As Audi’s flagship sedan, the A8 pretty much has it all. Luxury, power, style and, of course, the German pedigree that makes itself apparent on the sticker. So if the A8 is the flagship, what is the S8? We intend to find out. Here’s hoping we don’t start channeling our inner Jason Statham.
Believe it or not, the S8 throws in just the right amount of extra performance to make the price increase seem appropriate. And yet for all the added grunt, it doesn’t show up the A8 enough to make you believe that Audi held back the goods on its “normal” luxury sedan. Now, admittedly we went into this examination with a head full of “Ronin” and “The Transporter” flashbacks to exorcise from our memory, but objectivity be damned!
Detaching yourself from the clean lines and luxury items long enough to evaluate on a purist level the driving characteristics of this car is not easy. But taking a look inside the engine bay sure helps. The S8 gets the same 5.2 liter engine as the new R8 V-10 and, according to Audi, this propels the 450 horsepower S8 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds. The word “Quattro” is immediately synonymous with Audi for car-lovers, and in the S8 this all-wheel drive system is in full effect. This translates into a default torque distribution that puts 40 percent of the torque to the front wheels and 60 percent to the rear. Along with some high-tech computations done by a sophisticated set of electronics, the S8 calculates a precise amount of power that the car can generate without tire slip. Sure, tire burnouts are fun, but putting as much power as possible to the pavement seems more impressive. As a consequence the S8 almost stealthily achieves higher speeds without making a big fuss about. How refined. The V-10 engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with Drive, Sport, and manual modes. The latter bring paddle shifters into the mix. “Sport” mode largely seems irrelevant with either the standard or manual mode the preferred settings with most testers. The S8 also comes with an air suspension which manages the heft of the vehicle with ease and is adjustable for Comfort, Automatic, and Dynamic settings. Even in Comfort mode, the ride is distinctly harsher than in an A8, mostly because of the big, 20-inch wheels clad in low-profile rubber.
Three safety features are in addition to the usual lineup of airbags: blind spot assistance, adaptive cruise control, and lane departure warning system, are all part of the S8. With the blind spot system, a warning light in the side mirror illuminates when a car lingers in area off of the rear quarter. The adaptive cruise control compensates for the changing speed of a vehicle in front; accelerating when the other car speeds up and….well you get it. The lane departure warning uses cameras on the sides of the car to engage the “buzz” in the steering wheel when it detects you crossing over, but the turn signal or what it perceives as a concerted effort to turn will defeat the warning buzz. Lastly, the S8 has a parking system with a a rear view camera display and sonar detectors in the bumpers that provides the driver with turn guides on the rear view camera that show the car’s path and distance to objects.
There are cars that make a big deal out of what they can do, and then there are those that subtly go about their business. The S8 is definitely part of that second group. In general, if you like Audi styling you will like the S8, but it is either conservatively taut and economical (if being positive), or boring and bland (if being negative). In reality, those that have the cash to fork out for a new S8 could care less if everyone knows it. Audi adds a few indications of its potential with the “S8″ logo on the front brake calipers, rocker panels and tachometer and the use of carbon fiber trim.
One interesting option that is easily apparent is a solar roof, designed to keep a constant flow of cool air in the car thus reducing dependence on the air conditioning. Why this has not made its way into nearly every new vehicle (the Prius has it for crying out loud!) is beyond me. Inside the car, the driver is enveloped in a lot of carbon fiber and fine stitched leather befitting the price tag this car warrants. The S8 comes with a navigation and phone system that can tap into a variety of models to make the contact list available on the car’s LCD. Audi’s music interface system has a custom port in the glove box and a bag full of cables so you can hook up a USB drive, iPod, mini-jack, or Mini-USB.
The standard audio system uses 12 Bose speakers, but the 1,000 watt Bang & Olufsen premium system has 14 speakers and two high-range sound lenses that pop up from the dash when you start the car is the real star of the show. Drivers rave about this systems sound. The only drawback is that compressed audio files are not up to the quality needed to get the maximum out of it. Stick to either full CDs or tracks ripped to a loss less format.
Not surprisingly, EPA mileage numbers take quite a hit with all of the emphasis on performance. The S8 turns out 13 mpg city and 19 mpg in highway motoring.
The 2009 Audi S8 starts at $96,200, and thankfully, even at the lowest end it comes with a lot of extras, including the navigation and Bluetooth systems, the air suspension and Quattro. Additional costs include the the Bang & Olufsen audio system ($6,300), Technology package that brings adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and blind spot detection ($3,500). Interior upgrades included for stitched dashboard leather ($4,900) or $500 for the carbon fiber trim. Adding up all of the extras and the cost shoots up to over $115,000. The S8 would seem a prime candidate for those willing to let someone else absorb the new car depreciation hit and have a hell of a used car in a couple of years. Assuming you can find one.
The AMG or M-series vehicles from Mercedes and BMW are the only serious contenders to compare this car with. You could probably throw in the “V” CTS in terms of performance, if not for the craptacular fit-and-finish issues to the interior that have plagued GM since the 70’s. Regardless, with this level of luxury and performance you are in very select company with the S8.