I’M STORMING ALONG a north German autobahn in what may just be the ultimate stealth-mobile. It’s an enormous beast, measuring more than 5.1 metres long, yet in its dark metallic-grey colour scheme it’s so understated that it might almost be invisible. In fact, the only hints the car isn’t on regular limousine duty, ferrying a high-level banker to and from the office or perhaps a VIP between airport and hotel, are the chromed door mirrors, the subtle body kit adorning its nether regions, the 20-inch parallel-spoke wheels and the four oval exhaust pipes poking out from beneath the tail. Well, those and the speed I’m travelling at.
That very inconspicuousness will not recommend the Audi S8 to the average motorist, but it certainly helps explain why the car has become so legendary among petrolheads – they include action star Jason Statham of The Transporter movie franchise, who revealed in these pages a few months back that this living-room-sized road rocket serves as his daily runabout – who love the fact that it looks so unremarkable and yet drives so ferociously. And it’s something I can attest to even after mere minutes at the wheel, during which brief time I’ve already worried a brace of fast-moving 911s as well as an equally rapid Panamera, while blasting across the North Rhine-Westphalian countryside at velocities approaching warp factor.
I’m actually here to test several members of Audi’s A8 family, the third generation of which has recently undergone several key revisions that should carry it through to the end of its model life a few years hence. Indeed, there’s a whole fleet of cars waiting for us in the parking lot at Düsseldorf Airport: 3-litre TFSI V6s, 4-litre TFSI V8s, a choice of diesels and super-luxurious long-wheelbase W12s that share much the same power unit with the Bentley Continental, another VW Group stablemate. (A hybrid A8 is also on the way, powered by the same combination of petrol engine and electric motor that works so well in the mid-size Audi A6.) And then there’s that quietly menacing line of S8s, each turned out in the Daytona grey paint job that’s exclusive to the most powerful A8 of all, a car that ticks almost every desirability box I can think of.
While kicking the tyres of the newly face-lifted A8 in the autumn drizzle, I’m trying hard to work out what distinguishes it from its immediate predecessors – if you must know, the grille, bonnet and bumpers have been sharpened up, as have the contours of the front and rear lights – though I’ve already learned that a raft of significant changes lies beneath the sheet metal of Audi’s range-topping model (and to be brutally honest, the revisions are essential if the car is to compete with Mercedes’ new S-class, which I understand virtually drives itself). Engines across the range are both more powerful and efficient, while the menu of electronic systems has been comprehensively upgraded to include active lane assist, parking assist, head-up display and enhanced night vision that now gives visual warning of approaching animals as well as pedestrians.
Audi is making most noise, however, about the revolutionary Matrix headlights debuting in the A8, whose beams are provided by 25 LEDs that automatically either individually dim or are switched off to avoid blinding oncoming drivers, while continuing to illuminate other areas of the road ahead. According to the assembled boffins who’ve joined us from the factory in Ingolstadt, this effectively means you never need dip the lights. Equally ingeniously, these new units also aid cornering by shifting the focus of the beam as the car rounds the curve.
Of course I’m impressed, but the reason I’m itching to commandeer one of the S8s standing out in the rain is neither for its clever new electronics nor for its headlights, but because its long bonnet conceals an up-rated version of Audi’s compact, 4-litre, twin-turbo V8. This brilliant yet often overlooked engine not only produces 513bhp and a phenomenal 650Nm (the latter from 1,700rpm right the way through to 5,500) but also, thanks to cylinder deactivation, can achieve an average fuel consumption of 9.6 litres per 100km.
Those figures make the super saloon slightly more powerful than the rangetopping 6.3-litre A8 W12 limousine, though it is a trifle thirstier. Common to all A8s is eight-speed tiptronic transmission, quattro all-wheel-drive and the car’s strong, stiff but light aluminium spaceframe; the S8, however, gets more aggressively sporting settings for its air suspension, rear differential and electromechanical “dynamic” steering.
With the formalities over I’m fastening my seatbelt, keying my first destination for the day into the sat-nav, pressing the consolemounted starter button that brings the V8 burbling into life and gently rolling out of the car park and onto the highway. The car’s interior approaches perfection, the materials and build quality being top-notch, the ergonomics flawless and the noise levels remarkably muted (though fortunately not completely muffling the sonorous activity from the engine department). Key clues abound to the fact that this A8 has been force-fed steroids, such the white-on-grey instrument dials, the carbon gear selector, the Alcantara door panels and the aluminium finish on the pedals and footrests.
Nice though the eye candy is, far more attention grabbing is the way the Audi not so much accelerates as explodes into forward motion, somewhat in the manner of a fighter jet, though happily without the latter’s ability to climb vertically. It reels off the 0-100km/h dash in just 4.1 seconds, which is faster than an Aston DB9 V12, a Bentley Continental Speed, a Porsche Carrera S and, crucially, a Mercedes S-class AMG – and just 0.2 seconds slower than a Ferrari California.
Were I to keep the pedal planted on the carpet (and assuming there wasn’t an endless procession of articulated trucks on this stretch of road), I’d eventually reach an electronically governed maximum speed of 250km/h– and God knows how fast it would go if that microchip were removed. Gear changes, either automatic or manual using the paddles, are lightning fast, and given the car’s stability and the commendable quiet in the cabin, I’m travelling at more than 200km/h before I even know it.
Moreover, that amazing straight-line performance is only part of the story. Granted, it’s so large that it can’t be thrown around with quite the abandon of a two-seat roadster, but this Audi is a genuine driver’s automobile. It might not handle quite as nimbly as Jag’s XJR (which, however, it easily trounces off the line), but it’s not far off that class leader in terms of both handling and ride quality, even when the dampers are set at their firmest.
As to whether the S8 offers the waft of a new S-class, that’s a moot point, but for the duration of my drive it reveals itself as an impressively comfy place to be. Thanks to all-wheel-drive, its grip, traction and road holding are superb. My only complaint, as with so many Audis, is the uncommunicative electronic steering – and that’s in spite of the fact that the helm has been tweaked for this car’s more sporting nature.
But that’s a relatively minor glitch. Because at the wheel of the S8 I find I’m chuckling in amazement that a car so big, so luxurious and yet so discreet can be so monstrously powerful, so deliriously fast and so utterly enjoyable. And lamenting that we don’t have autobahns in Asia.