The A8 is Audi's flagship sedan, the top of the pile, the king of the mountain, but the company does itself one better with the 2009 Audi S8, an amped-up version of its big luxury car designed to throw a little thrill toward those well-heeled enough to afford such a car. The S8 gets the same engine as the new R8 V-10, Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system, and an air suspension designed for aggressive driving. Sport touches abound in the car, too, with carbon fiber cabin trim and S8 logos on the tachometer, rocker panels, and front brake calipers.
Our Audi S8 also served as a test pad for a set of driver aid features that included blind spot assistance, adaptive cruise control, and lane departure warning system, this last feature being new for Audi. We were also quite pleased to see the Bang & Olufsen audio system we enjoyed so much in the Audi A8.
On the road
Immediately after getting onto the freeway in the big S8, we were enveloped in traffic, with cars darting across lanes so that we didn't want to try the adaptive cruise control just yet. But the blind spot detection feature made an immediate difference, lighting up a warning in the side mirror casings whenever a car hung off our rear quarter. Although we had 450 horsepower ready to go, cars in front and to the sides kept us locked into place, so we took stock of the other treats the S8 had to offer.
We paired an iPhone to the car's Bluetooth system, and were able to pick names from the contact list right on the S8's screen. That same iPhone was docked to the car's iPod jack, resulting in our full music library being accessible using Audi's Multimedia Interface, a knob on the console. And music was being played through the premium Bang & Olufsen audio system, which pumps over 1,000 watts of power through 14 speakers. This system makes sweet, sweet sound, delivering ultimate clarity and letting you hear your music like never before. It's a true audiophile's system, but it requires music up to its standards. Don't feed it MP3 tracks--the faults of compressed audio become abundantly clear. It wants lossless audio, either full CDs or tracks ripped to a lossless format.
After time spent enjoying these aspects of the car, traffic lightened up and we were able to make some use of the car. Bearing down on the gas we didn't feel a big push, like we expected from this engine, but a glance down at the speedometer showed the S8 picked up an immense amount of speed subtly, keeping the g-forces minimal in the cabin. The V-10 engine is hooked up to a six-speed automatic transmission, which didn't seem completely up to the task. In standard drive mode, moving along at 65 mph, the tachometer ticked up to 2,500rpm with the transmission in its top, sixth gear. Putting the transmission into manual mode and using the paddles to shift, the engine's growl became audible in fourth gear, and absolutely ferocious in third. We weren't going to risk second.
Engaging the adaptive cruise control was a confusing process, as the instructions and controls are on a stalk obscured by the left spoke of the steering wheel. After some trial and error we set it to 80 mph, marked by a red LED on the speedometer. The S8 followed the car ahead like it was on an elastic band, giving some smooth acceleration when the car sped up, then dropping back when it slowed down. At one point, traffic bunched up and the S8 slowed quickly, applying its own brakes.
When we had enough of freeway driving, we put the S8 onto a two lane highway, and subjected it to an impromptu acceleration test. According to Audi, the S8 hits 60 mph in 4.9 seconds. The S8 didn't exactly bolt off the line, as its Quattro and road-holding electronics did some quick computing after we hit the gas, deciding how much power the S8 could take without losing grip. Although there was no tire-spinning fury, the V-10 overcame the car's inertia rapidly enough, and it hit 60 mph right around 5 seconds, according to our count.
We found the S8 a real powerhouse, with plenty of useful electronics. But its responses feel just a little slow. However, Quattro and other systems gave us confidence that the S8 would prove safe and reliable during inclement weather.
In the cabin
Inside the car, a lot of carbon fiber and fine stitched leather surrounded us, all due to options that helped this 2009 Audi S8 top the $100,000 mark by a significant amount. These expensive materials were offset by Audi's standard switchgear, which included the metal MMI knob, various plastic buttons around the console and control panel, and Audi's standard steering wheel rollers and buttons. We actually do like these controllers, but you can get the same in the A4. Seems like a car of the S8's caliber should be distinct in every detail.
This complaint also lends itself to the navigation system that, while using high-resolution maps, only handles the basics and lacks advanced features such as traffic reporting and text-to-speech. Audi has a new system on the way, but the new Q5 model is the first car where we will see it. That new system will fix one of the worst features in the MMI, adding a joystick for easier map navigation, where in the S8 and other Audis you have to scroll around on an X and Y axis.
We like the phone system in the S8, which pairs with a variety of phones and makes the contact list available on the car's LCD. The upcoming system will add voice recognition to the contact list, so you can dial by name, but that's not available in the current S8.
Audi gets a little crazy with its music interface system. There's a custom port in the glove box and a bag full of cables so you can hook up a USB drive, iPod, mini-jack, or Mini-USB. We appreciate the choices, but it would be easier to just use a USB port that also works for iPods, like every other automaker. The iPod interface is excellent, letting you choose music by artist, album, genre, and playlist.