Dsseldorf, Germany Before explaining the visual elements that distinguish the new Audi S8 from the A8, Filip Brabec, Audi product planning manager in the United States, observes, "Germans like things understated. Americans want flash." His assertion is that, whereas the previous S8 was totally in sync with German buyers, the new S8 falls at least partway between American and German tastes. Indeed, the new S version of Audi's A8 luxury liner is bolder, sportier, and more audacious. But it's still less so than its immediate competitors, which is either its failing or its appeal, or both.
The previous S8, sold in the States from 2001 to 2003, challenged all but the most dedicated Audi spotter, as its visual giveaways were limited to a slightly lower ride height; eighteen-inch wheels; and silver side mirrors. The new S8, by contrast, stands out from the current A8 in myriad ways. A series of vertical bars has been added to its grille-Brabec's last achievement, added just months before the design was finalized. The nose of the car is reshaped with a protruding chin punctuated by several air intakes; the trunk lid sports an integral spoiler; and, once again, the mirror housings are faux aluminum. There are special wheels, of course, twenty inches in diameter and wrapped in 35-series performance rubber.
The special treatment extends to the interior. Audi's top-spec leather covers the seats, in a choice of single or two-tone colors. The headliner is Alcantara synthetic suede. And buyers can spec carbon fiber trim for the dash, console, and door panels.
The most dramatic distinction, however, is under the hood, where Audi has installed its first-ever V-10 engine, adapted from the one in corporate sibling Lamborghini's Gallardo. Audi enlarges it from 5.0 to 5.2 liters and fits FSI gasoline direct injection. Such is the absurdity of the German horsepower race, however, that ten cylinders, 444 hp, and 398 lb-ft of torque still leave the S8 trailing rivals such as the BMW M5 (whose own V-10 is good for 500 hp) and the Mercedes-Benz S55 AMG (with 493 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque from its supercharged V-8).
For all the S8's changes, however, when we punch the engine-start button and pull away from the InterContinental hotel in downtown Dsseldorf, the overall effect is fairly muted. At startup, and trolling through the city, the V-10 is barely discernible from Audi's 4.2-liter V-8. The six-speed Tiptronic slips smoothly from one gear to the next, with none of the jerkiness of an auto-shifted manual. The steering is light and relaxed, despite being ten percent quicker off-center. The seats are more aggressively bolstered, but these easily could be the standard chairs.
Gliding onto the freeway that will take us out of the city, we get up to about 60 mph and, visuals aside, we could be driving a standard A8. Like any A8, of course, it's very nice. The interior is splendid to look at and touch. The controls are not terribly intimidating. Even the knob-and-screen controller, Audi's Multi Media Interface, is fairly logical, if still distracting. And the relatively lightweight aluminum structure means that, even when laden with all manner of luxury equipment, the S8 avoids the sense of asphalt-crushing deliberate movement that characterizes a BMW 7-series or, certainly, a Volkswagen Phaeton. It's not constantly reminding you of its hugeness.
Finally, we're clear of the city and traffic begins to thin out. We pass one of the most welcome road signs in all the world, the German autobahn's gray-and-white circle and slashes, signifying the end of the speed-restricted zone. We floor it. At last, the V-10 finds its voice, a deep baritone growl. The S8 jumps from 70 to 135 mph. It isn't the eye-widening, fingers-tightening-on-the-steering-wheel explosive rocket shot of an AMG Mercedes or an M-division BMW, but it is unmistakably faster than a standard A8. (Audi claims a 0-to-60-mph time of 5.0 seconds.) At 135 mph, the car is still pulling strongly, but unfortunately there's too much traffic to get much beyond that. The electronics that limit top speed to 155 mph will have to go untested. Slower cars pulling into the left lane do provide us with several opportunities to give the carbon-ceramic brakes a workout, and they prove progressive and confidence-inspiring, but U.S. cars won't get this option until the second year of production.
The autobahn speeds also show the subtle difference in the S8's suspension. Like all A8s, the S8's chassis features adaptive air springs and a choice of damping modes: comfort, automatic, and dynamic (firm), as well as a raised ground-clearance setting. In the S8, the default position (automatic) is firmer and the ride height approximately three-quarters of an inch lower. The changes make the chassis feel tensed, poised. Overall, the S8 drives like an A8 on high alert.
Another difference between the two is the S8's use of Audi's rear-biased Quattro all-wheel-drive system, first seen on the RS4. Instead of a standard torque split of 50/50, it sends 60 percent of the power to the rear wheels-until it detects slippage, when as much as 85 percent can go to the rear or 65 percent to the front. The rear bias is supposed to impart a rear-wheel-drive feel in hard cornering. We drove the S8 through a 40-mph slalom course, and it seemed to change direction a bit more eagerly than most Audis, which tend to ask too much of their front tires. (In case you're wondering, the V-10 adds about 70 pounds up front, but Audi partially compensates by moving the battery to the rear.) We really didn't feel much rear-wheel bias, however, on our drive through the flat farm country in northwest Germany.
With the new S8, Audi has done a lot more to make its largest S model something special. But the overall effect is still fairly subtle compared with other German supersedans. If you're judging by the numbers, the S8 is not your car. But buyers who appreciate a well-rounded package more than bragging rights may find the S8's subtlety to be a virtue.
Price: $95,000 (base, est.)
Engine: 5.2L V-10, 444 hp, 398 lb-ft
Engine: 5.2L V-10, 444 hp, 398 lb-ft