AUDI HAS BEEN into serious weight-loss for quite a while now. The German marque's regimen showed very visible signs in 1994, when it introduced an all-aluminium-bodied A8 that was significantly lighter than most luxury saloons at the time. The A2 followed suit. Though brilliant in concept and technologically excellent, the A8 was not a hit in Hong Kong, where there are more Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7-Series and Lexus LS models on the streets. Perhaps Audi's image is too young for those punters who can afford the odd million on a car and prefer a more established badge on their bonnet to the reduced fuel consumption and more agile handling that an aluminium car brings. The newest A8 builds on Audi's expertise in aluminium space frame construction, and is again lighter than its competitors. A 3.7-litre A8 weighs 1,770 kilograms, while a BMW 735i and Mercedes-Benz S350 tip the scale at 1,935kg and 1,810kg respectively. The new top-of-the-range Audi is faster too, sprinting to 100km/h from a standing start in 7.3 seconds, 0.2 of a second faster than the BMW 735i and 0.3 of a second quicker than the Mercedes-Benz S350. The A8 has been loaded with the latest technology, but I find my test car, a 3.7 Quattro base model, is cleaner, simpler and exudes the understated elegance of the fine leather, wood and chrome. The new Multi Media Interface (MMI) system, Audi's answer to BMW's iDrive, features a pop-up screen at the centre of the dashboard and a rotary dial that controls functions including entertainment, communication, information and settings for the electric windows, indoor lighting, parking sensors and the new adaptive air suspension. Unlike BMW's iDrive, which can be quite intimidating and frustrating to the non-technical minded, the Audi A8's MMI controls and display are a joy to use. The electro-mechanical parking brake is clearly another answer to the 7-Series: the A8's pull/push switch resembles the workings of a mechanical hand and seems more logical than the single push button of the biggest BMWs. Another first for Audi is its introduction of an air suspension system, much like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Four pneumatic struts are electronically controlled for ride heights and damping force. I keep changing the settings with a twist and mouse-like push on the MMI system, finding the Comfort setting is ideal for the pothole-laden city streets. Although the ride is not as creamy as in a Lexus LS430, it is comfortable. A quick change to Dynamic firms up the suspension to minimise body roll and increase cornering stability, as you would expect of a competitive Audi. I choose Automatic as the all-around mode, as it enables an overall smooth ride, but reacts quickly to the road's undulation. If the A8 is driven for more than 30 seconds above the speed of 120km/h, the air suspension is supposed to automatically lower the car's ride height for lower drag and more stability. But I am unable to test this facility on Hong Kong's roads. My test car's V8 engine belts out 280 brake horsepower, compared with the 245bhp of the Mercedes-Benz S350, the 272bhp of the BMW 735i and the 281bhp Lexus LS430. Only the beloved, controversial mount of our former financial secretary feels faster. Being a base model, the 3.7 Quattro is not terribly fast. For those who are really eager to go places, the 335bhp 4.2 Quattro can reach the same speed in only 6.3 seconds. But the A8 can easily be the most fun of all these high-powered saloons. The 7-Series has a six-speed automatic transmission, the world's first. The A8 now has one too, but unlike in the BMW where you have to search through the iDrive system to facilitate the steering wheel-mounted gear-changing buttons, the paddle shifters behind the A8's steering wheel look and feel better. A quick pull on them can conveniently override whatever mode the gearlever is positioned at to allow for an immediate manual command. There are two drive modes for the gear selector: 'D' gives full access to all six speeds, while 'S' disables the sixth gear for sporty driving. I find the A8's steering wheel is a bit too light in slow traffic, but as speed builds up it becomes as perfectly weighted as in other Audis, and its road feel is much better than all its competitors. As the only four-wheel drive vehicle in its class, the A8's handling is more balanced. I can't say for certain that the A8 can out-run anybody in the corners, but the extra peace of mind provided by the Quattro system is a big confidence booster in the wet. On the twists and turns on the South side, the A8 is as crisp as a smaller A6. Although the A8 is by no way a small and light car, it feels more nimble than it is. In terms of luxury and refinement, the A8 covers all bases. User-friendly, nicely finished and with lots of poke, the A8's design is less radical than the 7-Series, but has a driving feel that is much more exciting than the LS430. And at $878,000 for the 3.7-litre version and $998,000 for the 4.2-litre at distributors Premium Motors (tel: 2528 1862), the A8 is also less expensive than the 735i ($1.05 million) and S350 ($1.02 million). Audi has slimmed down for Hong Kong's tightened executive budgets.