October 23, 2006
An amusing little irony about luxury cars is that the more expensive the car is, the more options are available – and the more expensive those options are. These days, while most high-end luxury cars come with a list of standard features such as CD changers, self-dimming mirrors and other goodies, which used to be options, the onward march of electronic technology has meant that the number of options has increased as well. A few hundred dollars – or a few thousand dollars, when you’re talking top-tier luxury sedans like the Audi S8 – can buy you almost any feature your heart desires. A couple of extra wires, a few more lines of code and two or three extra MMI menu options later, and you are presented with a car transformed.
One of the most interesting – and expensive – option packages of recent years makes its debut on the new $130,000 Audi S8 performance sedan. At $7,800, the Bang & Olufsen advanced audio package represents a serious chunk of change, especially when you consider that the S8′s standard 12-speaker Bose system is one of the finest in the industry. Unlike most audio option packages, its presence is immediately visible when you enter the S8. Its loudspeakers – in the doors, in the dashboard and most prominently on the rear parcel shelf – are encased in their own cabinets and finished with beautiful round satin-finish aluminum enclosures. Insert the key into the ignition – or in the case of my test car, press the Engine Start button while the key remains in your trousers – and the audio system fires up with a visual flourish as the information screen powers into view and two small inverted cone-shaped – uh – things emerge at the corners of the dashboard.
The aluminum-finished cones, which sit on top of a pair of tiny speakers, are called acoustic lenses by B&O. Their purpose, beyond just looking really, really cool and James Bond-like, is to better disperse the stereo’s higher tones so they’re heard more clearly by everyone in the car. And at least initially, they proved to be a bit of a disappointment. Having read a lot about the B&O system in the S8 – and having been impressed by the specifications on the Danish stereo maker’s Web site and by the big price tag – my first drive with the S8′s stereo left me with the impression that the system sounded a bit thin and hollow compared to the thumping Bose system. I chalked it up to, perhaps, a difference in musical tastes between me and the audio engineers and resolved to try a wider variety of discs through the week.
After a few days – and trials of discs ranging from bass-heavy hip-hop to the most delicate classical tunes – I still hadn’t managed to find a set-up between the B&O system’s various signal-processing options (which allow you to focus the sound on the front or rear seat; alter the size of the virtual sound stage; and compress CDs’ dynamic range for a more consistent volume level), so I went to the Internet in search of answers. I found some quickly from a B&O-loving email acquaintance of mine who had a pair of Beolab 5 speakers at home – the first pieces of audio equipment to feature the acoustic lenses now installed in the Audi. "Try moving your seat lower and further back," he wrote. "The speakers work their best when they’re level with the top of your ears."
Well, lo and behold, he was right. With the seat at its lowest level and with the backrest reclined at about a 45-degree angle, the B&O system suddenly sounded spectacular, easily among the top five audio systems I’ve experienced in any car. The clarity with which it played CDs was exceptional; you could hear the tiniest little foot-shuffles during live performances and the high notes on any recording didn’t get muddled even when the volume was turned way up. Bass notes rocked the cabin without literally rocking the cabin and introducing extra vibrations like in most other cars and at low volumes, you could still hear each instrument clearly and separately.
The problem, of course, is that being somewhat shorter than average, I was now in a position where I could neither see out of the S8 nor reach its pedals. This being a full-sized German automobile with an audio system designed by people from Denmark (neither country of which seems run over by short people), maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the best stereo performance was to be experienced from the seating position of a 90th-percentile male. I searched the owner’s manual and the MMI system – as well as Internet discussion boards – in vain to find a way to adjust the lenses so they’d work better for someone my height. If you’re short and really want an S8, an extended audition of the B&O system is important before you decide to fork out the extra cash.
You will, should you have the means and the desire to own a giant aluminum-bodied sport sedan, want an S8 after you’ve draped eyes on it. Everybody else who I passed in a week of driving seemed to. It’s hard to know what their eyes were drawn to first: the giant single-frame grille with the signature S-car vertical slats; the 14-spoke, 20-inch alloy wheels wrapped in rubber-band Yokohama performance tires; the four huge oval exhaust pipes peeking out from under the rear bumper; the subtle but very aggressive ground-effects package; or simply the V10 badges on the side of the car. Whatever the case, even in deep-sea blue like my tester, the S8 attracts all kinds of attention – and radiates a subtle, confident menace from every inch of its tautly-drawn body.
As well it should, given that it’s powered by a 5.2-litre V10 that started life inside the Lamborghini Gallardo but which has had almost every part changed during its transition to life under the aluminum front skin of Audi’s biggest sedan. While it is a far more flexible engine than the Gallardo’s – horsepower and torque number 450 and 398 respectively, giving it strong low-end pull as well as top-end power – the engine certainly still has some Italian character to it. It revs like crazy, enough to spin the four Yokohamas from a dead stop despite the best efforts of the new, rear-biased quattro all-wheel-drive system – and it also sounds fantastic, with a deep, gurgling idle that builds to a full-bodied roar that resonates inside tunnels and off concrete walls. You’ll constantly be dropping a couple of gears in the Tiptronic six-speed automatic just to hear the S8 roar – and consequently your fuel consumption will suffer like mine did: over a week, I averaged no better than an abominable 17.8 L/100 km and often dipped to 20 L/100 km.
What is interesting about the S8 is that all of this overt sportiness and performance has not come at the expense of luxury or refinement. When you’re not playing hooligan, the V10 is actually quite quiet when you’re merely cruising along (and its fuel consumption at 120 km/h can dip below 10 L/100 km). Ride quality on the 20-inch tires actually seems better than the last A8 I drove, which is probably down to some improved programming of the air suspension. Even in its stiffest "dynamic" setting, it absorbed all but the worst of bumps with merely a distant wheel thump and no disturbance to the cabin. At high speeds, wind and road noise are appropriately hushed for such a large, expensive sedan and long-distance cruising comfort is excellent despite front seats that have much larger side bolsters and thigh supports than the regular A8.
This is, in the end, still a luxury car. Push the S8 hard along a winding road and the tires generate lots of grip, but the steering still feels strangely numb; the addition of the V10 up front hasn’t really helped the handling balance, giving it a more nose-heavy feel than a regular A8. Despite the all-aluminum body, this is still a heavy car and you feel the presence of all those luxury features (rear backup camera; DVD navigation; power assists for everything you could imagine) as well as the quattro drive system through every turn. On the plus side are immensely powerful brakes that haul the S8 down from speed time and again with little complaint and surprising urban manoeuvrability thanks to good visibility and a tight turning circle.
I’ve always been a big fan of the Audi A8 and, by extension, the S8. I like the A8 – both the original and the current model – because of the intelligence of its weight-saving design and the timelessness of its clean lines. I’ve loved the S8 since seeing it work as the bad guys’ car in Ronin, running hapless Renaults off the road and chasing down French thugs carrying a mythical aluminum case along an off-road obstacle course and during a high-speed run through the streets of Nice (Skipp Sudduth, who plays the driver, Larry, did much of his own stunt driving in the movie). Adding an Italian-sounding V10 to the mix for in the new S8 guarantees it a place in my heart, despite a couple of rough edges and the surprising sensitivity of the Bang & Olufsen sound system to seating position.
Should you have the means – and the desire to buy a car that’s not the most obvious choice in its price class – the S8 is one darn fine super sedan. It has all the toys you’d ever want in a luxury car with a dash of extra attitude that gives it a character all its own.
At a glance: 2007 Audi S8
Base price $129,700
Options $ 19,900
(premium package, $4,800; four-zone climate control, $900; Bang & Olufsen sound system, $7,800; full leather upgrade, $6,400)
Price as tested $149,600
Engine 5.2-litre V10
Power 450 hp
Torque 398 lb-ft
Fuel consumption (city/highway/as tested): NA/NA/17.8 L/100 km
Competition BMW M5, Mercedes S63 AMG
Manufacturer’s web site