2006 Audi S8, Lamborghini Powered Luxury

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2006 Audi S8, Lamborghini Powered Luxury

Top Gear, Matt Master, Jan 2006

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So the Audi S8 does go, stop and corner disarmingly well, despite the obvious, inherent dynamic shortcomings of a car with such formidable bulk and dimensions.

Audi S8

Autobahn sign-posted Austria, Franz Ferdinand on the Bang & Olufsen, Germany's snow-swept winter hinterland blurring past as the latest evolution of Audi's continent-crushing Audi S8 creeps towards its limiter; the subtexts are too numerous and confusing to deal with at any speed, let alone this one.

Easier to distil from this guilty mix of messages is the strong possibility that this new Audi S8 is the zenith of Aryan engineering, so clear cut in its purpose and accomplished in its execution that it might actually be all the car you'll ever need.

If, that is, you're the sort of frenzied executive whose notion of need is warp speed capability on the daily commute and having enough change after the 70,000 asking price to pay off the traffic cops who'll be nicking you every morning, as they invariably will.

For make no mistake, this is a single-minded product for single-minded people and you need to know exactly what you're stepping into.

The Audi S8 is problematically quick for a start, in as far as it's so refined you'll barely know what you've been up to until a magistrate is clarifying it all through gritted teeth.

And what with the price tag, fuel bills and all that bribing of the authorities you're going to have to do, it's certainly not going to seem like a bargain. But then nor would the equivalent S-Class.

The S55 AMG is, in fact, a murderous 20,000 more expensive, or a good five-year's worth of backhanders to your local constabulary.

And 70,000 is still five big ones less than the Maserati Quattroporte, a car whose very Italian sporting pretensions and aggressive semi-auto gearbox have all but neutered its limo-alike abilities.

So the Audi S8 suddenly starts to look like a bit of a bargain. It'll do the shit-off-a-shovel stuff (by which we mean 0-62mph in 5.1 seconds, limited top speed of 155mph and all sorts of organ-distorting in between), but all the while it'll be your cosseting corporate cruiser, wafting you blissfully about like your head's full of Valium.

There are problems though, and to resolve them you have to ask yourself what you really want this car for.

If it's mostly so that some poor sod in a uniform can drive you about while you get nauseated gawping into your Blackberry, then you might as well spend a few quid more on the frankly ridiculous six-litre W12 or some 10 grand less on the perfectly capable 4.2 quattro, with a long-wheel base to boot.

Either of these will make life in the back ssat a damn sight easier to bear because the ride, not the industry's best at any time, is that much softer. The engineers at Audi have had a tricky time striking a balance between comfort and handling on the S8 and admitted as much to us.

What you get, therefore, is a compromise. It's sort of stiff enough to be sporty, and sort of soft enough to be comfy. But only just on either count, and who wants to spend 70,000 on a compromise anyway?

Get a proper luxury car, make Jeeves put the seat so far forward that he's crushing his ribcage against the airbag and forget about it.

If, however, you are one of that rare breed of high-earning individuals who can't see fit to buy a car for work and a car for play, but must instead have an all-in-one super saloon to impress the shareholders midweek while still scaring the wife witless at weekends, the Audi S8 will have you filling your boots. It truly is devastatingly quick.

Even allowing for the creep of the auto from a standstill, there's so much immediate grunt from upfront that it's tricky to pull away without snapping your head back - another thing that's only going to delight your chauffeur while you bite back the need to shotblast the upholstery with your scarcely digested power lunch.

With 90 per cent of torque allegedly available at just 2,300rpm, on the open road the Audi S8 shows even less hesitation. Ripping through a six-speed Tiptronic auto, acceleration is seamlessly yet shamelessly aggressive.

Select Sport mode and the upshifts happen later, at higher revs, and the engine bellows in ball-shrinking fashion as all four driven wheels tear at the tarmac.

The root of this dizzying thrust is not just the 5.2-litre V10 engine from a Lamborghini Gallardo, but a development of it. Audi has taken its engine back from the Italians - fair enough really - and popped in the latest FSI technology that has seen gruelling development in the tiresomely dominant R8 Le Mans cars.

So that's supercar powerplant meets racecar tech, dropped into a pretty inconspicuous saloon car. The result is 450bhp, a bit less than the Lambo, but 398lb ft of torque, which is actually a bit more.

Via a centre differential, the Audi S8 defaults to distributing this grunt 60/40 in favour of the rears. In extreme conditions, however, traction can still be optimised by transferring up to 65 per cent of the drive to the front or 85 per cent to the back.

Phenomenal braking is also a given on the Audi S8, or at least it was on our car.

Audi decided it would be a good idea to fit the eye-watering 5,000 ceramic brake option to every single one of their launch cars. They're very big, largely immune to heat fade and should last the entire life cycle of the car, so maybe it's worth the extra dosh.

Hard to say without trying out the standard kit, but after a mere whiff of the Audi S8's near-ballistic turn of speed, you're unlikely to settle for anything less.

So the Audi S8 does go, stop and corner disarmingly well, despite the obvious, inherent dynamic shortcomings of a car with such formidable bulk and dimensions. But ultimately it never feels like a sports car, proving far more comfortable and exploitable in its natural environment, the autobahn.

Here, as that all-or-nothing alternative to a private jet, it promises to satisfy the redlined autocratic urges of even the most demanding captains of industry.

And inside it's still what your boardroom despot would expect from an Audi A8, but with the addition of masses of carbon fibre trim.

So you get acres of space front and rear, enough electrical kit to confuse even the pre-teens and an overwhelming sense of total, unimpeachable luxury.

But do you want carbon trim in an Audi A8, alongside the already heady blend of brushed aluminium, Alcantara, soft touch plastics, leather, contrasting-stitch leather and two-tone leather on the seats? There's a hell of a lot going on in here, that once-lauded bastion of the upmarket understatement.

Which brings us back to the question of why an Audi S8 is really on your shopping list.

If your palms start to moisten at the thought of carbon trim, at the perfect, brittle weave and critical weight saving, you don't want a car that weighs a whisker under two tonnes do you? You want the new Audi RS4 that'll leave the Audi S8 for dead, still seat five and save you another 20,000 for those twice daily run-ins with the law.

But the Audi S8 operates as something of a halo car, not just, it seems, for Audi, but for Germans at large. Weaving through downtown Dusseldorf, we were harangued by pimply youths, windcheater-wearing car nerds and surly old buggers alike, all of them immediately aware of what they were looking at and exactly what was under the hood.

Judging by the level of adolescent excitement, interest and pride that the Audi S8 commands in its homeland you'd have thought we were shooting Miss Rhineland in a bikini on the ice-cold aluminium bonnet, rather than the mechanical mess beneath that was, shamefully, their true source of arousal.

But it's a fitting insight into just what the Audi S8 means and where it stands in the German automotive lexicon, that it can be relatively innocuous and yet still get double-takes from middle-aged mums with arms full of shopping.

Aside from a few 'S-Line' badges, a hugely subtle integrated rear spoiler and the telltale brace of twin exhausts, there is precious little to make the Audi S8 stand out at all.

Some garishly branded calipers are the only real giveaway, and you can be sure these are the first thing prospective buyers will delete from the options list. Clearly this is a car you'd neither want to, nor need to, shout about.

Beyond the partisan icon status, however, it seems pretty tricky to justify the whopping expense of owning and running an Audi S8 in the hopelessly restricted road-going environment of our little nanny state.

Your only real purpose for buying Audi's sporting flagship looks to be in having an Audi A8 that's a lot faster than everyone else's.

A fabulous car in almost every respect, it nonetheless remains strangely pointless.

Matt Master



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