A car that has long had a devoted cult following, Audi gives us the fourth iteration of the S8 supersaloon. And what we think is the company's best all-round effort at this particular formula yet, as it's not only as stonkingly rapid and unrelentingly grippy as it ever has been, but it's even more comfortable and yet entertaining in the corners as well. Marvellous.
In the Metal:
There is precious little to give away the Audi S8 if a bystander is standing several metres away from one of these behemoths. It has a smattering of subtle S-model signifiers, like quad tailpipes at the back and plenty of silver detailing (including the door-mirror caps), but it does without gaudy lower bodywork, spoilers or even colossal great alloys. On the standard 20-inch rims of this four-door flagship for the German company, you might even say the Audi looks a touch under-wheeled in this specification - especially as, unlike some of its smaller high-performance siblings, it doesn't have any particularly lurid or eye-catching colours in its optional palette, instead only coming in the sober hues you'd expect of an executive luxury saloon.
Ditto the interior, which is cultured and elegant rather than overtly sporty. There are little touches that might suggest there's something more under the bonnet than a 286hp 3.0-litre V6 TDI, like the diamond-stitched seats and the door sills, but it's basically an A8's cabin. Which is no bad thing, because the A8's cabin is a belter, which means - in turn - so is the S8's interior. There's that wide, minimalist dashboard predicated on a lovely two-tier architecture, there are the three crisp screens of the latest Audi MMI digital interface, there's the 'broad mushroom' gear lever (which is being superseded in other models in the marque's portfolio by the smaller, electric-razor-like stub of a thing instead) and there's a four-spoke steering wheel with a perfectly round circumference and a pleasingly thin amount of padding on it. Spectacularly showy, the Audi S8's passenger compartment is not; beautifully made and appointed, ergonomically faultless and a wonderful place to spend lots of time, it most certainly is.
S8s throughout the years have always been fast without shouting about it - the kind of automotive equivalent of 'hiding your light under a bushel'. This is what is known as a Q-car, or sleeper, and there can be few finer exponents of this dark performance-car art over the decades than the S8. Those who are fans of a bit of 1990s quality cinema will also know that the rapid Audi barge garnered a large part of its enduring star appeal due to the fact a Mk1 S8 was a key part of John Frankenheimer's MacGuffin-driven, labyrinthine espionage/heist/action/thriller flick Ronin.
Truth be told, though, the S8 has never really been that good to drive. Fast and incredibly sure-footed, like all powerful Audis so often are; but a bit inert and aloof for keener drivers. Even the preceding Mk3 S8 left a bit to be desired in the dynamic stakes, although the later - and somewhat demented - S8 plus further ladled on the cult kudos as it was a part of Audi Sport's output, rather than merely a 'heated-up' mainstream model like every other S.
This one, though, has a secret of its own. It doesn't appear to be one of Audi Sport's models again, but it is packing a lot of RS-derived hardware. Like the same 4.0-litre biturbo V8 you'd find in the likes of an RS 6 Avant, only moderately 'detuned' to 571hp instead of a peak 600hp. Torque, however, matches that mega-wagon at 800Nm, and this means that, while the new S8 cannot claim the mantle of the most powerful S8 yet - it may be 51hp up on the old 'standard' model but it is also 34hp down on the 605hp S8 plus - its torque is brutal in comparison: fully 150Nm more than the vehicle it directly supersedes and even out-thumping the S8 plus when it was on its overboost phase and it could deliver 750Nm, an increase from its nominal 700Nm.
To that end, some sources have the latest S8 as capable of running 0-100km/h in 3.8 seconds, every bit as fast as the old 'plus', while others say 3.9 seconds, but we're going with the former. Because, once you've sampled the way this sombre four-door explodes at the horizon when you ask it to, you'll not doubt the 3.8-second claim in the slightest and you'll also wonder, in slack-jawed stupefaction, why you'd ever need an RS Audi again. Never has 571hp seemed so devastatingly effective, especially as the S8 weighs a not inconsiderable 2,305kg with a driver onboard. There's no way some determined French crooks in a Citroen XM V6 would keep this thing at bay, not even for a few seconds of high-octane chase scenes on the roads near Nice.
Ahem. But bonkers straight-line pace is only one part of the S8's equation. The other is its exquisite ride/handling balance, the best seen yet in any S8 by some distance. Audi's Predictive Adaptive Suspension aims to make the car capable of limo-like gliding when you want it to just float along (it even has a brilliant Comfort+ mode), but it can scan the road ahead and assess the attitude of the wheels and dampers to make a 5.2-metre-long machine feel like a sports car when the corners arrive. And, with the exception of a little bit of wooliness right at the limit, that's exactly what the S8 delivers. Turn-in is sharp, body control is supple but impressive, and the grip and traction are largely fabulous. It feels RS-like, rather than 'merely' an S.
It also employs four-wheel steering, quattro four-wheel drive with a self-locking centre Sport differential with S-specific tuning and meaty brakes, so you can hustle the S8 to hilarious effect just as easily as you can cruise in it in exquisite comfort. Sure, the steering always remains a tiny bit too light and lacking in feel to make this a truly exceptional vehicle for dynamics, but overall it's an S8 that offers genuine reward and fun to the lucky occupant installed behind its steering wheel, just as much as it imbues its occupants with an immense amount of feel-good factor and exceptional refinement.
What you get for your Money:
Audi Ireland has not yet set the S8's price in stone for 2021, but with a CO2 output of well north of 226g/km, the price tag is easily going to be well into six figures - and we mean a long way into six figures, given a 50 TDI Luxury is €122,483. However, standard equipment should include the four-wheel steering, the 48-volt mild-hybrid technology to save a bit of fuel (as well as cylinder-on-demand shut-off of four of the V8's cylinders under light engine loads), 20-inch alloy wheels, Predictive Adaptive Suspension, Valcona leather upholstery, heated seats, dual-zone climate control and more.
The very thing that makes the new Audi S8 less desirable to the image-conscious masses who want the flared wheel arches and the ostentatious obviousness of an RS-model Audi is what will undoubtedly make this car all the cooler in the eyes of those niche few that know - the S8 might not have the butch, bristling look of the ideologically similar RS 7 Sportback, but it has almost all of the haymaker punch of its fabled relative, only packaged in a sophisticated body and perched atop a supremely comfortable chassis. Not quite perfect as big supersaloons go, we're of the staunch opinion that the latest S8 is thoroughly tremendous, nevertheless.