Audi S8

You've gotta hand it to the Audi A8. Last year, Mercedes-Benz launched the truly stunning S-Class, putting the rest of the high-dollar luxury flagship class on notice. With the brand-new S-Class turning heads and garnering all sorts of praise from the automotive press, classmates like the BMW 7 Series, Jaguar XJ and Audi A8 started to look, well, old. But Audi didn't see fit to just let its big sedan carry on and let the Mercedes take the cake.

So when Audi refreshed its A8 line for the 2015 model year with only minor updates, I kind of shrugged it off as just a quick way to keep the big sedan fresh until an all-new, hopefully S-Class-trumping version arrives. But then I drove the S8 pictured above, and I'm no longer so sure the Merc's shadow is as big and imposing as it once was.

Spoiler alert: the Audi S8 is simply fantastic.

Driving Notes
  • I could wax poetic about Audi's twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 until I'm blue in the face. This engine is such a damn sweetheart in the S6 and S7, but it's even more amazing here in the S8. Of course, that's because in this application the forced-induction V8 is pumping out 520 horsepower and 481 pound-feet of torque – gains of 100 hp and 75 lb-ft over the S7.
  • Put to the ground via Quattro all-wheel drive, the 520-hp beating heart is able to propel the 4,685-pound S8 to 60 miles per hour in a scant 3.9 seconds. Less than four seconds for a massive sedan like this is downright impressive, though let it be known, the Mercedes S63 will stand toe-to-toe with the Audi in the same 0-60 sprint.
  • But unlike the Mercedes, the Audi feels super light on its feet – it is over 100 pounds lighter than the brute from Stuttgart, after all. Straight-line acceleration comes on with a massively powerful rush, with a seemingly endless band of power that simply will not run out. There is no point in the engine's rev range where power is lacking, and the eight-speed Tiptronic automatic keeps things on boil with buttery-smooth ease.
  • The thing is, though, I wish the Audi were a bit more boastful about its power. Even with the exhaust set to "Dynamic" in the Audi Drive Select module, there isn't much to be heard. There's a low, audible purr when stomping on the throttle, but it's just not as throaty and engaging as a Mercedes V8 roar. It doesn't even sound as nice as Audi's old, naturally aspirated 4.2-liter V8, or the 5.2-liter V10 from the previous-generation S8. I kind of get it – power with poise – but like many of Audi's latest S- and RS-badged creations, I'd like a little more in the way of aural stimulation. It's not so much an issue here in the S8 as it is in things like the S4, S6, and S7. But... still.
  • That's a really nit-picky thing to complain about, I know, and the quieter demeanor is fitting with the Audi's number one goal of being luxurious and stately above all. Cruising at highway speeds, the interior is super quiet, until you crank the volume knob on the optional Bang & Olufsen sound system ($6,300). Quick sidenote: those power-retractable tweeters in the dash still offer huge "wow" factor for passengers. At least, passengers not used to amenities normally served up in this tax bracket.
  • Updates for the 2015 model year refresh are really minor, and inside, the A8's cabin is holding up extremely well for being a few years old. Every single touchable surface is excellent, with high-quality leathers and suedes throughout. And all that onboard tech still looks and feels as forward-thinking as ever. The Google Earth navigation, 4G wifi connectivity, and penmanship-perfect MMI Touch still feel familiar and lovely to use, and Audi's infotainment is still a nice setup (even though the knobs scroll in the wrong direction – anyone who's used the system knows what I mean).
  • Other 2015 MY updates are found outside, with refreshed front and rear fascias. Around back, this nip/tuck isn't totally noticeable, but to me, the changes up front make a huge difference. To be honest, the full-LED headlamps on the A8/S8 always looked a bit awkward to me, and kind of ruined the big Audi's front end. But now, the squared off, more angular shape to the headlamps look even more modern and fresh than before. Simply put, the car looks stunning, all in – the sleek, understated lines make for a wholly handsome, refined machine. Those 21-inch, titanium-finish, blade-style wheels are killer, too.
  • That said, the optional P275/35R21 summer tires on those tall wheels kind of ruin things a bit on the road. With Drive Select set to auto, or even comfort, the S8's ride quality over Detroit's broken roads was a bit harsher than I would have liked. But the tradeoff is superb on smooth, engaging roads, where the S8 hugs and grips like a car half its size. Much like the less-powerful A8, it's easily the best-handling car in the segment.
  • Steering is equally lovely, with varying levels of assist depending on speed and the Comfort/Auto/Dynamic settings in the Drive Select. But Audi's lane-keeping assist is rather intrusive here – it fights you, as a driver, and I honestly think systems like Cadillac's butt-buzzing assist do the whole driver-assistance thing better.
  • Of course, all this wonderfulness comes at a price, but it's not something to gripe about. The S8 starts at $114,900, not including $925 for destination, and can only be had as a short-wheelbase model. For the record, that's hugely competitive with sedans like the Jaguar XJR ($116,000), BMW Alpina B7 ($132,000) and Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG ($141,450). What's more, If you absolutely need the added rear legroom, Audi will happily sell you an A8 W12 for $23,000 more, but it offers less power and slightly worse fuel economy (even if it has a longer wheelbase and more luxurious accommodations). If bang for your buck is the thing, the S8 continues to be the sweetheart of the whole A8 line. And beyond that, one of the biggest honeys in the bigger-is-better luxury class.
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