All the power in the world: driving Audi’s new 2020 S8May 27th, 2020
“Something very fast. Audi S8. Something that can shove a little bit. I’m also gonna need a nitrous system.”
Released over 20 years ago, John Frankenheimer’s film Ronin is a fun cold-war heist movie, but more importantly, it’s a car-chase classic, with some of the best automotive driving sequences ever committed to film. And with that line, the film’s pro driver shoved the Audi S8 into the film’s spotlight – lurking under shadowy bridge abutments in Paris, chasing Citroens along narrow country roads in the south of France, powersliding through Nice while knocking down fruit carts and bystanders in seemingly equal measure.
That chase made the S8 a star – stunt driver (and former F1 shoe) Jean-Pierre Jarier made the big sedan’s aluminum body dance in ways a big car shouldn’t, and used its quattro all-wheel drive to full effect on both pavement and gravel. Through it all, the V8 sounded amazing, and the short glimpses of the interior reminded viewers of how much space there was inside, and how beautifully-finished it was.
Since that moment, there has been no car in the world that better combines a sense of civility and brutality in one package. On the one hand, the Audi S8 is an unbelievably spacious, well-equipped, and comfortable luxury car; on the other, it offers thuggish levels of power, roadholding, and braking in a package whose performance would trouble many a performance car on a challenging route. If you’ve got some kind of job to do, and one that requires a getaway with a big crew and a lot of gear, there’s nothing else for the job.
The latest generation of the S8 is the most powerful yet, featuring a new twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8 producing 560 hp and to drive all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic and quattro all-wheel drive. Driven gently around town, it is as quiet, refined, and smooth as you like, but lean into the long-travel throttle and you soon discover a surprising edge to it: with two turbos, there’s huge torque, but you’re still rewarded for chasing revs with a keen metallic zing to the engine note, and super-crisp shifts when you work the paddles manually.
The faster you go, the more the massive long-wheelbase body seems to shrink around you. The S8 moves with the agility and confidence of a car half its size and weight, something it has always done thanks to its all-aluminum structure, lighter and stiffer than the same size car would be in steel. It is, remarkably, more nimble and easier to drive fast than the smaller S6 and S7 models, which are already stellar performers, the staggeringly powerful brakes and keen engine backed up by a suspension that seems to be capable of just about anything.
Forget the acres of screen real estate inside, the spectacular sound system, or the massaging seats; backed by the fastest-acting air springs I’ve yet encountered on any car, the S8’s suspension is its greatest technological accomplishment. Drive it like a sports car, and you get incredible body control, zero roll, and Porsche levels of precision. Yet, on tight city streets, it works together with the car’s radar and video sensors to pre-condition the springs for speed bumps and potholes, melting them away as if they’re not there. The suspension’s party tricks even extend to when the car is parked – unlock the S8 and walk towards it and it rises up to meet you, making getting into its plush interior even easier.
The suspension’s “hello dance” is just one of many beautiful touches of civility in this brutally powerful sedan. Like most modern Audis, all of the controls have migrated to capacitive panels, operable with the gentlest touch or swipe, including rear-seat climate and entertainment. The seats offer three different massage programs and a choice of different intensities. You can adjust the ambient lighting to suit your needs and mood – and you can mix two different colours for the upper and lower parts of the cabin. The B&O stereo is spectacular, as you would imagine; Apple CarPlay operates wirelessly and there’s a charging dock for your phone in the console. My favourite bit is the menu that lets you adjust how much engine noise you want – you can set it to quiet, automatic, or “present,” because to label it “loud” would be uncouth.
Looking at the expansive size and equally expansive expense of the S8, it’s tempting to ask whether a car like this – 560 horses, acres of leather, carbon, and piano-black-trim, sedan-shape body – is as relevant today as it was in 1998, and whether there’s something a bit old-school about this kind of car, despite all of the technology packed under its bluff body. But, that’s actually the key to the S8’s appeal. While the large-size premium market is all about SUVs these days, for a select few, there’s nothing quite like a big sedan with all the features and all the power in the world – and that within that class, there’s nothing quite like an S8.