I had an engagement a while back with the Audi RS5 Cabriolet in Monaco, and getting me from my lair in northern Italy by plane connection is an utter waste of time since the first flight is always to either Paris, Zurich, or Rome, three cities not at all on the way to Monaco. So I phoned Audi Italia about a quick loan of a car for the three-hour-ish drive to this event, and they were simpatici enough to propose that I keep whatever they gave me for two weeks. And what they gave me was a loaded Audi S8 with properly chosen 20-inch Dunlop SP Winter Sport treads attached.
This was about to be a much cooler two weeks than I had planned.
On the other hand, several colleagues looked at me and then at the car, and then said, "You'll love the thing until it's time to fill it." I was determined to show them all that the 23.8-gallon capacity of premium fuel would not break my will to love the S8 as though it were my own in everyday driving over the next fourteen days.
Having grabbed the key fob to the S8, it was immediately off to the silly little principality of Monaco over Italian autostrada and French autoroute for 280 miles. Not until the offramp for Monaco were there any bits resembling something dynamically challenging, so prior to that I concentrated on the cabin, the ride, and how it stacks up against competitors.
As a cruiser... the S8 is one blissful experience.
As a cruiser at a steady 80 miles per hour while in eighth gear of the Tiptronic gearbox, with all parameters set in either (at one extreme) Efficiency or (at the other) Dynamic modes of the onboard Audi Drive Select, the S8 is one blissful experience. While the snow tires should have been transmitting more road noise, the cabin's noise reduction materials seemed to be keeping out most of it. There's also the fiber-optics-based Audi Noise Control that functions through the $6,300 Bang & Olufsen premium sound system, negating natural noises by producing varying counter frequencies. (We'll need to bring a family dog aboard the car to check whether the ANC drives Fido nuts at all. Mythbusters material, at least.)
Interior materials throughout this segment of cars are universally great to live with and sit on, so I cannot choose one as better than the others easily. Most likely, it's a very personal aesthetic preference. But the S8's standard 22-way adjustable front seats are as favorably enjoyed as the entire car itself, and the very typical precise workmanship and pleasant-to-touch surfaces of Audi reign supreme here as well. Then, using the MMI infotainment console dial together with both finger-touch writing and voice recognition, the S8 multitasks seamlessly as a rolling office, and all of its controls make easy sense.
The average real fuel economy was a seriously impressive 24.4 miles per US gallon.
By the time I had reached that Monaco exit on this first longer leg, the average real fuel economy was a seriously impressive 24.4 miles per US gallon. Some of this improvement in efficiency versus the previous S8's 5.2-liter FSI V10 can certainly be traced to the new EA 82 4.0-liter bi-turbo V8 with cylinder-on-demand technology. Stay below 111 mph, above third gear and between 960 and 3,500 rpm under gentle pedal load, and the 4.0-liter switches to a sort of V4 powerplant. That's what I was doing for all those highway miles at 80 mph and COD – together with other efficiency measures on the new engine – make Audi's boast of a 23-percent hike in fuel efficiency while adding 15 percent in power ring true.
And there is power here: 512 horsepower together with a readily available 479 pound-feet of torque from 1,700 rpm on up to 5,500 rpm. All that has been written so enthusiastically regarding the fourth-generation Audi S8's ability to scoot – be it from a stop or while dashing through a series of curves – is true. There is effectively no turbocharging lag, the eight-speed Tiptronic in Dynamic is exactly as crisp as it needs to be, and the adaptive air suspension performs its share of miracles with this 4,641-pound sports car. (Yes. Sports car.) Estimated acceleration to 60 mph is a frankly astonishing 3.9 seconds, but it can do that even more quickly without a doubt.
Estimated acceleration to 60 mph is a frankly astonishing 3.9 seconds.
Steering feel is every bit as numb and over-electrified on this S8 as on about every other Audi with Quattro all-wheel drive built today. Then, too, with the engine's placement being not much behind the front axle at all, there is a bullish tendency for the front end to push through some curves if you haven't nailed the line into and through. On another note, the quad-barrel sport exhaust makes a sweet sound on-throttle, but I barely heard this sweetness from inside the noise-neutralizing passenger cabin.
Back on the abundant plus side, our S8 was dressed with carbon ceramic front brake discs and the rear sport differential that maximizes the action of the rear-biased Quattro all-wheel-drive system. The standard adaptive air suspension in its normal state – or Auto – on the S8 sets the car four tenths of an inch lower than a stock A8, the end result being that the dynamics overall, despite the zombie feel to the steering wheel itself, are easily the best in this showboating class. Notch everything on ADS over to Dynamic on a sleek dry road and, even with the wintry Dunlops, it's a beautiful thing. I would have preferred the optional 21-inch Continental summer tires, but wasn't complaining, particularly when it proceeded to dump snow all over the place soon after our Monaco sojourn.
Dynamics overall, despite the zombie feel to the steering wheel, are easily the best in class.
In the snow and set up accordingly, the S8 is every bit as eager to dive in and help. Set ADS to Efficiency and the throttle tip-in is predictably slow – this helps everything when things get cold and covered in six inches of the white stuff. At one point, a rogue Italian snowplow literally walled us in to the curbside while we were in getting an espresso and chatting. All other cars walled in with me were having a hell of a time of it, but I put the S8 in Reverse for about one foot and then lunged forward and out of it all without so much as spinning a tire. It felt as satisfying in my bloated imagination as a trot around the bags after hitting a grand slam, left shoulder dipped down just a little bit lower than the right.
The S8 comes in just the one standard size with no extended wheelbase available, this helping somewhat to keep down its average selling price versus others. The competitor that comes closest to an S8 in sportiness and overall feel is the ultra-expensive ($140k before abundant options) Porsche Panamera Turbo S. The premium sport sedan closest in about every on-paper category, including having a more traditional four-door-with-trunk silhouette, is the BMW Alpina B7, though it frankly lacks the testosterone count and sophistication of the S8.
On sale in the US since fall 2012, the latest Audi S8 is probably the single best one of this big-shouldered bunch. It sets itself apart chiefly by truly fulfilling the letter "S" in its name, to the point where it's damned tempting to call it an RS8.