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In the Autoblog Garage: 2007 Audi S8

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This edition of "In the Autoblog Garage" is brought to you by the letter S and the number 8. Alone, each is just another mundane alphanumeric character. When positioned next to each other on a vehicle bearing Audi's interlocking rings, however, they turn into something very special. The character pair becomes shorthand for 5.2 liters, 10 cylinders, 450 horses, 398 ft.-lbs., 4.9 seconds, 155 miles per hour, and $110,000+ in the case of the Daytona Grey Audi S8 tester that had been deposited in my driveway. Yep, it was going to be a pretty good week.

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There are times when more simply means more, and others when more means better. The S8 is is the rolling embodiment of both philosophies, cramming in just about every feature Ingolstadt has to offer, while somehow making it seem entirely rational -- appropriate, even -- at the same time. One of the best things about Audi's über-sedan is that to the untrained observer, it's just a standard-wheelbase A8. Why is this good, you ask? Because the S8 is the ultimate sleeper as a result. Those who recognize it for what it is generally make eye contact and nod approvingly, understanding what it is that's before them. They're the ones who know better. Some stoplight denizens are less respectful, tossing sheepish looks at the "rich dude" lined up next to them. They're the ones who rev their engines aggressively, only to be wearing looks of shame as they stare straight ahead at the next stoplight, having been utterly humiliated by a conservative-looking 4,586-pound sedan. Looks, you see, are very deceiving, and the S8 has the means at its disposal to make examples of those who underestimate it.

The visual differentiators worn by the S8 are subtle but unmistakable. For starters, red-trimmed S8 badges adorn the trunklid and the grille, whose vertical elements are dressed in chrome. The door handles are also accented with the shiny stuff, and the rearview mirrors are given a satiny metallic finish. The car's nose sports a pair of honeycomb-trimmed intakes under the headlamps and an ever-so-slight lip spoiler finishes off the bottom. Small V10 badges sit aft of the front wheel wells and when you head rearward, quad exhaust tips stick out through the rear bumper cutouts. The S8's standard rolling stock consists of 20" seven-twin-spoke wheels wrapped in 265/35R20 rubber, but our tester was still wearing its winter kicks despite spring being in full swing. The wheel design was the same, but they were 19 inches in diameter, instead. A peek through the spokes reveals the S8 logo on the front brake calipers. The rest of the car's outward appearance is pure A8 -- understated elegance infused with athleticism. Think of an NFL linebacker in an expensive tailored suit and that's the profile the S8 cuts as it drives by: classy, but muscular.

Opening the door presents you with a case study in how to design a proper cabin. If you're part of the club that feels Audi has the best interiors going right now, the S8 does absolutely nothing to diminish that belief. To the contrary, it reinforces it. The tester was outfitted with the optional full leather upgrade, meaning just about every conceivable surface was covered in beautifully-stitched hides, including the door panels (which also had Alcantara accents), center console, and the dashboard. Two-tone black-and-silver seating with contrast stitching added some pizazz, and passengers almost unanimously commented favorably on the Alcantara headliner. Speaking of passengers, the S8 is technically a 5-place sedan, but for practical purposes it's a four-seater. The backseat is set up with a pair of buckets separated by a flip-down armrest containing the car's first aid kit and a pair of cupholders. A fifth passenger can take that middle spot when the armrest is stowed (there's a belt, after all), but it probably wouldn't be fun for any extended period of time, especially having to straddle the transmission tunnel.

After settling into the very comfortable driver's seat, gently pull the door shut and the car's power door close assist (part of the tester's Premium Package) does the rest. A meaty 3-spoke steering wheel with paddle shifters faces the driver, and beyond that, the S8's instrument cluster stands ready with the basics -- speedo, tach, temp, and fuel gauges. The uninterrupted dash is accented with carbon fiber and aluminum inlays, as is the center console. There's no need to wield the trademark switchblade key, as the Premium Package turns it into a full-fledged keyless fob. Simply hold down the brake, press the engine start button on the center console, and the car comes to life. The gauges light up, and in the middle of the instrument panel, a section of carbon fiber flips open to reveal the S8's LCD screen. A secondary MMI/information display between the two primary gauges also makes its presence known.

A number of buttons populate the center console area, and though they all look similar, the arrangement's logical and they're well-labeled. The linchpin to everything is Audi's MMI, which is given the prime real estate in the middle. Superior to BMW's iDrive, the controller's made up of a dial surrounded by four buttons, each of which corresponds to menu selections shown in the corners of the primary LCD display. It's easy to get the hang of, and menu navigation quickly becomes second nature. There are nice touches, too, as some features like the radio tuner get popped onto the LCD inside the gauge cluster was well, allowing you to change channels or songs without having to look over at the middle of the IP. The model is repeated on the climate controls. Driver and passenger each get their own thermostat dials, which actually have MMI-type functionality. For example, twisting the dial will change the selected temp by default, but pressing the button with the fan icon changes the dial's focus, and spinning it increases or decreases the fan speed (the LCD screen automatically reflects what your doing, too, making your actions crystal clear). The MMI system is used to control and adjust everything from audio and phone configuration to navigation and suspension settings. While some of you surely have an aversion to these comprehensive in-car GUIs, Audi's is the class of the bunch.

As entertaining as the in-car theatrics at startup are (the B & O tweeters rising from the dash never failed to elicit oohs and ahhs), they're just a sideshow to the main event as the 5.2L V10 growls to life, emitting a techno-metal soundtrack that you never want to turn off. When you succumb to the urge to goose the throttle, baffles in the mufflers snap open, making the the exhaust music even more sonically exciting. For extra fun, pull into the nearest parking garage and do this indoors. You'll give yourself goosebumps. By now, the car has already adjusted its active suspension in accordance with whatever setting's been chosen. If it's nighttime and you parked facing a wall, the headlights let you see this movement firsthand.

After popping the car in reverse to back out and then slipping the Tiptronic's shifter into drive, the S8 shows that it does the luxury car thing exceedingly well, cruising silently along at neighborhood speeds. The cabin, with all the windows shut and sunroof closed, is as serene as a library staffed by pistol-packing librarians. Breaking the silence is easy thanks to the optional (and expensive) Bang & Olufsen audio system. The 1000-watt fourteen-speaker rig is better-sounding than most home systems, and when combined with the Audi Music Interface, which provides true iPod integration via the MMI, it offers one of the most complete musical experiences of any car on the market.

Sliding the shifter down one more notch into Sport mode sets the stage for music of a different sort. Left alone there, the transmission will hold gears longer, waiting to shift until the redline approaches. You can also pick your own shift points with the paddles. The sound coming from the engine compartment as this goes on is worth turning off the stereo and opening the windows. Turn onto a long highway on-ramp, and the direct-injected, Lamborghini-sourced 5.2L V10 gets going with a snarl that builds into a guttural bellow as mechanical magic happens all they way up to 7,000 rpm. Stay on the throttle and the landscape bordering the roadway becomes a blur, zipping by at a pace as frenetic as the goings-on underhood. Any doubt that the car is capable of reaching its electronically-governed top speed is vaporized as you watch the speedometer needle move clockwise at an unexpectedly rapid and steady clip. The S8 hurtles forward like a bullet train, totally composed, never wanting for power. Traction is not a problem thanks to the quattro AWD, and the car feels very balanced. In the end, the rational part of you simply takes over and you heel the beast under your right foot. Enlisting the car's massive brakes (15.2" discs in front, 13.2" in back) halts the S8's forward motion quickly and without drama.

Big cars like this are supposed to spoil you with comfort, but we never expected it to be so much fun to drive. The torquey, responsive V10 is always ready to play, and the car's gee-whiz air suspension keeps it composed at all times without ever resorting to harshness, even in the dynamic mode. The S8's a snap to drive, and its features are easy to use thanks to the sensible MMI that ties so many of them together. Other nice touches abound, too, like ambient lighting in the cabin, approach lighting in the door handles and a power rear sunshade. The trunk is just huge, and for all the performance the car dishes out, it still got a completely reasonable 15 mpg over the week it spent with us. The Audi S8 is the whole enchilada: awesome performance, bona-fide luxury, and understated class. At $110,920 as tested, it's worth every single penny.

All Photos ©2007 Alex Núñez / Weblogs, Inc.

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