“Speak softly and carry a big stick.” This adage typifies sport sedan design in general, but perhaps no other automaker in the industry delivers on the notion as effectively as Audi does here with the S8 Plus. Although handsome in an understated way, most motorists will hardly give the S8 a second look out on streets of Los Angeles, dismissing it as another German sedan amongst a sea of European hardware.
But therein lies the brilliance of the S8 Plus. Underneath the subdued sheet metal beats the heart of a supercar, and its interior coddles the occupants in Bentley-like luxury. Yet the S8 avoids the almost obligatory urge to wear its capability on its sleeve, and although it appears to champion maturity, this unassuming four-door will effortlessly embarrass all manner of brashly outfitted performance coupes at the stoplight drags when called upon to do so.
While the straight line performance that the S8 Plus can deliver is legitimately breathtaking and the all-wheel drive system keeps it surefooted in the corners, this big Audi seems most in its element when swallowing up stretches of Autobahn-like tarmac at speeds that might get you a nod of admiration on the famed German highway – or thrown in the back of a squad car here in the United States. It could be argued that such capability is simply overkill for American roads, but big part of the appeal of super sedans like the S8 isn’t necessarily the utilization of everything it has on tap on a regular basis, but rather the peace of mind in knowing it’s there.
To that end, the allure of the S8 must go beyond standard performance metrics, and the big Audi seeks to deliver on the luxury side of the equation with equal aplomb as well, indulging its occupants in posh comfort and attractive interior aesthetics. Has Audi reached grand touring nirvana with the S8 Plus? We spent a wintery week with the super sedan to find out.
Plus ups the ante
If you needed another indicator that the horsepower wars show no signs of letting up, the S8 Plus serves as the latest evidence. Nobody ever accused the standard, 520 horsepower S8 of being a slouch, but with Mercedes-AMG’s S63 now dishing out 577 hp and the BMW Alpina B7 now cranking out 600 ponies, Audi needed to respond in order to stay in the running.
That response came last year in the form of the S8 Plus, which added 85 horsepower S8’s twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 by way of tweaks to the turbochargers, revised valve timing, and new exhaust valves, trumping both of those German rivals in the process. For 2017, the S8 Plus becomes the only configuration of the sedan that’s available to US buyers, but we’re not really complaining about it.
The S8 feels eminently quick whether you’re generously dipping into the throttle off the line or are seeking to overtake slower traffic.
With the motor’s overboost function engaged, 553 pound-feet of torque is sent to all four corners through the S8’s eight speed automatic gearbox, which equates to mid three-second sprints to 60 mph from a standstill. Overboost only kicks in past 70 percent throttle though, so during normal driving you’ll be relegated to a “mere” 516 lb-ft of twist.
Our tester was also fitted with the $11,000 Dynamic Package, which adds ceramic brakes, a sport exhaust system, a carbon fiber rear lip spoiler, and bumps the S8’s electronically limited top speed from 155 miles per hour to a lofty 190 mph.
On the luxury front, the S8 brings along an extensive list of amenities as standard. Notable standouts include the diamond-stitched, 22-way power adjustable heated, ventilated and massaging front seats, four-zone automatic climate control, and Audi Parking System Plus, which includes an overhead view of the car displayed on the infotainment system while parking, sewn together from the various cameras installed around the vehicle.
Behind the wheel
Although the S8 Plus certainly has the hardware to dispatch your favorite twisty back road with great haste, after just a few minutes at the helm it becomes clear that this is not the car’s primary focus. Subtle evidence of this can be found throughout the car, like the small shift paddles that are essentially hidden behind the wheel, seemingly designed to encourage the driver to let the gearbox to make its own decisions rather than enticing him or her to take over on demanding stretches of asphalt.
Fortunately it’s of relatively small consequence, as the gearbox rarely seems lethargic or confused when called upon to perform, and the boosted V8 is about as close to lag-free as any turbocharged motor can aspire to be. With all four wheels putting the power down, the S8 makes good use of the prodigious thrust available, which makes this big sedan feel eminently quick whether you’re generously dipping into the throttle off the line or are seeking to overtake slower traffic – which is essentially everybody when you’re driving this car.
But throwing this 4700-pound brute around reveals other indicators that this car is an Autobahn stormer rather than a corner carver. While body roll is minimal given its substantial mass, there are other elements that seem to discourage sports car-like theatrics.
For instance, Audi’s dynamic steering system – which is fitted as standard in the S8 – can adjust steering feel on the fly as needed. But more often than not we found it often getting in the way, making changes mid-corner when left in the Auto driving mode, resulting in inconsistent and artificial steering feel. Coupled with Active Lane Assist – which will actively fight lane change inputs on the highway if your turn signal isn’t on for the entire duration of the lane change – it felt like the S8 was generally happier to be pointed in a straight line rather than down a mountain pass most of the time.
Unlike the Q7 we recently tested, the current S8 doesn’t benefit from Audi’s latest infotainment technology. While the system is reasonably responsive and free of convolution, it feels dated compared to currently available offerings from rivals like Mercedes-AMG, and the S8’s total lack of traditional USB ports only compounds the problem. Still, the interior of the S8 Plus is a great place to do the business of driving, and the Audi does a remarkable job of keeping the cabin free of road noise at speed, leaving driver to focus on which type of back massage they’d prefer during the commute home.
There’s no denying that the S8 Plus nails the fundamentals of luxury sports sedan design. It’s brutally quick yet exceptionally luxurious, and most of the time these attributes work in tandem rather than against one another. Its aesthetics are subdued without feeling uninspired, and although it’s engaging to drive, it’s far from exhausting.
Perhaps because of how well-executed these core attributes are, the shortcomings appear more glaring. Minor faults like an outdated infotainment system and overly-eager (though optional) driver assistance features somehow seem forgivable on lesser vehicles, but when the strengths are as impressive as they are here in the S8 Plus, the weaknesses stand out more. Yet taken as a whole, the S8 Plus is a grand touring all-star that does almost everything right. It may fall short of perfection, but not of greatness.
What are the alternatives?
The Jaguar XJR, along with the aforementioned Mercedes-AMG S63 and BMW Alpina B7 all play in the same super sedan space. With all-wheel drive available on all of these vehicles now, Audi’s Quattro system advantage is less obvious than it was just a few years ago, so the internal debate over which one should earn your hard-earned dollars becomes more of a subjective matter.
How long will it last?
An all-new A8 is due to be unveiled next year, and it will pack an entirely new user interface to go along with its aluminum-intensive MLB Evo modular architecture. The next S8 won’t likely debut alongside the new A8 though, so current S8 buyers likely have some time before cars are upstaged by the next generation of the S8.
Should you buy it?
Despite a few shortcomings that will likely be remedied when the next generation A8 debuts for the 2018 model year, this is a grand touring super sedan with a lot to like. Ultimately, the choice between the S8 and its highly capable rivals will likely come down to personal taste for most buyers.