The relatively well-equipped S8 Quattro costs significantly less than either the base Quattroporte or the S63 AMG, and it also burns a smaller hole in your wallet when you pull in for a pit stop. At an observed 12 mpg, the Audi consumes fuel at an alarming rate, but it's still less thirsty than the Maserati and the Mercedes, both of which achieved a paltry 10 mpg.
Inside, the AMG-equipped S-class shouts luxobarge rather than sport sedan. Apart from minor trickeries such as rubber-studded chrome pedals and multiadjustable seats that hiss like a cobra in hug-me setup, the S63 projects an overall feeling of overt opulence. There's wood and chrome and leather aplenty, but unfortunately the combined analog and digital instruments have a certain RadioShack touch, and the ergonomics are more Motorola-bizarre than iPod-logical. In addition, the stability-control switch is well-hidden, and the shift-mode selector has migrated about as far away from the gear lever as possible. True, you can have state-of-the-art stuff such as night vision, radar-controlled Distronic Plus, and sophisticated voice control, but in terms of beneath-the-skin driver appeal, it's all about the vocal eight-pot engine.
The Quattroporte's cabin is emphatically Italian and radically emotional--which is both good and bad. The interior is tasteful, reasonably spacious, and quite well put together. Even when fitted with a questionable blend of pale Tanganyika wood and apricot-over-oatmeal leather, the car oozes class. Everything you touch feels well-crafted: the chrome shift paddles with the latex-lined flip sides, the gear lever with the raised brass trident, the wood and leather steering wheel, and the heavy, solenoid-operated door handles. But ergonomically, the Maserati is confusing: its slow navigation system seemingly dates back to Caligula, the power-seat controls are difficult to master, the column stalks have been forced upon the brand by parent Fiat, and an electric parking brake automatically engages when you cut the engine. At 15.9 cubic feet, the Quattroporte's trunk can't match the more generous reservoir of the S63 (19.8 cubic feet), but it beats the S8 (14.6 cubic feet). And the car from Italy is the only one that can be ordered with a choice of two trim packages. The Executive GT, which we drove, includes even more leather, Alcantara, and wood, plus rear picnic tables and ventilated massage seats. The Sport GT boasts twenty-inch wheels, drilled brake discs, and a tauter suspension.
The Audi impresses with top-grade materials, impeccable fit and finish, and the least irritating ergonomics. Airy and spacious, the S8 is let down by comparatively hard sport seats and a ho-hum mix of brushed aluminum and dated glossy carbon-fiber trim. The shift paddles are a little too small and a little too close to the hub, passive safety isn't up to the standard set by the S-class, and ride comfort in dynamic mode varies between harsh and brittle. Whereas the Quattroporte has a sporty heart in a warm, welcoming wrapper, the S8 is a cool workstation that relies more on cold efficiency than on mere talent. This is an extremely competent vehicle--it executes, it performs, it delivers. But in its fundamental approach to life, it is a printer, not a painter.