We also had Sirius satellite radio and a six-CD changer in the glove box, the latter reading MP3 CDs. But as we noted above, you don't really want to use compressed music with this audio system, and even Sirius stations don't sound particularly good. The standard audio system uses 12 Bose speakers, but the Bang & Olufsen premium system has 14 speakers, all with beautiful metal grilles, and includes two high-range sound lenses that pop up from the dash when you start the car.
The S8 offers several gadgets to help you drive and park. We mentioned the blind spot warning system and adaptive cruise control previously. Another cool tech feature is the lane departure warning, which surprised us by buzzing the wheel when we crossed a lane line. This system uses cameras on the sides of the car, but we found its lane line recognition algorithm oversensitive, buzzing the wheel even when there wasn't a painted line. The turn signal or a very deliberate turn will defeat the warning buzz.
The parking system is nicely done, using turn guides on the rearview camera that show the car's path and distance to objects. The bumpers are also embedded with sonar detectors, and a graphic of the car shows how close objects are to the front and back.
Under the hood
The 5.2-liter V-10 in the 2009 Audi S8 uses all of Audi's tricks to generate 450 horsepower at 7,000rpm, including direct injection and variable valve adjustment for both the intake and exhaust. But this tech doesn't make the engine very fuel efficient, as its EPA mileage numbers are 13 mpg city and 19 mpg highway. During our testing period, we got 16.3 mpg with a significant amount of time driving on the freeway.
To get moving, the engine makes 398 pound-feet of torque, that peak number coming on at 3,500rpm. With this big of a car, you don't feel a fast launch, but the speedometer usually shows greater speed than you expect, a testament to the car's sound-proofing and minimal vibration.
The S8 also comes with an air suspension, adjustable for Comfort, Automatic, and Dynamic settings. We had it on Dynamic for much of our time with the car, which let us feel the road more than we would expect. Even in Comfort mode, the ride was harsher than in an A8, mostly because of the big, 20-inch wheels and low-profile rubber.
You definitely feel the size of the S8 when cornering, but that air suspension keeps it surprisingly balanced. With this big of a car, it seems as if it should wallow just a bit in hard corners, but it stays flat and the speed-sensitive power steering offers good feedback.
Keeping the car on the right line during cornering is its Quattro all-wheel-drive system, one of Audi's signature pieces of equipment. In the S8, the default torque distribution puts 40 percent of the torque to the front wheels and 60 percent to the rear. However, Audi has a new version of this system waiting in the wings, which we tested on the new A4. You might want to wait for a more significant update to the S8 if you are in the market.
The six-speed automatic transmission has Drive, Sport, and Manual settings, the latter shiftable on the stick or with paddles. Manual shifts were reasonably fast, while the Sport mode merely seemed to keep the revs a little higher. There is no manual transmission available on the S8.
The 2009 Audi S8 starts at $96,200, and that base model already comes with a lot of gear, including the navigation and Bluetooth systems, plus the air suspension and Quattro. Bumping up the cost of our S8 was the Bang & Olufsen audio system, adding some spectacular sound for $6,300, and the $3,500 Technology package that brings adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and blind spot detection. Interior upgrades included $4,900 for stitched dashboard leather and $500 for the carbon fiber trim. A couple of other options and the $2,100 gas guzzler tax brought our total up to $115,775. One interesting option we didn't have is a solar roof, designed to keep a constant flow of cool air in the car thus reducing dependence on the air conditioning.
There are only a few cars that go for this high end of luxury and performance. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class S63 AMG offers a little more power and similar cabin tech, but comes in some tens of thousands of dollars more in total price. For a greener image, the Lexus LS600h brings in a lot of comfort, along with good performance stats.
In our ratings of the S8, we gave it near top marks for cabin tech, an area that's mainly let down by its archaic navigation system. Performance also earns an excellent rating, brought down a little by poor fuel economy and the car's tendency to hesitate a little before getting moving. And tech-wise, it actually falls behind the more humble A4, which features an updated Quattro system. Finally, its design is merely good, with a distinctive body styling that earns it points, but a cabin interface that leaves a lot to be desired.