I’m expecting a bit of a thud to make its way through the chassis over a couple of those super aggressive speed bumps along Hickson Road at the Rocks, but miraculously there’s nothing. It’s as if they up and vanished right before my eyes. Remarkable.
The word sublime falls short when it concerns the latest-generation Audi S8. Not even close when you factor in the delights of its twin-turbo V8 under a boot full of throttle.
The nameplate itself carried some clout at our place back in the mid-1990s given the old man bought a used first-generation version. As far as big German sedans went, the quattro-driven S8 trumped the S-Class and BMW 7er, at least in our household.
Let’s not forget the Hollywood fame the S8 gained when it appeared front and centre in the 1998 blockbuster Ronin, which saw the go-fast Audi used as the getaway car in what are regarded as some of the best car chase scenes in modern movie history.
There was also Transporter series, which combined large, fast Audis with action, drama, sex, and a healthy dose of Jason Statham.
The 2020 Audi S8 is different. It’s still the technological flagship and halo of Audi’s sedan range, but this time it’s even longer, and armed with more firepower than ever before.
Just like every version before it, the fourth-generation S8 is a bit of a sleeper. Only those in the know or with a keen eye for detail will spot the differences between this and its predecessor, at least from the outside.
Looks can be deceiving. It’s a high-end luxury sedan related to the Bentley Flying Spur, so the accommodation and degree of lavishness in the cabin almost seems at odds with the weaponry under the bonnet.
Audi’s latest grille and trick matrix LED headlights with laser technology point to a new-generation model, as do the OLED taillights around back. Both offer a veritable light show on start-up and when switched off.
While I understand overzealous detail can be boring, the S8’s lighting technology blows my mind, although it’s not entirely exclusive to Audi these days.
The laser tech is highlighted by the blue x-pattern in the headlight assembly itself, which features 138 individual LED units per headlamp, technology designed to double the range achieved by a less sophisticated LED headlamp.
It’s hard to position the S8 in the marketplace. It’s a chauffeur’s dream machine with a split personality, harbouring huge performance and high-end luxury in one extra-long sedan.
Never mind that it sits low to the ground. The moment you touch the door handle, the air suspension system raises the car by 50mm (nearly two inches) for easy access for those with dodgy knees or bad hips. And that’s just the beginning.
The S8 is yours for the princely sum of $260,000 before on-road costs. It’s a significant step from the top-spec Audi A8 L 55 TFSI quattro, priced from $212,500 before on-roads.
However, our tester was fitted with one of six options packages, the Sensory Package ($13,900) that brings kit such as the astounding 1820W Bang & Olufsen sound system with 23 speakers; and powered, heated, cooled, massaging, outer rear seats with lumbar support.
The Full Leather package is also included in the Sensory Package, comprising Nappa leather with decorative stitching for the lower dash and glove box, door trims, and door pockets, along with the front seats, backrest, and headrests.
Rivals are few and far between, but include the BMW M850i xDrive Gran Coupe priced from $272,700 which gets a larger displacement 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8, but is slower than the Audi.
Mercedes-Benz has the S63 L priced from a stratospheric $393,200 before on-roads. Even the S560 L is priced well above the S8, at $309,900 before on-roads.
Sitting at the top of Audi’s sedan line-up and priced accordingly, the S8 gets all the bells and whistles you’d expect.
It’s not just the standard 21-inch five-spoke alloy wheels or the trick matrix LED headlights with laser light tech that signal the S8’s range-topping rank, the other stuff makes the S8 so special.
Believe it or not, there are matrix LED reading lights for rear seat passengers to enjoy their reading or (heaven forbid) work, and electric sun blinds for the rear windscreen and windows for total privacy – beyond the privacy glass itself.
Rear passengers have total control of their seats, lights, blinds, and climate control, with their own (removable) touchscreen OLED tablet. They’re cosseted in the super-soft Valcona leather upholstery (perforated front, outer rear), with door and side panel trims finished in Alcantara.
Besides Audi’s trademark configurable 12.3-inch driver’s display, the dash is dominated by two crystal-clear screens for infotainment and climate control.
The head-up display is superb. It’s an ultra-sharp colour display for navigation, speed, and assistance information. The list of features is endless, but highlights include a panoramic sunroof, power assisted door closure), 360-degree cameras with kerb view function, and seat ventilation with massage function for front seats.
Additionally, you get keyless entry and start, electrically-operated tailgate closure with gesture control, double-glazed windows, four-zone climate, ambient lighting that’s seemingly everywhere in the cabin, along with wireless CarPlay and a stack of USB ports.
The A8 hasn’t been tested by ANCAP, the entire Audi range barring the TT has been awarded five stars.
That said, the A8 is loaded with the most advanced active safety systems available today, including adaptive cruise, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, parking assist with sensors, surround-view camera, driver attention monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, intersection crossing assist, and exit warning.
There’s autonomous emergency braking capable of operating between 5km/h and 85km/h for pedestrians and cyclists, and up to 250km/h for vehicles.
Additionally, all Audi A8s including the S8 are equipped with a front centre airbag, which is deployed in the event of a side impact, or if the car rolls over, to stop the driver and passenger flailing and crashing into each other.
It’s positively opulent – but while I’m a fan of the rich Navarra Blue paint on the outside, the grey leather upholstery doesn’t show off the S8’s cockpit as well as one of the lighter options might.
Still, there’s acres of rear legroom and the seats themselves are extraordinarily comfortable, with proper bases and lateral bolstering in the second row.
Audi does real metallic accents better than anyone, but there’s an awful lot of piano black in this particular A8. Again, it wouldn’t be my first choice.
What I do like are the beautifully lacquered carbon vector trim bits throughout the cabin, especially those on the dash that fold neatly away to expose the air conditioning vents in a beautiful bit of theatre.
The entire headlining is black Alcantara which always looks and feels nice, as does the extra Nappa leather upholstery as part of full leather package.
There’s plenty of space in the boot, too, with 505 litres with a cargo net and side pockets at each side.
While the regular petrol and diesel Audi A8 line-up uses a 3.0-litre V6, the S8 gets a potent 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 making 420kW of power from 6000rpm and a thumping 800Nm of torque between 2000 and 4500rpm.
That’s a decent-old bump in grunt from the previous S8, which made do with 382kW and 650Nm, and a massive step over the top-spec A8 L55 TFSI quattro with 250kW and 500Nm from its V6 turbo.
The S8’s crankcase weighs just 39.1kg and the engine’s 48V mild-hybrid electrical system can recover up to 8kW of power if you’re light on the throttle, or just coasting down a hill.
The start/stop system is remarkable for its seamless start up, as it draws on the 48V system, while the S8’s cylinder-on-demand system can shut down four cylinders under light throttle loads and you won’t know it.
Part of me wanted to kick back in the sumptuous seats (they skew more towards luxury than sport) and listen to the latest CarExpert podcast with radar cruise doing most of the heavy lifting, but there’s another side to what surely is the ultimate sleeper.
I’m still marvelling at how the S8 ironed out those speed bumps I mentioned at the beginning of this review – the ones that simply vanished from under the car. Put that down to the air suspension system with variable adaptive dampers on all four wheels, and what feels like perfect calibration.
I simply can’t get over how the system completely and utterly dialled out bumps as if they were simply not there in the first place. Enthralled, I effectively sought out as many speed bumps and poor road surfaces just to replicate the magic.
In Comfort and at the maximum legal speed you may as well be a rear-seat passenger enjoying a nap or listening to your favourite track on the ridiculously good Bang & Olufsen sound system, such is the sublime ride delivered by this go-fast limousine.
There’s no outside noise thanks to the double-glazing, which means you can barely hear a semi-trailer even if it’s accelerating away from a set of traffic lights.
At first, I thought the S8 needs a proper sports exhaust to at least satisfy the enthusiast in me, but dial-up Dynamic and give the throttle a decent prod, and the beast awakens. It’s at this moment the S8 goes from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde and the twin-turbo eight makes itself properly known.
It’s at around 4000rpm you’re acutely aware there’s something special under the bonnet. It’s not rowdy like an AMG, but it is one of the sweetest-sounding V8s you’ll ever likely to hear and the more it revs, the better it gets.
In that same instant the dampers stiffen up in readiness for a proper corner-carving assault on what is normally the perfect hot-hatch playground. It might be a massive 5.2-meter lump but don’t let that won’t stop you having some fun in the S8.
Initially I was smooth with my inputs, but then it’s a case of grabbing it by the scruff of the neck and really pushing. With all-wheel steering and all-wheel drive, you’re getting on the loud pedal early on corner exit and there’s little or no understeer.
It’s not quite magic, it’s Audi’s remarkable predictive active suspension technology at play.
The system works by using multiple sensors throughout the car, including a forward-facing video camera to both influence and control the S8’s body. And it’s masterful. It simply doesn’t feel like a large car anymore, it’s more like an S3 with its electromechanical steering providing good communication back to the driver.
The eight-speed automatic is certainly smooth and seamless, and the shifts are relatively quick in Dynamic mode, but I’d love a DCT in this car for sharper downshifts. Is that just me being silly?
It’s quick, by the way, but for those who want the numbers it’ll scoot from rest to 100km/h in 3.8 seconds. That’s quick enough for me.
It’s a bit firmer in Dynamic, but it’s still on the lush side. Now, back on the throttle.
Okay, this is where it gets a bit hard to believe. Try 10.1L/100km over 300km on a combined cycle in the real world.
Given it tips the scales at 2305kg with a driver, is over five metres long, and has a twin-turbo V8 under the bonnet, that’s perfectly fine from a fuel efficiency standpoint. Who would have thought.
Audi is still running with a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty as opposed to Mercedes-Benz, which offers five years. At least the S8 has a comprehensive five-year service plan package priced at $3990.
For some, it won’t be brash enough, but for those that want the ultimate sleeper car, the Audi S8 is without peer.
Front seat or back, keen driver or cruiser, there’s something for everybody.