|August 28, 2006
Reader's Ride: 2007 UK Audi S8 at Three Weeks
The one-word summary? Awesome.
Having previously owned a 2002 S8, a 2003 RS 6, and most recently a 2004 A8 SWB W12, it would be easy to consider the 2007 S8 to be just more of the same, and lacking anything new to make it stand out from its predecessors. Especially when compared to the W12, in UK-spec SWB form with sport suspension and the shorter final drive ratio, the S8 might look like no significant change at all.
However, despite having the same horsepower, the same gearing and very similar weight to the car it replaced, the S8 feels like a definite upgrade.
So, what's to like?
Well, there's the looks, with the subtle boot spoiler, the less subtle front splitter and the not-so-subtle 20" twin-spoke wheels. There's the extensive list of standard UK S8 features; powered doors and trunk, advanced key with fingerprint recognition, MMI with DVD navigation, Bluetooth mobile phone integration, BOSE sound, sports air suspension, tyre pressure & temperature monitoring, swivelling xenon headlights and separate cornering lights, LED driving lights, internal ambient and external lighting, alcantara headlining, carbon-fiber trim and the A8s usual wonderful somber, but very technical, cabin feel.
Then there's my extra toys; heated windscreen, electric rear and rear-side blinds, rear seat heating and rear air conditioning, digital radio tuner, and reversing camera with superimposed parking guide lines.
But all the gadgets are just the icing on a rather rich cake. The S8's main attraction lies under the bonnet; 5.2 litres of V10 goodness, driving all four wheels through the 6-speed Tiptronic gearbox and a quattro drive featuring a Torsen centre differential set to split the torque in favour of the rear wheels by a ratio of 60/40 in normal driving, and up to 85/15 when conditions demand.
What else has changed?
The air springs and electronically-adjustable dampers have been retuned from the A8's Sport suspension, and provide even smoother Comfort damping, but improved anti-roll and dive behaviour in Dynamic mode.
The speed-sensitive power steering has also been tweaked from the A8's setup, with both a revised gearing ratio to provide more immediate response to steering input, and a revised Servotronic configuration to provide more boost at low speeds and less at high speeds, which imbues the more direct steering with a satisfyingly heavy and meaty feel on the open road, but still means urban behaviour is refined enough that navigating and parking its fifteen foot long, six feet wide body is easy.
The S8's dual nature extends to the acoustics too. Kept to under 2000 rpm, which is readily achievable given the torque served up at even modest engine speeds, and low loading, the V10 hums and buzzes away to itself, barely sounding like a petrol engine at all.
Once given an empty space in front of it and an appropriate dab on the action pedal, the big V10 rumbles up towards 3000 rpm with a sound like distant thunder, only hinting at what is going to be unleashed later. By 4000 rpm, the thunder has turned into a full-blown storm, and a sound like a cage of angry tigers emerges, becoming more and more frenzied as the rev counter sweeps up through 5000 rpm, 6000 rpm and on to a heady 7200 rpm when the roar reaches fever pitch before the gearbox shifts up a cog and the V10 pauses, takes a deep breath and then continues its relentless howl afresh.
It's a brutal, visceral sound, a suitable soundtrack for a Norse god of old; powerful and all-encompassing, like setting off a nuclear bomb in the cargo hold of an oil tanker, truly an apocalypse on the road.
But let off the accelerator mid-surge and the S8 suddenly turns back into a silky-smooth cruiser, the noise abated abruptly. Anyone turning around at that point to see what all the commotion was wouldn't have a clue, unless they knew what the quad pipes at the back of the rapidly-vanishing Audi signified.
The S8 loves corners, and loves tarmac. It clings tightly to both, welded to the road surface by its four fat 265/35 tyres, and kept parallel to the road surface by the suspension, thanks to a stream of information fed from the ESP system to the suspension controller. A series of alternating left and right bends don't fool it either, the big car hunkering down to help control lateral force in a fast corner.
The S8 seems to shrink when you really drive it. It's only when you step out and take a look at it from the outside that you find yourself suddenly wondering how it's possible for something that size to have just done what it did. Even my repeated experience in other large and fast Audi cars can't make my brain accept without question the S8's size/performance dichotomy.
Is there anything bad?
Well, if you accept that fuel economy is never going to be its main selling point, even though it seems to be doing better than the W12 it replaced, then no, there's not a lot to complain about.
I was lucky enough to be able to take the S8 to Norway on vacation, for a chance to get its running-in miles done in an environment where the temptation to rev the S8's incredible engine is muted by the narrow Norwegian roads, the fearsome reputation of Norway's treatment of speeders, and the stunning scenery that cries out to not be blurred by a twitch of the right foot.
I did get an engine management warning light that lit while climbing a mountain road at a thousand feet above sea level, but later investigation showed that to be an emissions control issue where a pinched secondary air supply pipe meant that one of the catalysts wasn't pre-heating quickly enough when the engine was cold, nothing that would affect performance in any way and would only marginally increase emissions during the cold running stage.
The advanced key system was upset by something while waiting for the ferry home on the harbour at Haugesund, and complained again briefly at a tunnel toll barrier, but because it is a radio wave device, I suppose occasional glitches are to be expected. Both times it behaved itself again immediately once removed from the source of interference.
So far, the S8 has been all that I hoped it would be, and then some.
It might be the fact that it's mine, and therefore I'm more attached to it, it might be doing 2000 miles in it instead of 8, it might be that on-road performance is different to track performance, it might even be that fact that I've followed a running-in procedure and always let it warm up before going over 3000 rpm, but somehow my S8 seems to pull a little bit harder than the one I drove at Silverstone.
It's early days yet and the engine has a lot of loosening up to do, and I still have a lot to learn about the handling changes over the A8.
I can't wait to see how the future shapes up.