The Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7 Series have long ruled the roost when it comes to full-sized luxury sedans. The segment doesn't sell a load of cars, but it does carry a lot of prestige.
Click photo for more views of the 2013 Audi S8.
Mercedes and BMW typically stuff their luxury haulers with as much new-age technology as possible, then offer versions with extra horsepower and long wheelbases. These uber-models include the S63 AMG and 760Li, which go for $365,000 and $348,500 respectively in New Zealand.
Audi's A8 sedan has been around since the 1990s, but the high-performance S8 model has only been offered sporadically. The last generation came out in 2006 and was outfitted with a V-10 engine. While it was certainly game, it wasn't a game changer.
The 2013 model year brings an all-new S8 and this time it isn't playing fair.
The new S8 sedan starts at $218,000 and is a technological showpiece. It looks great. And it's faster than most sports cars.
Titans of industry who prefer to be driven might take pause, however. No long wheelbase model is offered.
That means you can forget about a rear throne that reclines like a leather-lined Barcalounger. Audi buyers who want to spread out in the rear will have to endure the vagaries of the long-wheelbase A8. It's offered in New Zealand as a turbodiesel 3.0-litre V6 at $187,000 and for the time-being a 4.2-litre V8 model costing $217,000.
The S8, comparatively, is like a Lear jet. Smaller and really, really fast.
How fast? Well, Audi says it can crack 100kmh in 3.9 seconds. That's speedier than most muscle cars. Heck, it's significantly quicker than the company's supercar, the V8 powered R8 4.2.
The S8's previous gas-thirsty V10 was jettisoned in favour of the smarter, more efficient V8. The 4.0-litre V8 is twin-turbo-charged and direct injected, and built of lightweight aluminum. With 382 kilowatts, it is more powerful than the 5.2- litre V-10, and propels the car to 100kmh a full second quicker.
It also gets better mileage, with 15.7L/100km around town and as much as 9L/100km on the highway highway. The previous one managed only 18.1L and 12.4L/100km for the same driving conditions. Now that's progress.
I drove the S8 around the Tri-State area. The weather was cold and damp and, aside from my couch, the Audi's cabin was the best place to take refuge.
The gorgeous leather seats had an exquisite cross-stitched diamond pattern, electronically adjusted in 22 different positions, offered a massage function and were heated and air-conditioned. Come to think of it, they were better than my couch.
Executive sedans always get car makers' latest gadgets. I first experienced a night-vision system on a BMW 7 Series and adaptive cruise control in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
If the S8 doesn't have anything on it that I haven't seen before, the reason is Audi doesn't wait to let its latest technologies filter down to lesser models. Like the A6 and A7 sedans, the S8 gets a slim navigation screen that slides out of the centre console and employs Google Earth. The car also acts as a moveable wi-fi spot. The cabin is a happy place for a technophile.
It's also a great place for a driver.
Around the city and during rush-hour on the highway, the S8 performed its duty perfectly: It mitigated the irritation of modern driving. The swell of the stereo kept me entertained at red lights, and it moved smoothly in spurts of hurry-up-and-stop freeway traffic. Exactly as a luxury sedan should.
Then I got it out on to quieter roads, far out of town, and let the S8 show me what it could really do. From a standstill, I dropped my foot on the accelerator. All thoughts of shiny gadgets and leather luxury were wrenched from my head.
An expletive might have fallen from my mouth. The S8 rips like a hopped-up Porsche 911.
It also turns beautifully. Moving a big luxury car through a narrow two-lane road often feels like a chore. Try to go through that same road with speed and it can feel like an act of either bravery or stupidity.
The S8 seems to shrink around you. I was always aware just how much room I had between the fenders and the edge of the road. The all-wheel-system pulls the car through turns with an ease that is nearly insolent. It's a 2-tonnes-plus car. So what? Watch this.
I've had a long love affair with the BMW 7-Series. The steering is better than the S8, and there is better sense of road feedback. But it isn't as heroic as this Audi.
This is no empty challenge. Expect that both Mercedes and BMW will have to answer back. Whether they can do at the S8's price will be the question.
-Washington Post (with additional material from Fairfax's Dave Moore)
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