Jessica Lynn WalkerCar and Driver
You can’t easily tell the status of the folks sitting in the 2020 Audi S8. It’s not like the old days where the boss automatically sat in the back of a big executive sedan. Perhaps if the S8 were fitted with Audi’s optional $7750 Executive Rear Seat package, then the big shots would be enjoying the heated, massaging footrests while someone else drove. But treating the S8 like a traditional chauffeured limousine is a waste of its best qualities: a twin-turbo V-8 that’s mellow until it’s time to pounce and a chassis that makes this giant as nimble as a mid-size sports sedan. No, the S8’s best seat is the one right behind the steering wheel.
Audi doesn’t do flashy. To most people, the S8 will register as a conventional Audi A8. The most attention-grabbing bit is the massive hexagonal grille, which could be kindly described as giving the car the feel of an art-deco steam train. The rest of the body is sleek, straight, and tightly creased. Opt for the $1800 Black Optic package, and the A8’s brightwork is turned down with darkened grille trim, mirrors, and wheels. If that makes the S8 too stealthy for your tastes, Audi will paint the brake calipers red for $500. Once you have taken in the exterior, open the door and watch the S8’s air springs lift the whole car, making it easier to step in. Once inside, the suspension settles back down.
What is it about a big, fast car that is so empowering? Does it tap into the invincible notion of might makes right? Well, whatever it is, it’s eminently satisfying to floor a 563-hp sedan and feel all 5256 pounds of quilted, massaging seats and carbon-fiber-inlaid door panels hunker down and move forward with minimal lag or drama. In our testing, the S8’s twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 shot it to 60 mph in just 3.2 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 11.6 seconds at 119 mph. A version of this engine is available in the regular A8 60 TFSI, but it makes 110 horsepower and 103 lb-ft of torque less than the S8, but it’s also $30,000 less expensive. We’ve yet to test the V-8–powered A8.
Even without the $9900 carbon-ceramic brakes, this big boy came to a stop in 162 feet with zero fade. Maybe if we spend our time on the autobahn blasting up to the 155-mph top speed we might want the optional brakes, but here in the real world, we think the standard iron rotors are more than enough. We never found the heat limit of the standard brake setup. Fitted with $1200 265/35R-21 Pirelli P Zero PZ4 summer tires (20-inchers with all-seasons are standard), this big Audi clings to the skidpad with a respectable—for a 5256-pound car—0.94 g of grip.
The S8 is not merely about putting up serious stats. It is also a pleasure to drive. Even when you’re not trying to win a drag race, it accelerates with the effortlessness of a torque-rich muscle car with 590 lb-ft on tap. Shifts from its standard eight-speed automatic transmission are elegantly sorted. And while it’s bulk and sheer size don’t quite allow it to handle like a lithe sports sedan, it will move through traffic like a linebacker who’s studied ballet. The secret to the S8’s graceful on-road behavior is Audi’s standard four-wheel steering coupled with an active suspension, which employs the front camera to scan the road surface and adjust the air springs, adaptive dampers, and anti-roll bars to tilt the car into corners in order to counteract body roll. You can’t always feel it happening from the driver’s seat. You just notice the stability and how easy it is to go fast. You also notice that the ride is without harshness, even on bumpy roads. If you opt for the $2750 Driver Assistance safety package, when a side-impact collision is detected, the suspension will raise one side of the car up to 3.1 inches to better protect occupants when the hit occurs.
While the best method for enjoying the S8 is actually driving it, Audi offers a range of semi-autonomous assistants. Its adaptive cruise control is excellent, able to maintain a set speed even on grades without abrupt jolts of acceleration or braking. The S8’s lane-keeping ability is less useful as it frustratingly beeps and yanks at the steering wheel while trying to stay between the lines. The controls for the S8’s safety tech are a mix of buttons on the cruise-control stalk and settings buried within the central touchscreen, so figure those out before you hit the highway. Audi employs a 48-volt hybrid system and a small lithium-ion battery to power some of the S8’s magic suspension components, as well as to minimize the time it takes to refire the engine when its stop-start system is active.
The Corner Office
On the road, wafting along in the S8’s high-tech bubble, it’s easy to appreciate the attractive four-spoke steering wheel, hide-away vents, and distractingly pretty 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster. The cluster and touchscreen can be customized to put information where you want it, although the hold-and-drag method of moving icons on the touchscreen must be followed by the soft-cloth-and-drag method of fingerprint cleanup. Fingerprints aside, the modernist interior is attractive and lined with expensive-looking materials. Our only quibble is with the underhand motion needed to operate the interior door handle. Only softball players will like it, and maybe not even them.
For all the technology at play in the $131,495 Audi S8, what’s remarkable is how all the systems work seamlessly and in near silence. There’s no mechanical whir from the fancy suspension. The engine starting up at a stoplight is barely audible. There’s a pleasant and distant grumble from the twin-turbo V-8 as you fly down the interstate. Under full throttle, you hear the richest and silkiest 78 decibels of V-8. Behind the acoustic glass, leather, and sound deadening, there’s not a whisper from the outside world, which makes it an excellent theater for whatever you want to play on the standard 730-watt, 17-speaker Bang & Olufsen stereo or the upgrade with 23 speakers and 1920 watts of power. Despite its limo-like size, the S8 combines the driving engagement of a smaller, sporty car with the raw grunt of a big-engined performance sedan—and with plenty of legroom to spare. Move over, James. We’ll be driving ourselves home from now on.