First Drive: Audi S8

Dusseldorf, Germany – Robert De Niro had Audi fans in North America chomping at the bit when the S8 showed up in the 1998 movie Ronin, but they would have to wait until 2001 for the super-hot Q-ship finally landed here. The original S8 had the same 4.2 V8 as the A8, albeit massaged to 360-hp and rolling on larger 18-inch Avus wheels. Nobody ever called the first S8 tame, but outwardly the car wasn’t much different from a run-of-the-mill A8.

Audi won’t need Bobby Deniro to get the buzz out on their all-new uber-S. With a 450-hp 10-cylinder engine and absolutely mean-looking front fascia, the new S8 marks a significant change over the current A8 range, pushing the S-car envelope further than ever. There’s been plenty of excitement surrounding the new S8 since it made its surprise debut in Tokyo just a month ago.

Outwardly, the S8 exemplifies the S mantra. The look, though meaner than its A8 sibling, is still subtle and Teutonic. The car is graced with elements and kit now synonymous with the magic letter “S” at Audi- quad exhausts, an integrated spoiler at the rear, more defined sideskirts and a gray grille accented with chrome vertical ribs that Audi refers to as struts. It rolls on a new alloy wheel design lifted from the Le Mans quattro concept.

Other Audi S-cars, like the S4 and presumably the upcoming S6, share body enhancements with their S-line counterparts. However, with no S-line in the A8 range, the S8 gets a bespoke front bumper, one reportedly requested by American Audi dealers who thought the standard A8 bumper to be too tame for such a beast.

Under the hood beats a 5.2-liter V10 FSI, the first time such a configuration has been fitted within a four-ringed ride. Although Audi’s corporate cousin Lamborghini has been selling Gallardos with a non-FSI variant of the 10-cylinder for some time, this engine is all German- not that the DNA shared with its exotic cousin is to its detriment.

If the Lambo bloodline didn’t reel you in, perhaps 450 bhp and 398 ft lbs. of torque will make you take notice. Or maybe the visceral bark of the V10 will get your attention. At idle, the sound of the engine is so quiet it’s barely perceptible, but give it some throttle and it sings in a deep baritone, meaner than the 4.2 and angrier than the W12.

Still need more convincing? Audi suggests a 0-62 mph run will take you only 5.1 seconds. While we weren’t able to perform instrument testing, our first drive of the new S8 included a variety of driving conditions- from closed slalom course to around-town driving and the venerable Autobahn, where we were able to stretch its legs. At 60mph, mashing the throttle and dropping a cog or two will cause the car to hunker and emit a burbly growl under full throttle. Speed comes on more noticeably than in the super-smooth W12, and there’s an impressive amount of torque on hand even up in triple digits where we were able to explore on the nearby Autobahn. The S8 felt like it was just settling into a comfortable pace at 120mph, with clearly more to give and a highly stable ride.

Putting the power to the ground is Audi’s latest version of Torsen-derived quattro, benefiting from asymmetric torque distribution that places 40% of the power at the front of the car and 60% at the rear under normal circumstances. Under conditions where wheel slip is encountered, the new system can send up to 85% of available power to the rear and up to 65% to the front. This is the same version of quattro fitted in the new RS4, and it’s expected to filter down into the rest of the line over time.

Under normal circumstances, this change is hard to perceive. Pushed hard on the slalom, the S8 could be made to understeer less, though full-on oversteer on dry pavement requires manhandling, something we weren’t prepared to do in this large and expensive preproduction automobile. Had it been raining, or even snowing as the white-yet-dirty piles around Dusseldorf proved it’s prone to doing this time of year, experiencing the real beauty of the new 40:60 split would have been more forthright and easily attained.

A shorter ratio and progressive servo on the steering rack make for an experience that’s about as good as it gets on a front-wheel drive-based platform like the Audi D-chassis. It’s still not as communicative as a rear-wheel drive car that’s sending no power through the front, but it’s a satisfying experience nonetheless.

Like the original S8, this newest version is also fitted with a Tiptronic automatic transmission as the only gearbox choice. However, the version of the 6-speed unit in the S8 benefits from a lower final drive ratio of 4.055. Typical of Audi Tiptronics, Sport Mode is actually quite progressive; a quick flip of the gear selector, or better yet the steering wheel mounted aluminum paddles, will drop you into manual mode so that you can make those gear change decisions yourself. Once in manual mode, shifts are quite quick for a Tiptronic, though still not as satisfyingly fast as Audi’s twin-clutch DSG system offered on the TT and A3.

Connecting the car to the road are 265/35 series tires stretched over 20×9-inch versions of Audi’s handsome new split-spoke wheel, a design that’s becoming a signature element of the S line. A full-size spare complements this setup. Even better, these wheels will also be standard in the USA.

Audi will not be diluting the car by fitting smaller wheels for the U.S. market, nor will they dilute it by changing the handling or ride height. The S8’s newer and more aggressively sporting suspension utilizes the same four-link architecture at the front and trapezoidal link design at the rear as the A8, but at a lower ride height (by 20mm depending on mode). Audi began development by using the Air Suspension – Sport option from the A8. However, the shock absorbers, spring rates of the air springs and even the rubber mounts for the axles have all been firmed and tuned for better handling.

Like the standard A8 system, the suspension has Automatic, Comfort, Dynamic and Lift modes controlled via the MMI interface. Each mode reflects a more sport-minded program befitting the S8. The large Audi corners flat, with confidence-inspiring grip that bestows the already agile A8 with even more nimbleness.

Automatic mode is fine for normal to sporty driving, though flip it into Dynamic and the ride becomes appreciably flat. On-ramps to the Autobahn and dancing around cones in the closed-course slalom were met with equal aplomb.

Under that same hard cornering, the S8’s larger seat bolsters are also a welcome change – one of many that help differentiate the guts of this big S-car from a standard A8. For the driver, a new 3-spoke Sport steering wheel is similar to that of the wheel found in the S4, though this car’s great-looking satin aluminum backlit shift paddles are all-new.

Unique leather colors in Audi’s best Volcana leather will be offered including black, silver, black/silver combination, black/brown combination, and silver/gray combination. Alcantara suede will be standard on the S8 door panels, headliner and rear shelf. Accent trim will be of the gray birch wood variety, while carbon fiber will be optional.

Stand-alone options for the S8 will include adaptive cruise control, 4-zone climate control and the A8’s exclusive new Bang&Olufsen audio system. This fully digital offering is the first from the high-end Danish stereo manufacturer, including no less than 14 speakers, creating highly detailed sound imaging that can be focused for optimal listening for solely the driver, the front passengers, the rear passengers or the entire cabin. The system will be available to the American market as a $7,800 option. That’s not cheap, but if you’re in the market for this sort of car, then you’re already attuned to paying for quality.

There’ll be just one option package, known simply as the Premium Package. This will include heated rear seats, a ski sack, power trunk open and close, manual side and electric rear sunshades, optical parking system with rearview camera, power door close assist, satellite radio with either XM or Sirius service and Audi’s Advanced Key with keyless unlock and start.

First seen in Q7s on the show circuit, the rearview camera is a new addition to the A8 range, and this is therefore our first chance to play with it. Throw the gear selector in reverse and the MMI screen immediately goes to either a top view diagram of the car with zones for the electronic parking sensor system, or alternately can go to the camera mode. With the camera on, the A8 not only shows the view to the rear, it shows distance zones from the car in three levels of red marking distance from the car. Two yellow lines show the trajectory of the car and adjust as you turn the steering wheel. Need to back around two bikes and a basketball in a backwards driveway slalom course? This system makes that hardly a problem.

In addition to stand-alone options and the one package, Audi will offer several “Sold Order Only” options. Individual customers or dealers can select these features for a truly individual car, but they won’t be found on cars ordered for normal dealer allotments. These tantalizing considerations include rear seat electric lumbar adjustment, dual pane security glass, solar sunroof, carbon fiber trim, walnut/birch/sycamore wood trim, segment wood steering wheel/shifter and a full leather package.

Complementing the special interior colors will be several unique S8 hues, in addition to several standard A8 offerings. Offered on the S8 are Phantom Black Pearl Effect, Night Blue Pearl Effect, Silver Green Metallic, Ibis White, Light Silver Metallic, Quartz Gray Metallic and Daytona Gray Pearl Effect.

Like the top-of-the-line W12, the S8 is fitted with cool LED daytime running lights – the same, it appears, that Audi Sport has fitted to its successful A4 DTM racecar.

The S8’s dual-piston brakes at the front do an admirable job roping the car in from autobahn speeds and look handsome wearing the red and white S8 logo. Optional brakes with carbon-ceramic rotors, badged ‘Audi Ceramic’ on the caliper, offer improved performance and are less susceptible to heat fade or corrosion. The rotors are also claimed to last up to 120,000 miles. Unfortunately, these brakes won’t be available upon launch of the S8 for North America, though Audi is considering them for later in the 2007 or 2008 model year.

Audi sees a wide range of competitors for the S8. Among them are the BMW M5, M6 and 750is from BMW, as well as the Jaguar XJ-R and AMG equivalents of the Mercedes-Benz CLS and S-class.

S8s bound for America begin full-scale production in August 2006, with the first examples showing up in dealerships in October as 2007 model year vehicles. European S8 production will be slightly earlier, though no specific window was provided at the time of print. We can expect the S8 to be well-equipped for under $100,000, though it will be possible to option the car up into six figures.

Walking away from the car, it’s hard not to have fallen in love with the S8. If the original was far from tame, the successor is much further yet. From looks to capabilities, the newer car raises the bar and then some. Over dinner in Dusseldorf, the charming Audi Board Member in charge of Management and Finance, Rupert Stadler suggested one of Audi’s biggest tasks is building and maintenance of the Audi brand. Like the second generation A8 before it, the S8 may not be Audi’s top-seller, but like all good halo cars, it will certainly drive sales of many a lesser Audi and put big smiles on the faces of those who purchase one.

S8 and Gallardo. How do the V10s differ?

Throwing out terms like “de-tuned”, it might sound as if Audi simply runs a lesser engine control program, or made simple changes to the S8’s V10 engine to differentiate it from the Lamborghini. However, the truth isn’t really that simple and changes are more complex for reasons you might not expect. In fact, looking more closely at the A8’s V10, it seems de-tuned is a rather inappropriate way to describe the new mill.

A closer look at the two engines shows that the S8’s V10 is hardly the lesser of the two. Some might argue it’s actually the Gallardo that’s de-tuned, with smaller displacement and without FSI. Peer over the power curves of each car though, and you’ll see it’s more a factor that the engines have been optimized for two very different vehicles: a light mid-engined sports car with higher horsepower and more of a peaked torque curve versus a heavier grand touring sedan with gobs of torque.

In the case of the S8, the stroke is identical to that of the Gallardo at 92.8mm, though the engine’s bore has been increased by 2 mm from 82.5 mm to 84.5 mm, thus increasing displacement to 5204 cc over the Gallardo’s 4961 cc. The Audi engine also uses FSI, allowing for a high compression ratio of 12.5:1 vs. the Gallardo’s 11:1.

Together these translate to a 450-hp peak at 7,000 rpm for the S8, as compared to the Lamborghini’s maximum horsepower of 500 at an even higher 7,800 rpm. When torque is compared though, the differences between the two engines become more evident. The S8 hands out 398 lb.-ft. of torque at a lowly 3500 rpm, with 90% of that on tap at just 2,300 rpm; the Gallardo by contrast must run up to 4500 rpm to muster its mere 376 lb.-ft.

Detractors of the S8 are quick to point out that the BMW M5 bests the S8’s power levels by a good 50-bhp. While that may sound significant though, the Bimmer doesn’t hit its lower peak torque of 383 lb.-ft until a heady 6100 rpm, making the power delivery more like the Gallardo’s than that of the S8. On the track, such power is nice to have, though torque tends to be the name of the game on the highway or around town in a large sedan.

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