Audi’s S8 is spectacular — minus active lane assist
DIGITAL EDITOR ANDREW STOY: Thanks in part to our long-term S7, dropping into the S8 was like visiting an old friend — the familiar V8 bark and smooth and incredibly capable brakes. I loved our S7, but the S8 drove me nuts for two days. Why? That’s how long I fought with the innocuous sounding “driver assistance package.”
More specifically, active lane assist. It’s misnamed. This should be aggressive lane assist. Otherwise pleasant drives turned into a wrestling match between driver and S8 as the car fought lane changes, reasonable drift and every other maneuver that deviated from the car’s preprogrammed notions of where it was supposed to be on the road. Active lane assist does not assist. It insists, permitting overrides only with firm and persistent inputs from the driver. Decades of steering tuning perfected by German engineers are out the window in favor of an electric rack with a Napoleonic complex.
“Simply turn it off,” right? It took some searching, but that ended up being the solution. After fiddling with the lane keeping menu in MMI, thinking I’d disengaged the system (I hadn’t), a contact at Audi confirmed active lane assist can be disabled with a button at the end of the turn signal stalk. Delightfully simple…once you know where to look.
Once active lane assist is euthanized, the S8 is one of the finest Teutonic sport sedans anywhere. It’s solid, serene and has the most addictive exhaust note this side of a Jaguar F-Type (though much less likely to result in citations). It’s a big car — 4,700 pounds, but feels much lighter than that figure would suggest. Build quality, materials and ergonomics are all typical Audi — in other words, excellent.
Expensive? Sure, but consider the competition runs the gamut from the BMW M6 Gran Coupe to various flavors of Porsche Panamera, and the S8 suddenly seems relatively reasonable. It’s also not saddled with a balky dual-clutch transmission like the M6 nor a balky exterior design like the Panamera. For the German sedan traditionalist, the S8 could be a perfect fit — just skip the driver assistance package.
The 2015 Audi S8 comes in at a base price of $115,825.
ASSOCIATE EDITOR GRAHAM KOZAK: This car isn’t our long-term S7. It doesn’t look like our S7 (well, it looks about as different as any two modern Audis can look). It doesn’t shift or drive quite like our S7. And yet, from behind the wheel, it all felt so familiar…Andy’s right, it’s that 4.0-liter turbocharged V8, packing more horsepower and torque here than our long-termer fastback did but possessing that same rocket-launch thrust once you get above oh, say, 4,000 rpm.
The car is equipped with an automatic as opposed to our S7’s dual-clutch, and it cycles through all eight gears smoothly from launch up to triple digits. It’s quick but rather unassuming about its speed; even under full throttle, the exhaust growl is more of a pleasing purr than a furious roar. It’ll get you to 60 in a stated 3.9 seconds (very believable) and up to a limited top speed of 155 mph before you even realize it. Not that I’d know. But while I didn’t peg the speedometer, I can confirm that it stays composed at higher speeds. Surprisingly, perhaps, more so than a Bentley Continental GT.
Or maybe not so surprisingly: Hardly a lightweight at just under 4,700 pounds, this speed barge is over 400 pounds lighter than the two-door Bentley.
The design is as understated as the exhaust note, but the big car wears its typical Audi lines well inside and out. I enjoy the swoops and flourishes of Benz’s cockpits, but I think I prefer the straight lines employed in Audi’s vehicles. There’s a lot of tech tucked into the car’s clean interfaces (some good, some bad, as we will see) plus a massage function. Gotta have that.
Andy is also right about that driver assist package. I don’t mind the active cruise control, or even the active lane keeping, all that much — that stuff’s handy on long, boring drives. It’s that infuriating brake assist/distance warning, which is almost as bad as GM’s widely-panned system. In rush hour stop-and-go traffic, you’ll be staring at a flashing red light on the otherwise slick heads-up display forever. It’s infuriating. I turned it off. Why order it in the first place?
The interior of the 2015 Audi S8 is a mix between high build quality and excellent materials.
SENIOR MOTORSPORTS EDITOR MAC MORRISON: You guys covered it. The active lane assist? Hot, steaming garbage on a plate, or in this case, a stalk. As Andy mentioned first, the aggressive automated input through the steering is almost shocking. Sneak up on a painted white line and you feel as though the car shoves, rather than nudges, you back to where it thinks you should be. Additionally, the system wavers in its ability to read those painted lines, so it is not something drivers can rely on to behave consistently mile after mile. Thankfully, you can switch it all off with the simple push of a steering-wheel stalk-mounted button, and double thankfully, it does not re-engage automatically the next time you start the car. If you turned off the car with active steering disengaged, it remains disengaged the next time you. I have a difficult time imagining many drivers leaving it active once they experience its forceful inputs.
With that out of the way? Simply … damn, the S8 is a spectacular luxury automobile. The slight refreshes to front and rear fascias, and the headlamps, make for an overall nice little improvement to an already handsome sedan. The exterior’s lines remain beautifully clean and sharp. The interior? One of the best on the market, period. Excellent leather and Alcantara coverings and gorgeous carbon fiber and gloss-black panels complement the quilted, supportive and comfortable seats, as well as an appealing instrument cluster and satisfyingly clean center stack. But please, Audi — and this applies to all of your vehicles — revise the shift-paddles so that they are big enough to be reached and operated comfortably.
Not least of all, the drivetrain and driving experience is fantastic, with loads of pulling power throughout the rev range. The S8 will reach 60 mph in just a tick less than four seconds, then just keep on gunning down the road so quickly that the undertaking is initially just gobsmacking. This is one hell of a stoplight sleeper, with far more go than most anyone will expect from a two-and-a-half ton machine. I hadn’t watched the 1998 Robert De Niro film “Ronin” in quite a while, but I recalled it instantly, given that the crew’s getaway vehicle of choice is a first-gen S8. That car was a monster at the time, and the latest version would be equally at home in a legendary John Frankenheimer chase scene. So satisfying to drive and ride in is this updated, third-gen S8, it has vaulted straight to the top of my list of favorite, sporty luxury sedans.
I think I’ll cue up “Ronin” tonight, skip ahead to the car scenes and just smile as I imagine being employed as a high-level heisting mercenary — and knowing that 16 years later, the modern S8 carries on the tradition … and then some.
The 2015 Audi S8 has no problem cycling through all eight gears in the gearbox.
ROAD TEST EDITOR JONATHAN WONG: Morrison’s “Ronin” mention is exactly what I was thinking about when I was driving this 2015 Audi S8. I remember when the designated wheelman was asked what he needed for the job to which he responded, “Something very fast. Audi S8. Something that can shove a little bit.” Well, the S8 is still very fast and it certainly could shove a lot of things out of its way with its near 4,700-pound curb weight. Not that I would want to ding up this beauty, but I suppose I would if I was being chased.
It was a delightful weekend with this S8, though, minus the active lane assist. The tug of the steering wheel even when I wasn’t wandering much got annoying. Thankfully you can turn the darn thing off.
Besides that, the rest of the S8 is a quick, luxury cruiser that offers just the right amount of sport to go along with the cushy features you would expect in a car like this. There’s a slight lull at throttle tip-in before the car starts pulling hard everywhere in the rev range. The optional sport exhaust, which is a new offering for 2015 on the S8, also sounds a little meaner when you’re booting it. When you drive around normally, it’s still a quiet, serene experience inside. The eight-speed automatic performs quick, seamless gear changes.
You probably don’t want to take an S8 to a road course, but it’s athletic around town considering its size and weight. Twenty-one-inch wheels wrapped with summer tires, a sport differential and sport suspension will let you confidently romp around some winding roads with a bit of body roll. Steering feel is light, but responsive and there’s a generous dose of grip. The big brakes slow things quickly.
I had a friend in town who likes to tinker with stuff so he was having a good old time riding shotgun in this. His favorite feature was the front massaging seats. Being an Audi, there’s great build quality inside and high quality materials like the Alcantara headliner which is always a nice touch. Lots of high-end, sportier cars feature carbon fiber interior trim pieces now, but the carbon twill copper inlay panels that Audi added to the S8 this year look real nice. It’s the first time I’ve seen something like.
Looking at the competitive set for the S8 and I have to conclude that Audi isn’t a bad value with its $116K base price — at least when it comes to high-powered luxury land yachts. The BMW Alpina B7 starts at $132K, while the Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG 4Matic begins at $141K. Yes, the BMW (540 hp) and the Benz (577 hp) are both more powerful. Yes, the Mercedes is newer and packs a very impressive interior, but you’ll be paying for it. To be fair, the Audi S models aren’t true AMG competitors because those would be the RS models. Don’t think we’ll be seeing a RS 8 anytime soon, though.
The aggressive lane assist was our only real complaint for the 2015 Audi S8.
2015 Audi S8
Options: Bang & Olufsen advanced sound system ($6,300); Audi design selection including full leather package, piano black shift lever, black Alcantara headliner, Carbon Twill copper upper inlays ($5,500); driver assistance package including active lane assist, pre sense plus, adaptive cruise control ($2,100); sport exhaust with black finishers ($1,500); cold weather package including rear seat pass-through, heated rear outboard seats, heated steering wheel with shift paddles ($750); 21-inch 5-arm-Rotor-design with titanium finish, 275/35R21 summer tires ($250)