Audi’s Flagship S8 Still Has What It Takes

Critic's Notebook takeaway: No electricity, but still ludicrous fast.

Audi S8 Review
Audi

I can’t imagine a more self-effacing assassin than the Audi S8 Plus. This is Kung Fu Panda of flagship sedans, plush and lovable inside and out, eager to serve a wise master. But beneath that softly rounded exterior, a 605-horsepower twin-turbo V8 will rock-and-sock nearly any other sedan on the market. That includes the $204,000 Bentley Flying Spur V8, whose 4.0-liter engine is a trickle-up from the Audi -- but with just 500 horses (521 in the S model), and for nearly double the Audi’s $115,825 base price.

Like other autobahn heavyweights, including the Bentley, Mercedes S63 and S65 AMGs, and the upcoming BMW M760i xDrive with its 600-hp twin-turbo V-12, the Audi doesn’t flirt with overkill, but rather runs it down and backs over it a few times. The week before jumping in the S8 I had driven a standard 450-hp Audi A8, which might seem enough sedan for anyone beyond Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. That A8 is already an iconoclast’s choice in the segment, a car that, for all its luxury virtues, has never threatened the sales dominance of the Mercedes or BMW. So the S8 and its buyers are even more rara avises: How many people willingly drop six figures on a sedan that happily stays below the radar, at least the figurative kind? About two years ago, when I stomped the gas of a merely 520-hp S8 coming off New York’s Tappan Zee bridge -- the acceleration binding my molecules to the massaging seats -- a young police officer pulled me over and, sputtering with recriminations and a tinge of jealousy, wrote me a pair of tickets.

Yes, you need to watch yourself, and your mirrors, in the S8 Plus. Those dual enablers, its V-8 and ruthless eight-speed Tiptronic automatic, conspire to slaughter 60 mph in 3.8 seconds. That's roughly as quick as a Corvette Stingray, only a tick or two behind a far-smaller Porsche Panamera Turbo S. Smarter engine management and re-jiggered turbo geometry and exhaust valves add 85 horses to the already-ferocious S8. There’s 518 pound-feet of peak torque, with 553 available for quick shots of overboost, applied via handsome 21-inch alloy wheels and tires.

For this test, I kept a vow to avoid another speeding ticket, especially on a long run from Brooklyn to the Poconos in Pennsylvania. Yet a multi-mile downhill stretch on I-90 proved impossible to resist: Every squeeze of the throttle, every thwack of the paddle shifters, and the Audi surged ahead of the pack. Followers, including an intrigued BMW 5-Series, crept up to mount challenges, and the Audi dispatched them like an NFL fullback bowling over toddlers. And though the S8 Plus may arguably be overpowered, it never feels overwhelmed: A rear-biased Quattro all-wheel-drive system allowed even full-throttle application at any speed without a peep from traction control or a hint of chassis upset.

Audi

Gray drizzle darkened the Delaware Water Gap, yet the Audi looked resplendent in Florett Silver matte paint. As it should, for an extra $6,000. The option splurge continued with an $11,000 Dynamic Package, which bumps top speed to a Bentley-esque 190 mph, and adds a carbon fiber lip spoiler, ceramic brakes and a sport exhaust that let a husky snarl escape through blackened tips. Keep going? A $6,300 Bang & Olufsen audio system, and another optional slathering of carbon fiber inside and out, including a lovely red twill pattern across the dash and console. All told, Audi’s fastest-ever S model rang the register at $152,975.

With the vagaries of product cycles, the S8 and A8 are now senior statesmen in the ever-evolving Audi lineup. It means that Audi’s 2016 flagship sedan must do without some of the brand’s latest technology, including the Virtual Cockpit display found in more-affordable models like the all-new 2017 A4. Yet these Audis are such perennials that, like the dreadnought Mercedes sedans of another age, the lack of flash and new gadgetry is almost a selling point. Consider the Audi S8 Plus a modern Chippendale cabinet, an exemplar of neoclassical design, function and good taste. Only this Chippendale will be moving too quickly to gather dust.

Audi

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2016 Audi S8 Plus
Powertrain: 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-8: 605 hp / 518 lb-ft/ 553 lb-ft with overboost
0-60 mph: 3.8 seconds
Price (as tested): $115,825 ($152,975)
MPG: 16/26