The latest Audi S8 is a fantastic blend of luxury, sportiness and capability, wrapped in an understated body that's perfect for flying (very, very quickly) under the radar.
There are a few schools of thought when it comes to big, expensive luxury sedans. Some want ostentatious luxury — styling that wows and announces your arrival before you've rolled down a window. Others want subtlety — the ability to navigate traffic without causing a stir, flying under the radar while barreling down a highway at superlegal speeds. The Audi S8 definitely falls into the latter category.
Rolling past crowds in Daytona Gray Pearl with titanium-finish matte wheels, the massively powerful sport sedan gets no second looks. Aside from the big wheels, the conservative-looking S8 gives away none of its formidable abilities, but slide behind the wheel, fire up the rumbling, boosted V-8 engine and you're going to smile — you're driving one of the world's best stealth fighters. There have been some minor styling and color updates for the 2015 model year (see the changes from 2014 to 2015 here), but the S8 mostly carries over from its last major update in 2012.
Exterior & Styling
As has been the case with Audi sedans for a few decades now, if you like the way one looks, you'll like them all. The proportions, the creases, the look of the headlights, grille and taillights — from the tiny A3 to the big A8L, they all look nearly identical except for their size. Thankfully, the look is still classy, and the bigger each car in the lineup the better the simple lines and arching roofline appear.
New for 2015 are some updated LED headlights, a slightly revised grille, new taillights and quad oval tailpipes. You have to park a 2015 next to a 2014 to spot any differences, but seeing as how the look is still relatively fresh and attractive, there's little to complain about. It should be noted that the S8 comes only in the shorter-wheelbase version of the A8; the longer A8L with its extra backseat legroom doesn't get the sporty S treatment.
How It Drives
Perhaps the best aspect of the big S8 is the car's easy tractability. It's a big boulevard cruiser when you want it to be, cushy and smooth with highly boosted steering, muted exhaust rumble and a firm yet completely comfortable ride. Push a couple of buttons and switch everything into Dynamic mode, though, and you suddenly have a totally different animal: loud and blisteringly quick, with stronger steering effort required, the S8's sporty ride in Dynamic mode will knock your kidneys loose over bumps; its throttle sensitivity transforms the S8 into a muscle car. A refined muscle car, to be sure, but the speed at which the car responds and the brutality with which it accelerates make the S8 one of the most fun big sedans in the world.
It does have company, however: Other big, fast sedans like the Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG and BMW B7 Alpina are worthy challengers. If you like your luxury British-flavoured, there's the Jaguar XJR. All three have similar missions: big bucks, lots of luxury, understated looks and massive power. All handle just as well as the S8, featuring their own adjustable suspensions. The biggest difference is perhaps the availability of long-wheelbase versions for the Jaguar and BMW — something you can't get on the Audi or Mercedes-Benz.
The S8 is powered by Audi's twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V-8, the same motor that can be found under the hood of the Bentley Flying Spur, though in this application it makes 520 horsepower. Unlike the Bentley applications, the response from the Audi V-8 here is instantaneous; there's no lag between pressing the accelerator and forward motion. The power courses through an eight-speed automatic transmission to all four wheels via Audi's standard quattro all-wheel-drive system.
With that much power on tap, you never have to worry about highway passing or impromptu stoplight drag races — what you do have to worry about is all that power and the quiet refinement of the S8's interior combining to lure you into driving at speeds well in excess of the legal limit without realizing it. Some powerful cars are merely quick; the Audi is both quick and fast, able to cruise at triple-digit speeds all day long without complaint. It's a pity there's nowhere in the U.S. to truly (legally) experience what this autobahn-focused luxury cruiser can do, short of a racetrack.
Despite its formidable motor, the S8 is outgunned by all three competitors: The Benz makes 577 hp with its twin-turbo 5.5-liter V-8, while the BMW produces 540 hp with its twin-turbo 4.4-liter V-8 engine. The Jaguar goes a different route with forced induction, pumping 550 hp out of its supercharged 5.0-liter V-8. Its aluminum-intensive construction means it's also the lightest car in the group by a significant margin — 4,129 pounds versus the S8's 4,685 pounds. They're both lighter than the Benz or Bimmer, however, which tip the scales at more than 4,800 pounds each, mitigating any horsepower advantages.
Judicious use of the go pedal does create a little heartburn at the gas pump, but not much. The S8 is rated 17/27/20 mpg city/highway/ combined, and my week of testing — which included about 500 miles of highway driving — earned a 24 mpg result; not bad for such a big and powerful car. The competition is not as good: The S63 AMG is rated 15/23/18 mpg, the all-wheel-drive Alpina B7 comes in at 16/24/19 mpg, while the XJR is rated 15/23/18 mpg. It may not be as powerful as its competitors, but the S8's smaller motor pays off when it comes to fuel economy.
Debuting for 2015 is a new interior color combination that came on my test vehicle: Vermont Brown leather with "carbon twill copper" trim pieces. It's an interesting combination, with a carbon-fiber weave featuring copper threads to give it a golden hue in direct sunlight. I'm not sold on the combination of brown interiors and dark gray exteriors, but every German luxury automaker seems to think it looks good, as I've seen it on countless test cars in the past couple of years.
Everything is screwed together with the quality one expects from Audi — that is to say, flawlessly. Every button clicks with a precision other automakers still haven't successfully copied, and every knob turns with a heft and weight that makes you think there's a complicated mechanism at work behind the dash instead of just electronic bits. Nothing is touch-sensitive except an optional pad that can be used for inputting letters and numbers for the multimedia screens, if you want.
The seats are all-day comfortable, infinitely adjustable and provide plenty of room for four passengers (five is tight). It feels like a proper luxury car, done up in some sportier duds in keeping with the S8's more athletic mission.
The competition isn't too shabby, either; the Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG bests the S8's onboard electronics and design. If the S8 feels luxurious, the Benz feels downright opulent, with even better materials, design, craftsmanship and trim. The Jaguar XJR is equally opulent, with a style that mixes traditional British wood and leather with modern touches, like a disappearing rotary shifter, while the BMW displays that brand's rather Spartan aesthetic.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The S8 feels familiar inside, as Audi's MMI multimedia- and feature-control system has been around for a while now. The familiar configuration of the rotary selector knob surrounded by four buttons (corresponding to the four corners of the screen) is still one of the best systems around. It's easy to use without having to glance at the console and the buttons you intend to push, making it a simple system to operate while driving. It's quick and intuitive and connects to mobile entertainment devices, like smartphones, quite easily.
The multimedia systems found in most of Audi's competitors offer similar functionality and connectivity, but the Audi maintains an advantage in usability and on-the-fly operation. The S8 and Alpina B7 both offer standard head-up displays; one is available on the S63 but not on the Jaguar. The Audi's is easy to use and clear even while wearing polarized sunglasses.
Cargo & Storage
Despite being a full-size luxury car, the Audi S8 does not have a spacious trunk. In fact, it's the smallest of the four competitors listed here, with just 13.2 cubic feet of space. Compare that with 15.2 cubic feet in the Jaguar, 16.3 cubic feet in the Mercedes-Benz and the comparably huge 17.7 cubic feet in the BMW, and you'll wonder why such a large car has so little room for your stuff. If you want to expand the cargo area by folding down the seats, well, you're out of luck there, too — of the four competitors, only the Mercedes-Benz offers a split-folding rear seat, and it's an option.
The S8 has not been crash-tested. Like all cars in this category, safety equipment is plentiful, high-tech and expensive, as not all of it comes standard even at the S8's lofty prices. It has a blind spot monitor system standard, as does the Jaguar, a feature that's an option on other vehicles. Like the rest of the pack, most of the S8's safety equipment comes in extra-cost option packages; my test car had a few, including a Driver Assistance Package, which added adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist and lane departure warning. It lacked Audi's night vision system, which uses an infrared camera to help the driver see oncoming threats in the dark. The Mercedes-Benz and BMW also offer such systems as options. To see all the S8's standard safety features, click here.
Value in Its Class
The Audi S8 starts at $115,825 including destination, for which you get a significant amount of standard equipment, including a full leather interior, navigation, 21-inch wheels and more. There are no extra-cost paint options, but your list of hues is rather boring — everything is gray, beige, white or black. The interior on my test car sported the Vermont Brown option, which automatically adds the Cold Weather Package and $6,250 to the sticker price.
The Driver Assistance Package adds $2,100, while the excellent Bang & Olufsen premium sound system adds another $6,300. Special 21-inch wheels ring in at a bargain $250, while sport exhaust tops things off with another $1,500 for a grand total of $132,225 for my test car. Build an S8 to your specifications here.
The S8's sticker price is actually less expensive than its competitors, making the Audi something of a bargain. The Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG starts where the S8 leaves off, with an entry price of $142,375 — fully $26,000 more than the S8. The Benz does beat the S8 in terms of amenities and luxuriousness, and offers options that can't be had on the Audi, like some serious backseat executive packages including massaging rear seats and built-in tables. Add all the options, and you'll spend more than $186,000 for an S63.
The BMW Alpina B7 is similarly expensive, starting at $129,250 for a short-wheelbase, rear-wheel-drive version. To compare it with the S8, though, one must opt for an all-wheel-drive model for $132,250. That car comes well-equipped with only a couple major packages of safety items to add. Tick every box, and it will top out at just more than $157,000.
The Jaguar is much more competitively priced, starting at $116,925 for a base model or $3,000 more for the XJR L. It already includes a premium Meridian sound system, but adding items like an adaptive cruise control package, a rear seat executive package and carbon fiber dress-up engine bits will bring the total for a loaded model up to $140,025. Compare all four competitors here.