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As I listen for the ticking hum of the 2015 Audi S8's engine, I imagine a struggle at the Ingolstadt factory where the car was born, the team responsible for delivering a sedate, quiet ride toe-to-toe and screwdriver-to-pneumatic-drill with the engineers who developed the engine and tuned the car for performance. One side demands that this big sedan shows off Audi's best luxury efforts, while the tuners point out the "S" in the model designation, indicating that this is the sport version of the A8.
Compromise must have won the day, however, as that exhaust note is there, but merely turning up the stereo drowns it out. The engine makes a beautifully refined sound, warming the cockles of my gearhead heart, but it only becomes apparent when the tach needle is on the upswing.
Audi's engineers showed off the S8's prowess in other ways, using its air suspension, all-wheel drive and torque-vectoring rear differential to give this beautiful beast very nimble handling. Being an Audi, the S8 also shows off plenty of tech expertise, with seriously connected cabin electronics. Surprisingly, considering all of Audi's research into autonomous vehicles, the S8's driver assistance features fall behind those of competitors.
Based on Audi's flagship A8, the S8 is a big sedan, over 16.5 feet long and weighing in at 4,685 pounds. That means a very roomy cabin and plenty of rear-seat room, making it appropriate as a chauffeur-driven car. But with the performance and front-seat niceties, I prefer the driver seat.
Although coming due for a generational update, the 2015 S8 carries a large tech payload putting many newly developed cars to shame.
In the US, an S8 comes at a base price of $115,825 delivered. The example I drove, loaded with a number of packages including Bang & Olufsen audio and driver assist systems, came in at a total of $132,225. The UK and Australian versions boast the same performance output and handling technologies, with a base price of £80,735 across the pond and AU$288,150 down under.
The whole point of the S8 is sport performance, a leap ahead of the more sedate A8, and Audi offers a raft of customizable settings in its Drive Select system. Audi terms its sport settings Dynamic, and choosing that setting affects throttle, suspension, torque vectoring, steering feel, exhaust note and even adaptive cruise control performance. And conveniently, choosing Dynamic mode puts the eight-speed automatic transmission in its Sport mode, which I can control separately with the shifter.
In Dynamic, the S8 becomes high-tempered, responding instantly to minute pressure changes on the accelerator. Wheel angle responds more quickly to steering input and I found the automatic transmission used my braking and accelerator input to downshift, anticipating my power needs for turns and straights.
Powering around a twisty mountain road, the S8's systems work seamlessly. When I switched to manual gear selection, the 520 horsepower and 481 pound-feet of torque from the twin-turbo 4-liter V-8 let me keep it in third for all but the tightest hairpins and longer straights. Turbo lag isn't an issue with this high-powered engine as the direct-injection V-8 generates enough torque at low rpms to make the boost transition unnoticeable.
The true test comes in the turns, and here the S8 does not disappoint. Its adaptive air suspension helps this long, heavy sedan remain relatively flat as inertia exerts its pull. The front end turns in easily and true, the front wheels empowered by Quattro all-wheel drive to do their part. The rest of the car would be a problem at speed, but from the seat of my pants I can feel the torque vectoring, putting extra twist to the outside rear wheel, help the S8's back end come around.
Like its Quattro heritage in rally races, the S8's handling shows the quality of Audi technology and engineering.
Similarly, Audi has shown off amazing connected cabin electronics in its cars. The S8 may fall behind more recent models, such as theTT with its virtual cockpit and 4G data connection, but still holds its own compared with the market as a whole. An 8-inch LCD slides out and up from the dashboard when you turn on the car, with onscreen content controlled by an array of buttons, dial and touchpad where console meets dashboard.
Having used this interface in a number of Audi models, I have the button positions stored as muscle memory, so I can get to the phone system or navigation without looking. The main elliptical menu is easy to understand, as well, although icons labeled Audi Connect and Info are a little mysterious.
An icon on the LCD shows a 3G data connection, and that enables Google Earth satellite imagery for navigation overlaid with street names and live traffic information. If you don't like that, or are out of data cell tower range, you can choose to view the S8's stored maps, which look more like those in typical navigation systems. Entering destinations proves easy with voice command, while the touchpad enhances manual input by letting you trace letters and numbers instead of the more tedious process of using a rotary interface. And beyond the usual address and points-of-interest options, the S8 also has online destination search, returning a list of Google-sourced results for any keyword I enter. This level of data connection is slowly finding its way to competitive vehicles.
Newer Audi models get a 4G connection, though, which means faster loading for Google Earth imagery.
As for audio sources, you can listen to HD Radio or satellite radio, music from the S8's own hard drive, an iPhone over Bluetooth streaming, or an iPhone plugged directly into the car's proprietary audio port using an adapter cable. Unfortunately, I found that plugging in my Bluetooth-connected phone resulted in a warning message that I should shut off the Bluetooth audio capability. That's annoying, as I don't want to dig through settings on the car's screen every time I plug in my phone.
I prefered the cabled connection because I could access my phone's music library using the S8's onscreen controls, and the fidelity was better than over Bluetooth. That source quality was especially important here, as our test car had the Bang & Olufsen audio option, with 19 speakers and 1,400 watts. This is a strong audiophile system, delivering extremely fine resolution for music along with deep bass and detailed treble. At $6,300 it is a very expensive option, but that price would only get you a single component of a home audiophile system.
As if the audio system and the sport performance weren't enough to make me want to spend all day in the S8, it also comes standard with massage seats. The controls, down on the sides of the front seats, took a little figuring out, but soon I was enjoying a minor pummeling up and down my back, soothing stressed muscles. Every time I found myself yelling at other drivers, I turned on the massage and changed my perspective.
Massage seats highlight the S8's luxury origins, as does its size. Turning the Drive Select feature to Comfort, I was able to enjoy more relaxed driving as throttle and steering become looser, a little less responsive. That's fine for freeway cruising, but here I found the S8 lacking. While easy to drive, the looser setting of the air suspension causes porpoising, letting the car's body rise up and down on undulating sections of road and getting me a little seasick. I also noticed excessive tire noise on some surfaces.
Easing the long freeway miles is the S8's adaptive cruise control, using a radar to monitor traffic ahead and automatically braking in response to slower cars. The system works well, but not so the lane departure prevention feature. This system "nudges," in Audi's terminology, the steering to keep the car within its lane lines. Unlike the smoothly operating lane departure prevention system in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class , Audi's acts inconsistently and too abruptly.
A surround-view camera system makes for quick and easy parking in the S8, keeping me from curbing the 21-inch Titanium-finish wheels, but why no automated parallel parking? Audi makes a big deal of its autonomous car research, but this relatively simple feature isn't available in the S8.
The 2015 Audi S8 adds an impressive sport option on top of the A8 flagship, capitalizing on performance technologies for which Audi is well known. In fact, I would argue that the S8 is more representative of Audi than the A8. It is truly phenomenal how well the suspension and Quattro help the car in the turns. The 4-liter V-8 offers plenty of power while remaining relatively efficient, turning in average fuel economy around 20 mpg.
Audi's connected cabin electronics are a big draw for me, such that I tend to miss them when driving most other cars. Google Earth imagery in the navigation system may not be all that necessary, but it is some nice icing on the cake. The well-integrated online destination search is a feature every other automaker should emulate.
The driver assistance features feel a little behind competitors, however, which seems strange given Audi's leadership on self-driving research.
My biggest caveat about the 2015 S8 is that this model will likely receive a major generational update soon, from which I expect many improvements. On cabin tech alone, Audi has shown off its Virtual Cockpit in other models, and even given its A6 a midcycle update that included a 4G data connection and USB ports for audio devices.
Still, it's hard to argue with the S8's nimble handling and powerful engine.
|Model||2015 Audi S8|
|Power train||Turbocharged direct-injection 4-liter V-8 engine, 8-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||17 mpg city/27 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||19.9 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet streaming, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, HD Radio, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Bang & Olufsen 1,400-watt 19-speaker system|
|Driver assistance||Night vision, surround-view camera, adaptive cruise control, lane depature warning, blind-spot monitor|
|Price as tested||$132,225|