right circles, but it's true to say that over three quarters of the 1,600 or so A8s sold last year go to fleets with most into the private hire and chauffeur business, where the base model diesel is the majority seller.
In these circumstances, the idea that all those pro drivers are flocking to buy one of the A8's main USPs, its 'AI' autonomous driving-and-parking package, might seem like turkeys voting for an early Christmas.
Anyway the AI autonomous function, which arrives next year when legal due process is done, is basically a Level Three system in the SAE's (Society of Automotive Engineers) six-strong hierarchy. This is not uncontroversial. Level three offers full independent control by the vehicle so the driver can engage in other tasks, but it will hand back control if it doesn't recognise a situation.
Criticisms are about the nature of that hand back (will you be ready?). Moreover, several car makers question how much more autonomy this offers over the current SAE Level Two, which the Audi and its rivals already offer and gives the vehicle control over the steering, throttle and brakes. The main benefit of Level Three is in heavily congested areas like Tokyo or Los Angeles, where the Audi will literally drive itself on jammed freeways or motorways at speeds up to 37mph.
We didn't get to test this system, or the full set up of the active suspension, which also arrives next year and is effectively a set of electric-motor-actuated anti-roll bars. This was in a very early state at the launch and will need a lot of fettling.
Initially there will be a couple of engines, both V6 turbos: a 282bhp diesel and a 335bhp petrol. To come is a 429bhp V8 turbodiesel and a 6.0-litre W12 petrol turbo unit. The engines all use a 48-volt electrical systems, which garner more regenerated electricity from the mild-hybrid belt alternator/starter.
Still in the wings is a full plug-in hybrid system with a three-litre petrol V6 and electric drive motor with a system output of 443bhp/516lb ft. All A8s use an eight-speed automatic transmission and have Audi's geared centre differential four-wheel drive system.
What a car this is, all 5.17 metres of it. It looks enormous, especially in silver, where it resembles a Nubian starship. This is the work of Audi's chief felt-tip pusher, Mark Lichte, and is based on the 2014 Prologue concept. It's elegant, but not that memorable and there's a surfeit of chrome trim, especially at the back. Fortunately the long wheelbase version (5.3 metres long), hides its bulk well. A8 is based on Audi's space-framed MLBevo architecture, mainly aluminium alloy, but hybridised with steel, a carbon panel at the back and a magnesium-alloy strut brace.
Open the door and after all the hype, it's a wonder it even looks like a car. A8, you see, has two touch screens, which is something of a revolution for German car makers, which have resisted smartphone-style interfaces as potentially hazardous and unsightly when covered in finger marks. The tech press quickly got to grips with the screen, pronouncing the haptic feedback as feeble and the click sound effects as a bit too quiet.
With upper and lower centre screens (which look like a posh two-tier box of chocolates), plus the virtual cockpit driver's binnacle, you can see the effort that has gone in to creating a buttonless but simple-to-use facia, though beyond basic functions it's very complicated.
Tech heads can even use their smart phones to unlock and start the car, though there's still a radio volume knob and temperature controls are clicks or swipes on a screen. The sat nav is utterly brilliant, the Bang & Olufsen stereo less so and the seat cooling/heating is sybaritic. On the whole, it's a positive step.
The rear seats are comfortable, but in the short wheelbase version there's not much more leg room than you'd find in a Skoda Superb and the rear of the car doesn't feel that opulent, or spacious. The 505-litre boot is shallow, but big enough for a couple of big suitcases with space to spare.
They've put the damper up the middle of the air suspension bellows, which means both move by the same amount for a given bump. No clever Porsche type triple bellows system here, it's one big air bag and it's probably one of the best air suspension systems I've ever driven. There's only the tiniest trace of low-speed fizz, it floats beautifully over sleeping policemen and there's none of the old car's ship-in-a-gale cornering. There's body movement, yes, but it's nicely reigned in, with terrific damping control. Driven badly, it will lurch through a series of corners, so chose your chauffeur with care.
The steering is light, possibly a bit over light even in Dynamic setting, but it's a precision instrument, loading up nicely in corners, although there's not a lot of feedback, even at 'stop that gentleman jewel thief, James' speeds. Frustratingly, the brakes in all the cars we tried had faults, some graunching to a halt at low speeds, others with less than progressive pedals and none of them with much feel.
Audi A8 | dimensions
The A8 is a huge and despite the aluminium, nearly two-tonne limousine, which tends to inhibit exuberant cornering. It feels inert and even though it's not bad dynamically, the BMW 7-series is more of a driver's car and the Mercedes-Benz S-class a better all rounder. The V6 diesel is probably the best in the business, smooth, powerful and very economical. It's a delight to just plant the throttle and go, and that auto 'box makes the most of it, too; almost never lost for a ratio and slurring changes gently and positively.
We briefly drove the V6 petrol and it's pleasingly quiet, quick and refined, but you'll almost never some across it. As for the W12 well, mark its existence and rarity like a black swan.
With all three German giants battling for supremacy here, it's not surprising that the new A8 hasn't pulled out a commanding lead. In fact it's stayed roughly where it was in the pecking order, but the class standard has risen greatly. Grabby brakes and lack of rear seat space isn't going to endear it to passengers, which is how most folk will experience the A8, so before you climb in check the chauffeur's credentials – and make sure it's a long wheelbase.
Audi A8 prices and specs
TESTED 2,967cc turbodiesel V6 with eight-speed auto transmission, four-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE from £69,100 to £74,995. As tested £69,100. On sale early 2018
POWER/TORQUE 282bhp @ 4,000rpm/443lb ft @ 1,250rpm
TOP SPEED 155mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 5.9sec
FUEL ECONOMY 48.7mpg/52.3mpg (EU Combined/Urban), on test 41.5mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS 150g/km
VED BAND 131 - 150 (£200 then £140 plus £310 luxury tax for five years)
AUDI A8 VERDICT
An imposing and super-long saloon that acts as a technology standard-bearer, with autonomous driving, touch-screen dash, 48-volt electrics, active suspension and more. But at its heart, this is a really posh limo and while it handles well and rides beautifully, the rear seats (where most will experience the A8) are lacking.
TELEGRAPH RATING four stars out of five