Audi's S8 is a giant traffic light slayer, but does it have the goods to keep with its German competitors?
Luxury limousines don’t come much more luxury or limousine-like than the Audi S8. With a history dating back to the 90’s, the S8 derivative has always offered an excellent balance between luxury and performance.
Fast forward to 2015 and Audi has ditched the previous-generation 'D3' S8’s 5.2-litre naturally aspirated V10 (which was based on the engine from the Lamborghini Gallardo) in favour of a direct-injection 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8, similar to the one found in the Audi RS 6.
Priced from $279,000 plus on-road costs, the Audi S8 actually offers relative performance bang-for-your-buck in this segment. The Mercedes-Benz S500 and BMW 750i are $7600 and $3930 more expensive respectively, and neither of these is the highest-performance variant in their respective ranges like the S8. The only cheaper option is the slower and heavier Lexus LS600h at $217,630.
For what it's worth, the slower and less efficient, but fiery, Maserati Quattroporte GTS retails for $319,800, while the mid-range and slower-off-the-mark Porsche Panamera S costs $288,900.
To further put the S8's pricing into perspective, the sublime Mercedes S63 AMG, which is the Benz model's overt performance variant and one-tenth of a second faster to 100km/h than the Audi, costs about $108,000 more than the car tested here.
From the outside, the S8’s styling is conservative and covert as opposed to loutish and over the top. This discretion not only follows Audi tradition, but also ensures that S8 owners both blend into the crowd and deliver on traffic light grands prix as required.
Chrome highlights, quad exhaust pipes, big wheels, S8 insignia and a small ‘V8T’ badge on the front side panel are the only signs this Audi A8 has something special lurking beneath. One of the other cool features is a Mustang-esque indicator array. Both the front and rear LED indicators light up in staggered formation, as opposed to lighting up synchronously like most other cars on the road.
Trainspotters will also recognise the brushed aluminium wing mirrors, common to other S and RS models. The other cool highlight of the exterior is Audi’s new Matrix LED lighting system. Comprising 50 individual LEDs, the lighting system adapts to its surroundings using cameras and sensors to provide the maximum amount of light without affecting other drivers.
While the outside is beautiful to look at, it’s inside the cabin that the S8 really makes a style statement. The executive seating format up front inserts a large divider between the driver and front passenger. The divider acts as an armrest, but also gives the sense of size and luxury.
Unlike other Audi variants, the S8 uses a new single position gear lever. Unlike a traditional gear lever that switches between notches to engage drive modes, the S8’s Jeep-esque gear lever uses a single click to move from park to drive and from drive to sport. It can be confusing at times and doesn’t always work the way you think it should.
Also fitted within the centre divider is a touch pad that can be used to change radio stations or enter addresses using a drawing-style pad. For a right-hander, it doesn’t really work that well. But, from the passenger’s point of view, it’s excellent, because it feels second nature to write in the letters as opposed to using a scroll wheel to select them manually.
The eight-inch MMI (Audi speak for multimedia system) folds out of the dashboard when you start the car and for the most part looks great. But, it falls short of the 10.2-inch screen in the BMW 7 Series and 12.3-inch screens in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and Lexus LS460.
The MMI’s functionality is good, but can be a little cumbersome at times. It lacks the ingenuity of BMW’s iDrive and doesn’t offer the high-resolution of its competitors, which is critical in this day and age.
Build quality, along with fit and finish, is excellent. Every surface around the cabin feels well built and sturdy. A big part of luxury perception is ensuring all surfaces the driver has contact with are padded or feel prestige.
This is certainly the case in the S8 with a padded centre divider, soft touch buttons and a comfy feel to the steering wheel. There are also electronic blinds in the rear for passenger privacy.
While the S8 isn’t available in L form (A8 L models feature an extra 118mm of rear leg room), there is ample room in the rear to fit large adults three abreast comfortably. The leg and headroom is excellent, while the doors and centre armrest offer relaxing places to sit your arms while on the move.
The centre seat will likely seldom be used. A centre armrest in the rear houses the remote control for multimedia navigation (in this instance, they form part of an optional $9900 rear entertainment package) and climate controls for rear passengers. There’s also the ability to delete the centre seat all together and configure the vehicle as a four seater, although this option does come with a price tag of $5650.
Audi uses an intuitive system for seat adjustment. Instead of mounting countless controls that are out of sight, one circular button is used to adjust auxiliary controls (such as bolster, lumbar, massaging, etc.) and is displayed on the central screen. Given the massage seats features six different settings, it’s a clever way of integrating everything into one neat package.
The large body allows for impressive cargo capacity, catering for 520 litres. In comparison to its peers, the S8 splits the difference with the Mercedes-Benz S500 at 530 litres and the BMW 750i at 500 litres.
Considering our tester was fitted with Audi’s optional Bang and Olufsen sound system, we decided to head to the drive-in movies to test it out. Featuring 19 active loudspeakers and a total power output of 1400W, each speaker is built into its own enclosure to ensure the sound is contained within the cabin and doesn’t vibrate the chassis or panels.
The sound system also comes with a Movie mode, which adjusts channel outputs to simulate surround sound. This was enabled for our movie, as were the massaging seats. The sound quality was second to none. Low frequencies hit with menacing bass, while high frequencies reverberated through the cabin.
Two omnidirectional speakers mounted to the dashboard ensure sound waves are equally distributed throughout the cabin, filling in all dead spots that would otherwise be missed by conventional tweeters. The Bang and Olufsen sound system comes with a considerable price tag of $14,500, but is worth every penny if sound quality is important to you.
The heart and soul of the S8 sits under the bonnet. The 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine produces a mammoth 382kW of power and 650Nm of torque. The powerful V8 is capable of send the big sedan from 0-100km/h in just 4.1-seconds, which is quicker than the S500 and 750i.
This tremendous pace is aided by Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive system, in comparison to the rear-wheel-driven BMW and Mercedes-Benz. The Lexus is the only other one that features all-wheel-drive. Audi uses an eight-speed automatic transmission to deliver torque to the wheels.
Behind the wheel, the S8 still feels like a big car. There’s no escaping the fact it weighs 2065kg and isn’t helped by the fact it reaches phenomenal speeds in a straight line. The dynamic driving mode setting sharpens the throttle, firms up the suspension and increases steering weight.
The smart way to drive the S8 is enter a corner with less speed and then use the masses of torque to blast out.
Brake pedal feel is excellent. There is even an option for carbon ceramic brakes, if you are really serious about continuously washing off pace. Mind you, they are a $23,100 option, almost 10 per cent of the car’s value.
Surprisingly, for such a large engine, it’s fairly economical. Audi claims a combined fuel consumption of 9.6L/100km, which isn’t hard to achieve if you are sensible with the throttle. On that topic, it’s hard to not become addicted to the noise and pace available from Audi’s awesome 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine.
There’s a lot to love about the Audi S8. It’s powerful, spacious and the true definition of luxury motoring. The fact it’s addictive to drive and cheaper than its German equivalents also helps its cause.
If you are after more tech and cachet, perhaps the Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG and BMW 760Li are better options, but be prepared to fork out at least $100,000 extra for the experience. As it stands, the 8 is an understated but very accomplished grand tourer.
For more photographs, click on the Photos tab. Pictures by Tom Fraser.