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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By Royal Ford
August 5, 2001
Audi is an auto manufacturer that, just eight years ago, was on the ropes. From peak North American sales of 72,000 in 1985, its share of that market had fallen to just 12,000 in 1993. Quality problems and reports of dangerous and unpredictable
accelerations will do that to a car company. As Len Hunt, head of Audi North America, recently said of his company's earlier misfortunes, standing before a crushed bell curve graph depicting the peak and nadir (and subsequent rise again) of Audi
sales, officials were left wondering, "Who dropped the anvil on our sales history?" But Audi is back, with a revamped lineup of 4s, 6s, 8s, the TT Quattro, and its SUV/station wagon, the allroad. Sales through June of this year were 43,300 and the
company expects to approach 90,000 by year's end. Reestablishing its reputation for quality, emphasizing performance, designing some of the sharpest interiors and building the best all-wheel-drive system in the world will do that to a car company. The
A4s and A6s have led the rebirth; the TT has inspired it; the allroad broadened the offerings; and the A8 flagship - well, it hasn't been the best of sellers. To start with, it's expensive and, competing in the larger luxury sedan class with BMW, Jaguar,
Lexus, Infiniti, and Mercedes, it just didn't have the pizzazz to attract more than a couple of thousand buyers each year. Now, however, comes the S8, and while it won't sell anywhere near the numbers of the lesser digit Audis, it puts Audi on a
level playing field with the performance luxury sedan manufacturers. Yes, it's expensive - around $80,000. No, it does not make any bold fashion statement. Only the cognoscenti will know what the "S" badge means, or notice the lowered stance and
broad, nose-down look of the car from the front. And in terms of automotive physics, S does not necessarily equal AMG or M or even XJR. But Audi, with its combination of fine interior, wonderful ride, and plenty of power has found the right formula to run
with the BMW M5, the Jaguar XJR, and the Mercedes E55 AMG (my favorite performance sedan). I'm not saying you'll beat any of them in a race, but who races big luxury sedans? What you will find in the S8 is a smooth, comfortable, elegant automobile in
which you could cross America with style, speed, and ease. The trick was turned with subtlety - if you consider a revised intake manifold and cams coupled with a more free-flowing exhaust subtle. Audi has taken the aluminum-block-and-head V-8 engine
and managed to squeeze 360 horsepower and 317 lb.-ft. of torque from it. At those numbers, performance comparisons against the other big sedans become stats for only the most picayune of speed enthusiasts. This rig will get you where you want to go plenty
quickly. It's a big sedan that gets up to 60 miles per hour in less than 7 seconds. It boosts a power surge that starts early and seems to climb forever as the five-speed automatic lets the car run right up
close to the 7,000 rpm redline before each upshift. That's one bold automatic. I fault the transmission, however, on downshifts. Here, when you seek a quick downshift through a couple of gears, it seems to linger at the higher cruise as if it doubts
your intentions. Even using the Tiptronic buttons on the steering wheel for a manual downshift doesn't improve that sense of lingering doubt. But, again, not many folks are going to need quick downshifts as they head an S8 into a hairpin turn at high
speed. And anyway, it is definitely a sport sedan with which you can do some serious playing. Try the twisting climb and descent between Brattleboro, Vt., and Bennington, Vt. on Route 9. The drivers of smaller, seemingly quicker cars are left wondering
what just blew by them. And it's all done to the accompaniment of an exhaust tone that sounds part European performance car and part American muscle. The ride is smooth and supple straight ahead and wonderfully stiff in lane
anges and sharp corners. I've driven the E55 on highways and country lanes, and the XJR on the tracks at Pocono Speedway in Pennsylvania. The Audi is stiffer than either, holding flat in corners, yet that stiffness does not transmit into sharp shudders
on bumps or other road imperfections. Its suspension has been tuned from A8 standards with heftier antiroll bars and stiffer springs and shocks. It has individual suspension front and rear with links, coil springs, and antiroll bar up front and, in
the rear, unequal length control arms, coil springs, and antiroll bar. And don't forget, it's an all-wheel-drive car, making it more useful for those who want performance and luxury but who also need to get around in New England in the winter.
Inside, Audi manages to pull off understated luxury with leather and "suede" seats that are broad and firmly bolstered, birds-eye maple appointments, and a sophisticated control panel for audio and climate slanting back and down from center dash.
Heated seats all around, a power rear window shade, and side window shades are options that thicken the sense of entitlement. It is not as fast or as powerful as some of its competitors, but if somebody told me tomorrow that I had to drive a big sedan
on a quick cross-country haul, this is the car I'd choose.