It’s a car capable of easily tackling any challenge thrown at it with grace and dignity.
It’s been a while since I last spent time with Audi’s divine S8. In fact, since I last sampled one, we’ve reviewed the Alpina B6 Gran Coupé from BMW, the Mercedes-Benz CLS63, and even Audi’s own RS7. However, the S8 is based on what I’d like to call executive perfection, the A8. Before it reaches the end of its product cycle, we decided to spend some time with it to see how it fares against the latest and greatest from the two other big Germans, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. I borrowed a 2015 Audi S8 quattro in Daytona Grey Pearl, stacked with about $15,000 worth of options, for a weeklong evaluation.
Firstly, rather than polarize you with questionable styling, Audi keeps things simple. The S8 doesn’t look overly different from the regular A8, save for some stylish wheels, S-model specific aluminum mirror finish, and some unique accent tweaks to the body. If it weren’t for the “S8” badges on the grille and rear decklid, the average bystander would not be able to tell that this is one of the most powerful super-sedans on the market today. The 21” wheels are wrapped in Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires, which are a great choice for anything performance-oriented. The S8 has LED lighting all around, with stunning headlights and interior accent lighting. The overall design of the car follows the rest of the Audi lineup, and is elegant but not exactly bold.
The S8 is an Autobahn burner; meant for triple-digit speeds all day long without batting an eye. The twin-turbocharged 4.0L V8 is capable of 100 km/h in just over three seconds, and does this with more grace than anything else on the market today. Exact numbers are 520 horsepower, and 479 lb-ft of torque available between 1,700RPM and 5,500RPM. Audi tells us that these are the figures, but there’s no doubt in my mind they are on the conservative side. Launching the car feels buttery smooth, but the S8 accelerates with a combination of confidence and composure that’s very different from its cousin, the RS7.
Power is sent to the wheels via the eight-speed automatic transmission sourced from transmission guru ZF. Audi could have implemented the S-tronic dual-clutch they’re known for, but the eight-speed is better at handling this much torque, and does a swell job at it. At no point will most drivers be able to notice a significant difference here – the transmission feels just like a dual-clutch unit with its quick and telepathic shift mannerisms. Like nearly everything else in Audi’s lineup, the S8 packs the legendary quattro all-wheel-drive system, which has a 40:60 torque split front/rear here.
The S8 is Audi’s flagship sedan (well, unless you count the über-rare A8L W12), and is the largest within the “S” family. When pushing the car around some twisty roads, it’s important to take this into account. It handles competently thanks to the electric steering but it won’t exactly inspire passion through its confidence. It feels very German and precise, but the steering lacks emotional feel. That being said, this same argument can be applied to literally every single one of the S8’s competitors. Audi offers their Drive Select system, which adjusts engine mapping, throttle response, transmission shift points, and steering effort. Everything from the adaptive cruise control and sport differential to the engine sound can be mapped to “Comfort” or “Dynamic”.
Oh yeah, and there’s the noise! The Audi S8 has a positively intoxicating exhaust note that surrounds you the second the “Engine Start” button is pressed. It’s a throaty rumble that’s unmistakably a V8, but the magic is in how it quiets down when the car is driven like a sedate cruiser. When you stomp on it in “Dynamic” mode, the S8 becomes a ferocious tiger with a menacing growl. If the gorgeous LED headlights don’t intimidate cars in front of you to get out of the way, the sound emitting from the S8’s tailpipes is certain to.
When all of the technical specifications have been rattled off, the Audi S8 really is a fantastic companion. Thanks to the full air suspension with adaptive dampers, the car rides beautifully – exactly how a super sedan should drive. It wallows around less than a Lexus LS F-Sport, feels more composed than a BMW 7-series, and matches the segment standard, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class in almost every way. Also, thanks to the huge 15.75” front rotors (14.37” in the rear), the S8 comes to a halt very quickly as well. Those who want more braking power can opt for carbon ceramics at a substantial premium. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the overall squeakiness of ceramic brakes, so I’m perfectly content with the regular setup.
Despite packing a serious beast of a motor, this big Audi isn’t as much of a gas guzzler as one would imagine it to be. Thanks to Audi’s Cylinder on Demand cylinder deactivation system, the S8 is surprisingly green. This setup shuts off four cylinders, essentially allowing the car to operate as a “V4” (no, not an I-4) when cruising down long highway stretches. Over some longer highway runs, I saw the S8’s economy display as low as 9.5L/100km. Of course, Cylinder on Demand doesn’t apply to everyday city driving. My average over two combined cycles was 13.5L/100km, and the 80L fuel tank will only accept premium 91-octane fuel.
At a base entry price of $132,200, the 2015 S8 already comes very well equipped and feels almost bespoke with the amount of luxury you get. Things like full Valcona leather, ambient lighting, illuminated door sills, and beautiful carbon-fiber dashboard trim are on board. The windows have double acoustic glazing for quietness, and the car hustles down the road with nary a noise. Our car was also equipped with the $7,000 Bang & Olufsen stereo (an absolute essential), a $1,700 Black Alcantara headliner, $2,500 for Audi Night Vision Assistant, and the Driver Assistant Package, which includes lane keeping assist and adaptive cruise control. The total sticker on our specific test car just exceeded the $141,000 mark.
Other than the magical powertrain, the most important bit in a flagship sedan is the interior, and the S8 does not disappoint in this category. The seats are 22-way adjustable, heated, ventilated, and pack massagers. Even the headrests are butterfly-style, reminiscent of flying business class on only the finest airlines. The dashboard is finished in leather with stunning carbon fiber on all of the bits including the shifter. The headliner and accents on the door panels have Alcantara, which also appears flawless. Considering the S8 is based on the short-wheelbase A8, rear legroom isn’t as generous as in the LWB version, but is still very adequate for hauling around four people in comfort.
Despite being the sport-oriented model, Audi has ensured that the S8 is finished with the most executive treatments that were only previously available in chauffeured vehicles. For instance, rear passengers are treated to full privacy using side window blinds as well as a full rear sunshade. The driver is able to adjust the front passenger seat without having to lean over, as well as align the passenger seat perfectly with the driver’s. There’s four-zone climate control so nobody can say “it’s too hot/cold in here”, and the system actually works very well. BMW and Mercedes-Benz offer massage systems, but I’ll argue that Audi’s system is the best in the segment. If only it didn’t shut off every twenty minutes or so…
Now, because the S8 is nearing the end of its product cycle, its flaws are relatively predictable. Audi’s MMI infotainment system is nearly perfect in operation, but the graphics have begun to look dated and tired. We’ve already seen the new MMI system in effect with the new A6 TDI we recently tested, along with the latest A3/S3 models. The MMI controls on the A8/S8 are located above the shifter, which is a bit counter-intuitive. Additionally, the shifter itself is nearly infuriating. It was initially considered so clever that Chrysler adapted a version of it into some of their products, but it’s confusing in operation and I found myself engaging either Neutral or Park when trying to shift from Drive to Reverse. The upcoming Q7 is a reasonable hint as to what the next A8’s shifter will look like.
The 2015 Audi S8 quattro is a mind-blowing car. It offers Teutonic driving dynamics, more comfort than nearly anything else this side of Bentley, a very functional interior, and best of all, a price tag south of $150,000 for this loaded example. On top of all of this, the S8 does its part to conserve fuel, essentially drawing the line in a segment known to produce exceptionally thirsty vehicles. It’s a car capable of easily tackling any challenge thrown at it with grace, dignity, and confidence. The immaculate German craftsmanship and elegant touches throughout the vehicle are not unnoticed, and go a long way in ensuring that the S8 is my pick of its segment.