Certain cars are immortalized on film, such as James Bond's white Lotus Esprit, Lt. Frank Bullitt's '68 390 GT Fastback or even the Lamborghini Countach in The Cannonball Run (along with the car's jumpsuit-wearing vixen drivers, naturally). What happens when a Gen X-er sees a black '70s Trans Am on the road? It's not a Trans Am, it's "Bandit's car."
Such should be the case for the Audi S8, one of the "hero" cars, as director John Frankenheimer calls them, from the 1998 film, Ronin*. Starring Robert DeNiro, Ronin is a highbrow action movie that features some of the best car chases ever filmed. At the beginning of the movie, wheelman Larry (actor Skipp Sudduth) is asked what kind of car he needs for an upcoming mercenary mission and he replies, "Something very fast. Audi S8, something that can shove a bit."
But that's not all. A stock S8 isn't fast enough for Larry, so he also requests that the car be equipped with a dual-tank nitrous system. This black S8 is then used to escape, and later chase, the apparent bad guys. In the process, Larry has the car doing lurid four-wheel slides in Paris, blasting full-throttle on the narrow back streets of Nice and fitting given the S8's all-wheel drive catching big air off dirt humps.
The Audi is K-O'd by the middle of the movie, reduced to a bullet-riddled hulk during a gunfight, but it's enough to achieve movie martyrdom. After driving an identical Brilliant Black S8 (no nitrous, though) for a week, we expected that some people would identify the car not as an S8, but as "the car from Ronin." This did not happen. In fact, motorists were completely ignorant of the car and its abilities. It would seem people saw the S8 as just another black executive sedan plying the Los Angeles freeways.
The S8 is the high-performance version of Audi's flagship A8 luxury sedan. Previously on sale in Europe, 2001 marks the first time that the S8 is offered in North America. As testosterone-injected over-300-hp luxury sedans go a group that includes the BMW M5, Jaguar XJR, Mercedes-Benz E55 and S55 the S8 is the most understated. Working off the A8, a car that has looked virtually the same since its introduction in 1997, Audi has made only subtle exterior changes. Dual exhaust tips, bigger wheels, a small badge on the front grille and rear decklid, and aluminum outside mirrors are the only identifiers available. Blink and you'll miss it.
While those looking to show off will be disappointed in the S8, others will find understated presence to be one of the car's strengths. Subtlety means reduced attention from vandals, wannabe racers in tricked-out Civics and even the local constable. It is like having an anonymous e-mail account; nobody knows who you are and nobody bothers you.
Teddy Roosevelt would like the S8. Backing up the "speak softly" exterior is a "big stick" of an engine. Based on the 40-valve 4.2-liter V8 from the A8, the S version is modified for increased output. Changes include optimized intake paths, a two-stage variable intake manifold, more aggressive camshafts, a low-friction valvetrain and a freer-flowing exhaust system. These changes boost a regular 2001 A8's power from 310 horsepower and 302 pound-feet of torque to 360 hp at 7,000 rpm and 317 lb-ft at 3,400 rpm.
Like the A8, the S8 comes with a standard five-speed automatic with the Tiptronic sequential-shifting feature, as well as an intuitive shifting program and hill detection capability. Power is routed to all four wheels via Audi's quattro permanent all-wheel-drive system. This is the car's key attribute, as AWD can't be found on any other car in this class. For extra grip and stability in wet conditions, the S8 is the car to get.
While the Audi is harnessed to major-league horsepower, the relatively small displacement of the engine, its associated amount of torque and the extra powertrain inefficiencies of the all-wheel-drive system prevent the S8 from posting stellar acceleration numbers. Zero-to-60 mph can be achieved in 6.2 seconds, and the quarter-mile passes by in 14.6 seconds at 97 mph. For comparison, the S55's 5.5-liter V8 makes 354 hp and 391 lb-ft of torque. During testing, we found the S55 posted slightly better acceleration numbers than the S8. Even faster is BMW's 394-hp M5, capable of 0-to-60 in 5.3 seconds.
While more torque would be appreciated, the S8 is still fast enough for any real-world situation. Need to pass a dawdling minivan on the highway? No problem. Mash the throttle and the S8 smartly downshifts. The tach needle zings to the big numbers on the dial, and the S8 rushes forward. Even with four adults aboard, the S8 doesn't feel labored. Keep the throttle planted, and the car keeps accelerating to speeds worthy of a World's Scariest Police Chases video. Top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph. You know, there's never an autobahn around when you need one.
In the more typical American environment of city streets, the S8 isn't quite as sharp. The car can occasionally be tardy in responding to throttle inputs, and the driver must wait until the tachometer has risen into the midrange to gain maximum acceleration. The exhaust note is muted, leaving the sound of the engine as the primary aural stimulator. Hearing a V8 rev to 7,000 rpm is certainly special, but the final payoff isn't as enjoyable as a big American V8's barrel-chested roar.
The transmission is nearly flawless, providing smooth and quick shifts. The Tiptronic mode can be accessed either by moving the shifter to a separate gate and then pushing the lever forwards or backwards, or by using the steering wheel-mounted buttons. Tiptronic isn't needed for normal driving, but it does come in handy when driving on curvy canyon roads that require frequent shifting.
Used for such occasions, the S8 displays a level of athleticism unexpected for a luxury sedan. Some of the credit goes toward the A8-platform's aluminum body structure. The S8 checks in at 4,068 pounds, lighter than the S55. But lightness isn't the sole reason. To increase the car's performance envelope, Audi equips the S8 with a lowered ride height, 30 percent stiffer spring rates, 40 percent more compression damping for the shocks and thicker antiroll bars. It also comes with 18-inch Avus-style wheels with 245/45ZR18 tires.
There is a marked difference in handling characteristics between the A8 and S8. In our Super Luxury Sedan Comparison Test, an A8 placed fourth out of five cars. One attribute we disliked was the car's overly soft suspension, commenting that, "Through the canyon road part of our test loop, [the A8] leaned and swayed, and mid-corner bumps weren't dealt with in a prompt fashion."
The S8 is vastly superior. When asked to boogie on back roads, the S8 responds more like a midsize sport sedan than a luxo-cruiser. The body is well controlled, and the wider tires give the car better ultimate grip, as well as a quicker steering response. The quattro system inspires confidence, or at least as much confidence as one can have while flinging a near-$80,000 car along a narrow road at high speed.
Entered a corner too hot? Braking is handled by upgraded ABS-equipped Brembo four-piston calipers and vented discs at each corner. The S8 feels secure when asked to reduce high speeds, but some of our editors commented that the brake pedal has excessive travel upon initial application. During testing, we found the S8 stops from 60 mph in 128 feet. It is nice to know that the S8 comes standard with Audi's electronic stabilization program (ESP). This system continually monitors the conditions of the car and intervenes when necessary to help reduce the chance of a dangerous skid or spin. During our testing, we found the ESP to work as advertised, though it will never allow the car to overcome the laws of physics. Yank the wheel at 90 mph, and you're on your own. Fortunately, the S8 comes with front, side and head-protecting side curtain airbags, should you need them.
On broken city pavement, the S8's sport-tuned suspension does an adequate job of absorbing harsh impacts. This Audi can be used as a daily driver if its owner so chooses. There are only a few S8-specific changes, such as the sport seats and the polished doorsills, but not much is needed for the A8 cabin. Audi's big sedan boasts meticulous detailing, solid switchgear and quality materials. Our test car came equipped with the luxury Alcantara and Leather Trim package. Most of us liked the use of the Alcantara upholstery, but the $3,500 asking price made the remaining editors balk.
The S8 possesses fantastic nighttime illumination. Every possible switch, cranny and bin is given a red hue. In the daytime, one can admire the premium seat stitching and the modern metallic highlights. The front seats provide excellent comfort and adjustment, four memory positions and firm bolstering to keep occupants snug during spirited driving. The trunk is huge, and it can hold a maximum of 18 cubic feet of luggage. Major options include a navigation system of limited usefulness, parking assist, heated front seats and a Premium package with heated rear seats, a power rear sunshade, manual side shades and an expandable ski sack.
There are a few negatives associated with the interior. Rear accommodations aren't very generous, as the seat is tailored for just two outboard passengers. Legroom and foot room are only adequate. More room can be gained in the A8 L, but the S trim isn't offered on this extended wheelbase model. The Audi also suffers from mediocre interior storage availability and a nearly worthless front cupholder. We also noticed that our test car had a number of rattles in the doors and a squeaky driver's window. Whether these build issues are associated just with our test car is pure conjecture, but it certainly doesn't speak well for such a premium vehicle.
With a $74,775 base price, the S8 is cheaper than the S55 and about the same as the M5, E55 and XJR. Backed by the Q-ship exterior and quattro system, the S8 holds the advantage when stealth is desired or when the clouds grow dark and brood. But when the more significant aspects of high-performance luxury sedans are considered power, luxury features and handling the S8 is outclassed. This car will satiate most needs, but if you want the best, you should look elsewhere.
* Ronin is available on VHS, DVD and laserdisc. If you get the chance, check out the special features of the DVD. Director John Frankenheimer gives running commentary, allowing car and movie enthusiasts to learn more about the filming of the spectacular stunts and chase scenes.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Let me say right off the bat that if I were A) extremely wealthy and B) still living in New England, I'd have an S8 sharing garage space with various other objects of my automotive lust, such as a '67 427 Corvette roadster and a new SLK32 AMG.
For years, Audis have been getting raves for their interiors, and the flagship S8 is no exception. The cabin of this car is incredible in terms of how luxurious and well-finished it is. Our tester had the optional Alcantara trim (which I think used to be called suede) generously fitted nearly everywhere, even the inside of the rear center armrest's storage compartment. Of course, leather and wood are lavished throughout, as well if business-jet purveyors Gulfstream or Lear were in the business of making automobiles, I imagine their interiors would resemble this Audi's.
But the S8 didn't just "wow" me with its fancy interior. It seems that the prodigious power that flows out of the engine bay and to the wheels is limitless; the S8's acceleration curve doesn't appear to level off, even when the throttle is punched at already supra-legal velocities. And this car can also make time when the road gets twisty; the S8 remained unruffled when hustled on canyon roads. The quattro all-wheel drive doesn't just help this car stick in the curvy stuff either. Past experience back East shows it to be a great asset in foul-weather driving conditions.
The overall effect is that this fairly large (nearly 2 tons riding a 113.4-inch wheelbase) luxury car feels more like a smaller sport sedan when pressed. My only gripe is that the steering feel is too light this being the performance version of the A8, I expected more weight in the steering wheel.
Lastly, I love the clean, strong yet understated looks of the S8. Some of my colleagues may think it's dated, but I say it's timeless and can't imagine how Audi will improve its looks come next generation.
OK, so given that I now live in sunny, dry southern California, would I still pick the Audi over the BMW 740i Sport and the Mercedes-Benz S55 AMG? Over the Benz, yes, as that car is nearly $20,000 more and has that confusing COMAND system. Against the 7 Series? That's tough. I like that car a lot, so I guess I'd have to drive the two back-to-back. Sounds like a special assignment to me.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
When I began this prestigious line of work, one of my first assignments was to participate in a super luxury sedan comparison test (not exactly a trial by fire, but I had to cover the Detroit Auto Show a couple of weeks later and that made up for it). Even then, I realized that the Audi A8 didn't quite measure up to its German, or even Japanese, competitors. It lacked that silky heft and polish that are absolute prerequisites for a sedan that costs at least twice my annual income. Plus, its looks are as nondescript as those of Minnie Driver.
The S8 is, undoubtedly, biased more toward sport than luxury. There's a lightness and grace to its movements, with suspension modifications, pudgier tires and power to all four wheels. This translates into confidence to tempt you to dare the law of physics and good sense on a serpentine mountain road. Its welterweight but precise steering and aluminum structure belie its 4,068-pound curb weight.
There is plenty of kit to keep you entertained, but the S8 has too many buttons that look alike, especially when they glow red at night, confusing the driver. At least they look impressive. I had to take some relatives to the airport. They were suitably impressed with its suede-lined cabin, but noted that rear seat room was lacking. And they made snarky comments about all the rattling in and around the interior.
The greatest factor on how I measure the worthiness of a super luxury sedan is that I ask myself the question, would I sell my soul to own this car? For a BMW 750iL, well, hand me the pen, Man With A Pointy Beard. For a Mercedes S55, I'm having my lawyer (who, coincidentally, also has a pointy beard) review the terms and conditions. Sadly, in the case of Audi's flagship sport luxury sedan, I most certainly would not.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Audi's flagship S8 is a raging luxury car bargain. How can that be, when our test sample crested the $70,000 barrier? Simple. It offers more than the competition for less. And the competition in the super-luxury class is stout, indeed. The S8 is elegant, quick, luxurious and composed at speed, offering aluminum construction and quattro all-wheel drive where BMW, Lexus and Mercedes have none.
Most amazing is how incredibly well the S8 handles twisty canyon roads. A few suspension tweaks and fatter, stickier rubber transform the marshmallowy A8 into a raging corner-carver. Hard on the brakes, dive bomb into a hairpin after using the steering wheel-mounted shifter controls to grab second gear. Accelerate at the apex and quattro literally clings to the blacktop, slingshotting the large luxo-sedan out of the turn and onto the straight, all 360 horses galloping heartily for the next curve.
Unfortunately, imperfect steering robs the S8 of handling perfection. It is a tad overboosted, mumbles about the road surface and suffers severe kickback in bumpy turns. But the meaty wheel is nice to grip and is easy to spin for parking in town. Those accustomed to soft-riding Audis may be chagrined to learn that the S8 has been tightened up considerably, though it still absorbs road irregularities better than a Mercedes-Benz S55 AMG.
Inside, typically rich materials are employed in a beautifully laid-out cabin. The sport seats in the S8 represent a model of orthopedic perfection, though I'd skip the pricey Alcantara inserts for the standard leather. Our test car, with just more than 10,000 miles showing on the clock, rattled and squeaked like a Chevy Cavalier rental not expected from Audi or for this kind of money.
But, as one of my colleagues pointed out, that could have been due to its hard life at the hands of wonks like us. Let's sum up this way: With better steering and more distinctive styling, the S8 would become my favorite at this price point, and I'd forget all about the BMW 740i Sport.
System Score: 6.5
Components: We gotta say it right up front, folks: For a car in this price range, this is one mediocre sound system. Let's not be so quick to blame Bose, though, whose name appears on the faceplate. Remember that the automaker often comes to the stereo manufacturer with defined limitations, be they budget, time, space or design considerations. This Bose system might very well be hamstrung by such constraints. It certainly doesn't hold a candle to recent offerings we've heard from Bose, some of them in vehicles less than half the price of this Audi S8.
Let's start with the speakers. The S8 offers dual 4.5-inch subs along the back deck. OK, a good beginning perhaps, but in a vehicle this large, with such a voluminous trunk, will such small woofers cut it? These are coupled to a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the very bottom of the rear doors and, I mean, the very bottom. Because of poor placement, these speakers are never given a fighting chance to produce good sound. The same situation holds true in the front doors, with an identically sized pair of drivers aimed at the floor. A pair of 1.5-inch tweeters helps the scenario in front a little, but overall the speaker placements in this vehicle leave something to be desired.
Things get better on the electronics side of the equation. Audi and VW have long offered some of the more ergonomically friendly head units on the market, and this one is no exception. One feature stands out here: The system boasts not one, but two CD players a single-disc player in-dash and a six-disc changer in the trunk. This gives the user ultimate flexibility and ease of use. The head unit also offers a mid tone control, a large meaty volume knob and a full array of features (random, scan and the like), all laid out in a user-friendly topography that's the essence of simplicity and class. All the more of a shame, then, that the speakers don't measure up to the promise of this head unit.
Performance: It's just not very good. Can we say it more plainly? Specifically, female vocals honk and whistle, stereo imaging is poor due to the aforementioned speaker placement, and percussion lacks attack and resilience. Also, there's this annoying brassiness in the upper midrange that wears thin pretty quickly. As a result, acoustic strings are strident and screechy, and horns blaze rather than blare. This system seems overtaxed by the size of the vehicle in which it resides.
Best Feature: Two CD players
Worst Feature: Poor sound quality for the bucks
Conclusion: In doing our research for this article, we contacted Bose Corporation directly to get the correct speaker sizes for this system. Bose told us that the system in the S8 is the same as the system in the A6, a smaller car costing more than $20,000 less. As we suspected, it would seem that Audi placed some cost limitations on Bose. Whatever the behind-the-scenes machinations that went into placing this system into this car, it doesn't work as well as it might. For a car in this price range, you expect the sound system to kick major booty. Certainly the offerings from Mercedes, Volvo, BMW and the rest would argue this point effectively. Instead, the Audi system calls attention to itself by its mediocrity. It's neither great nor horrible, but in a car this pricey, most consumers will want something more. After all, a Lexus LS 430 costs thousands less and offers a Mark Levinson sound system that blows this one into the weeds.