Test Drive: 2001 Audi S8 car test drives audi
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New for 2001, the Audi S8 is a high-performance version of the A8, Audi’s top luxury car. Differences between the A8 and S8 include a more powerful 370 horsepower 4.2 litre V8 engine, bigger 18 inch tires and wheels, a lowered and modified suspension, different interior trim, and a higher level of standard equipment. The S8 is priced at $102,500 and major competitors include the Mercedes-Benz S55 and Jaguar XJR.



Spectacular performance for a spectacular price

In the Fall of 1996, Audi introduced one of the world’s most technically-advanced large luxury sedans, the A8. It was the first luxury sedan to make use of a lightweight aluminum space frame and an aluminum suspension which gave it an excellent power to weight ratio for such a large car. It was also the first large luxury car to earn a five-star crash rating for both driver and front passenger in the rigorous 40 mph NHTSA frontal crash test. In addition, it was, and is the only car in its class to offer standard all-wheel-drive.

The A8, and the long-wheelbase A8L (introduced in 2000), compete with some of the most prestigious cars in the world: the Mercedes-Benz S430, the BMW 740i/740iL, Lexus LS430, Jaguar XJ8/Vanden Plas, and Infiniti Q45. The A8 has maintained a relatively low profile in this high-profile class which I attribute to its simple, ‘generic-Audi’ styling – from the front, the A8 looks almost exactly like an A4, only bigger.

Things may change when a redesigned Audi A8 is introduced next year, but in the meantime, Audi has introduced a high-performance version of the current A8 called the S8 – a limited production model with improved handling, acceleration and braking characteristics.

Like the AMG-modified Mercedes-Benz S55 and the supercharged Jaguar XJR, the Audi S8 is a performance-oriented specialty car designed to appeal to a small group of well-to-do enthusiasts who want the very best luxury/performance sedan on the market. Of course, this doesn’t come cheap. The Audi S8 is priced at $102,000 while the Mercedes-Benz S55 goes for $139,000.

Though few of us will ever be able to afford a car like this, it’s nice to know what we’ll do with our lottery winnings when we win the ‘big one’.


S8 has engine, suspension modifications

The S8′s 370 horsepower 4.2 litre V8 engine has 60 more horsepower than the A8 and A8L’s 4.2 litre V8 engines. Unlike other Audi ‘S’ models, this was achieved without the use of turbochargers. The S8′s 4.2 litre DOHC 5-valve-per-cylinder V8 engine has a new magnesium three-stage variable intake manifold for better engine breathing, new camshafts with modified valve timing for more horsepower, and a redesigned exhaust system for increased exhaust flow. More performance comes from its relatively high compression ratio of 11:1, which means that the S8 requires Premium fuel.

The S8 engine develops 370 horsepower at 7000 rpm and 317 lbs-ft of torque at just 3400 rpm – that compares to the A8′s 310 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 302 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm. For comparison, the Mercedes-Benz S55 has a 5.5 litre V8 engine which offers 349 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 391 lb-ft of torque at 3150 rpm, while the Jaguar XJR’s supercharged 4.0 litre V8 engine develops 370 horsepower at 6150 rpm and 387 lb-ft. of torque at 3600 rpm. Another potential competitor is the redesigned 2002 Infiniti Q45 which offers 340 horsepower and 333 lb-ft of torque.

The S8′s published 0 to 100 km/h time is 6.3 seconds and the � mile is 13.9 seconds – extremely quick times for a big car than this. This is due in part to the S8′s excellent power to weight ratio – its aluminum construction makes it lighter than many of its competitors. It should be mentioned however that advances in lightweight steel in recent years have narrowed down this advantage. The steel-bodied Mercedes-Benz S55, for example, weighs 1900 kg (4186 lb.), only slightly more than the 1845 kg (4068 lb.) Audi S8.

The S8 has larger wheels and tires than the A8 – 18 inch Avus cast alloy wheels and 245/45ZR-18 inch performance radials compared to standard 16 inch wheels and tires on the A8. Also, the S8′s suspension has been lowered by 20 mm, it has 30 percent stiffer springs, stiffer shock absorbers and thicker stabilizer bars.

The easiest way to tell an S8 from an A8 is by its bigger wheels and tires, but there are other subtle differences such as S8 badges on the grille and decklid, dual tailpipes, and aluminum mirrors. Inside there are grey ‘birds eye’ maple trim, new front sport seats, standard ‘Valcona’ leather upholstery, an S8 insignia under the instruments and a polished aluminum door sill with an S8 insignia.


Quick and nimble for a big car

Test Drive: 2001 Audi S8 car test drives audi
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The S8 is very quick off the line for a full-size sedan and the power curve is strong right through the rev range. With its standard quattro all-wheel-drive system and ESP traction and stability control system, there is virtually no wheel slip and the feeling in the cockpit is that most of that awesome 370 horsepower gets to the ground.

The standard 5-speed Tiptronic transmission will adapt shift points to sporty driving styles and offers crisp, timely shifts. In manual mode, gears can be changed with buttons on the steering wheel spokes without the use of a clutch, a benefit when the driver wants more control of shift points.

During cornering, there is very little lean and the grip is phenomenal. The S8′s fully independent suspension consists of a four-link front suspension and a trapezoidal multi-link setup at the rear. Though its front/rear weight distribution is 60/40, there is very little brake dive and the car feels neutral through twisty sections. The S8′s sticky, low-profile 18 inch tires offer excellent grip but the ride is firmer than in the A8.

In many respects, the S8 feels like a smaller car than it is – its quick acceleration, excellent handling and unexpected maneouverability remind me of a mid-sized sedan rather than a full-size sedan. The only time you notice that it is a full-size sedan is when you try and park downtown – at almost 200 inches in length, you need a full-size parking space.

Perhaps the S8′s biggest advantage over its rear-wheel-drive competitors is its standard quattro all-wheel-drive system. This consists of a centre Torsen differential with provides variable front and rear power allocation depending on the grip at each axle. The quattro system also includes front and rear electronically locking differentials which proportion power from side to side when needed. As well, the S8 has an automatic skid control system called ESP (electronic stabilization program). Data supplied by the ABS system, traction control system, steering wheel, and yaw and lateral acceleration sensors is sent to a computer which senses oversteer or understeer and automatically corrects by braking individual wheels to restore steering direction and stability.

As well, the S8′s powerful disc brakes (13.6 inches in diameter at the front and 11 inches at the rear) with standard ABS and EBD (electronic braking pressure distribution) offer superb braking control.

What all of this means is that the S8 offers exceptional control and grip on slippery surfaces such as rain-soaked roads, gravel roads, icy or snow-packed roads, and roads where surface conditions change suddenly such as mountain roads where shadows conceal a patch of ice. As you can see, the S8 is well-suited to Canadian weather conditions.

My only quibble with the S8′s performance is its ‘Servotronic’ speed-dependent variable power assist rack and pinion system. At highway speeds, steering wheel effort is firm and communicative, but at speeds under 30 km/h, the steering feel is extremely light – almost as light as my Dad’s old 1963 Pontiac Laurentian! I think it needs to be firmer. Also, its 12.3 metre (40.2 feet) turning circle can be attributed to the car’s long 113 inch wheelbase and all-wheel-drive hardware.

Oh, and I found one problem when parking – the lower front bumper is very low and will contact a standard concrete curb.


Well-equipped, classy interior

Though the S8 is based on the ‘short wheelbase’ A8 sedan rather than the ‘long wheelbase’ A8L sedan, it has plenty of interior room for five adults.

The dashboard is conservatively and tastefully designed and includes two large electroluminescent gauges for speedometer and tachometer and numerous smaller auxillary gauges which are backlit in red at night. The speedometer reads up to 300 km/h but the S8 is electronically-limited to a maximum speed of ‘only’ 250 km/h – a speed that would net a considerable fine or jail sentence in Canada but could be attained legally on the German autobahns. Also noteworthy is the S8 tachometer’s 7000 rpm redline, a relatively high maximum engine speed. The S8′s three-spoke steering wheel has power tilt and telescoping functions which make it easy to find the perfect position. Buttons for the Tiptronic transmission are also located on the steering wheel. The front sport seats have excellent side and thigh support which keep the driver secure during spirited driving – the power leather seats offer power lumbar and power head restraints and seat heaters with six temperature settings.

My test car had the optional two-tone ‘Alcantara’ suede leather interior which includes attractive suede seat inserts, door trim, and roof trim – it’s an expensive option though, adding $4,850 to the price of the car. Tasteful, horizontal grey wood trim lines the dash and doors, blending nicely with the two-tone dash and seats.

A unique interior feature is the separate folding armrests for driver and passenger – they both contain covered storage in addition to the open storage area beneath the armrests. There are also large door map pockets on all four doors.

Some of the S8′s controls are unusual, such as the separate stalk on the steering column for the headlights.

Rear passengers have generous legroom and headroom, heated rear outboard seats, and a folding rear centre armrest with two cupholders and a first-aid kit! Behind the rear armrest is an opening to the trunk, however the rear seatbacks do not fold down.

My test car had the optional rear sunshades – a power-operated rear window sunshade, and manually-operated side window sunshades. These pull-down blinds have hundreds of tiny holes which enable the occupants to see out with minimal sunlight intrusion. The S8′s power windows feature automatic-down operation and anti-pinch sensors, but they are a bit slow going up and down.

The S8′s trunk is huge: 498 litres (18.0 cu. ft.). The trunk includes four tie-down hooks and a storage net, but as I said, there isn’t a fold-down rear seatback.

Safety features

The S8 is one of the safest cars in the world. Along with its rigid aluminum body structure and front and rear crumple zones, the S8 offers dual front airbags, dual front and rear side airbags, side curtain airbags, and five height-adjustable head restraints – the two rear outboard head restraints can be folded down for better visibility, and the centre rear head restraint is positioned lower when not in use for the same reason. There are also emergency seatbelt retractors, rear child tether anchors and rear child door locks.


Price and features

As you might imagine, standard equipment on the $102,000 S8 is extensive. In addition to the features mentioned above, these include dual zone temperature control, a 200 watt Bose sound system with trunk-mounted 6-disc CD changer, xenon gas-discharge headlamps, driver information system display, central door locking with remote, folding ignition key, heated door locks, air quality sensor, individual ignition keys that remember seating and steering wheel positions, front and rear fog lights, headlight washers, and a full-size spare tire and alloy wheel.

My test car had some options such as the Parktronic rear sensors which detect obstacles behind the car when backing up, hands-free mobile phone, and the Alacantra leather trim package which brought my as-tested price up to $109,550.

For comparison, a Mercedes-Benz S55 starts at $139,900 and a Jaguar XJR at $95,500.


Conclusion

The Audi S8′s strong points are its comparatively nimble handling, strong flexible power, roomy interior, and fun-to-drive nature. Its weak points are its conservative styling, over-boosted steering at slower speeds, long parking length, high price and relatively low resale value.
Still, that doesn’t stop the S8 from being one of the best luxury performance cars in the world, which in my opinion, it is.


Technical Data:

2001 Audi S8
Base price $102,500
Price as tested $109,550
Type 4-door, 5-passenger full-size sedan
Layout longitudinal front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 4.2 litre V8, DOHC, 40 valves, variable intake camshaft timing
Horsepower 370 @ 7000 rpm
Torque 317 lb-ft @ 3400 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic Tiptronic
Tires 245/45ZR-18
Curb weight 1845 kg (4068 lb.)
Wheelbase 2880 mm (113.4 in.)
Length 5034 mm (198.2 in.)
Width 2007 mm (79.0 in.)
Height 1418 mm (55.8 in.)
Trunk space 498 litres (18.0 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption 16.0 l/100 km (18 mpg)
  10.1 l/100 km (28 mpg)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km




About Greg Wilson

Greg Wilson is a Vancouver-based automotive journalist and contributor to Autos.ca. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).