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Audi S8 5.2 quattro

Click to view picture galleryThe term ‘über’ could almost
  have been invented specifically for
  the ten-cylindered Audi S8 —
  a beautifully-crafted piece of auto-
  motive machinery that may have
  ice-cool looks but also has a heart
  fiery enough to thaw a glacier...”

FOR SOME, THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN OF AUDI'S POTENT S8 is what's installed beneath its bonnet a little matter of a 5.2-litre V10 engine. Not just any old V10, but one touched with the cachet of having served in the Lamborghini Gallardo. I can see where they're coming from. But to lust after the S8 for its engine alone is to miss the mark of this potent, sophisticated and sporting German über-saloon.

In the Lamborghini Gallardo, this V10 produces a high-spirited 552bhp at 8,000rpm. Re-engineered for the S8 and fitted with Audi's FSI petrol direct injection, it puts out a more refined and flexible 443bhp (at 7,000rpm) backed by 398lb ft of muscular torque from 3,500rpm. Better still, ninety percent of this is on call from just 2,300rpm.

These numbers would be exciting for a sports car, but for a large, four-door luxury saloon tipping the scales at 1,940 kilograms they are doubly so: 0-62mph is demolished in just 5.1 seconds and even at its electronically-limited 155mph top speed, the S8 feels like it still has a lot more in reserve.

On paper the S8 is said to manage 21.4mpg on the combined cycle, with a town figure of 14.5 and a touring consumption of 29.7mpg. For the record, a week's pretty unforgiving testing in MotorBar's hands saw an overall combined figure of 21.7mpg. No, we didn't believe it either but in our experience Audi's on-board computers are pretty accurate. Another notable figure is the price: putting an Audi S8 5.2 quattro in your garage will cost you £71,070 — and when we're talking this sort of quality, that isn't bad!

Having power is completely different to wielding it. The S8 not only possesses power but knows how to wield it effectively. It does this with a superbly proficient six-speed Tiptronic automatic gearbox, quattro all-wheel drive and an array of very sophisticated traction control electronics. The Achilles' heel of all very high-performance cars is wet weather. However, the sure-footed, four-wheel drive S8 laughs in the face of rain.

Audi also knows how to do poise. The understated, well-proportioned S8 flagship epitomises it, from the imposing single-framed grille all the way back along its 5-metre body. Apart from subtle V10 badges on the wheel arches, there are few clues to the S8's sledgehammer performance. Yet the signals are there in the metal body language for those in the know. At the back there's a discreet integrated boot spoiler and four polished oval tail pipes — all that most other drivers will have time to glimpse as the S8 sweeps past. And by the time they've registered them, the S8 will be disappearing into the distance. At rest, the S8 looks hunkered down on its delectably-elegant, 20-inch 5 parallel-spoke alloy wheels.

Inside it's the same story: top-grade materials, faultless ergonomics and a strong sense of quality, craftsmanship and attention to detail. The fit and finish is superb. The genuinely spacious cabin is luxurious and splendidly well-appointed. Lack of space prevents us listing everything but here are the highlights: supremely comfortable, two-tone Valcona leather-upholstered electric front Sports seats with pronounced side bolstering that adjust 14 ways including memory for both — even the outer edges of the front headrests can be 'bent' forward for extra comfort! The roof lining is in Alcantara, there's a multi-function Sports steering wheel wrapped in perforated leather with gear shift paddles and power height/reach adjustment with memory, carbon-fibre and brushed aluminium trim, automatic 4Zone climate control with separate air distribution for front and rear passengers, cruise control and Bluetooth mobile phone connection.

Advanced Key allows the key to remain in the driver's pocket (or bag) at all times. To unlock and open, simply lift the exterior door handle. To lock, press the button on the handle. Pressing the Start/Stop button integrated into the centre console starts and stops the engine. One Touch Memory is also standard — this identifies up to four drivers by fingerprint and re-establishes their individual settings for climate control, driver's seat, steering column, radio and other car systems.

There are also acoustic and optical front and rear parking sensors (our test car was fitted with the £375 advanced parking system which adds a rear parking camera with positioning guidelines), a boot that opens and closes itself at the touch of a button, six-stage heated seats, DVD-based navigation system controlled via the MMI's 7-inch retractable colour screen, voice control for key functions, S-specific instrument cluster with distinctive needles in white, scales in light grey and numbers in italic script. A neat touch is the illuminated mirrors in the sun-visors — these feature clever dual-magnification vanity mirrors that can be switched between normal or extra-strong magnification, just like a make-up or shaving mirror, and which are actually very useful.

In addition there's a Bose surround sound system with 10 loudspeakers (350 Watts), six-CD autochanger and an ultra-clear DAB digital radio — and you know what they say: Once you've tried DAB, there's no going back.

You'll also find an electromechanical parking brake, four one-shot up/down electric windows, twin-pane heat- and UV-insulating double-glazed windows, auto lights and wipers, powered, heated and auto-dimming door mirrors and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, individual front centre armrests and an electronic tyre pressure monitoring system that monitors the air pressure and temperature level for each wheel while the car is being driven, with all data displayed via the MMI screen. There are even powered 'soft-close' doors. The list goes on…

Leave the key in your pocket or in a cubby and thumb the Start button. The self-activating starter spins the V10 and it fires up instantly. Right away the idle tells you you're sitting in something singular. Slip the Tiptronic lever into Drive and let your right foot ease down on the accelerator. The parking brake releases automatically as you pull away; the doors automatically lock. Even at lazy throttle openings you can feel the sense of urgency — that the S8 is genuinely fast can easily be discovered by pressing the accelerator down to its stop.

Do so and you'll hear a deep growl. Maintain the pressure with your right foot and the rolling V10 thunder hardens to a more tuneful metallic howl. The S8 lunges forward, making unflinching use of the enormous traction afforded by the four-wheel-drive system as it surges into three-figure territory. Even in sixth gear, the S8 is still capable of forceful acceleration.

But there's more to come. Tap the selector lever across the gate to lock in manual gear selection (you can then use the paddle-shifts mounted on the back of the steering wheel or, should you prefer, the selector lever), select Dynamic ride mode in the 'Car' menu of the MMI operating system and press the button to call up the Tipronic's Sport programme. Driven like this the S8 will pile on road speed in large increments, all seemingly without drawing breath. Suddenly you're flying.

The six-speed Tiptronic 'box is superb, serving up beautifully-judged and almost imperceptible up- and down-shifts even under full-bore acceleration. It's this duality of power delivery that makes the S8 so compelling: one minute you can play the boulevardier with total aplomb; the next you can thrill to some taxin' action — flaying the tarmac in a manner that would challenge a well-fettled hot-hatch. In both modes the S8 is amazingly convincing and thoroughly enjoyable.

And the enjoyment doesn't stop where the straights end, because the S8's adaptive air suspension system has been upgraded from the lower riding (20mm) Sport suspension option available on the standard A8. Firmer air springs and shock absorber characteristics contribute to more sporting handling with tight body control and minimum roll — a set-up especially appreciated through fast sweeping bends and challenging corners.

Also 'tweaked' to deliver keener driving characteristics is the quattro four-wheel drive system: the centre differential distributes 40 per cent of the torque to the front and 60 per cent to the rear. This rear-biased split underlines the fact that Audi's engineers fully intended the S8 to attack corners with as much conviction as it hauls in the horizon on motorways.

Even at low road speeds you're aware of the taut undercurrent of sinewy grip: whatever your driving style — ardently pressing-on in Sport mode or lazily laid-back and taking pleasure in the unruffled ride — the S8 always feels utterly composed and tied down.

And, whether you're behind the wheel or lounging in the back seat, you'd never guess that the S8 is running on massive 20-inch wheels wearing 'aggressive' 265/35 Yokohama AdvanSport rubber. Thanks to the electronically-controlled four-mode (Automatic, Comfort, Dynamic and Lift) air suspension that automatically regulates ride height and damping, ride quality is impressively accommodating. Yes, the worst ridges are occasionally felt in the S8's cabin, but most speed humps are about as disturbing as a mosquito bite to an elephant. Cabin insulation is first-rate — the S8, incidentally, records the lowest rolling, road and ambient noise levels in its class. Set the air suspension to Comfort. Long journeys become almost as refreshing as a cosseting weekend away in a five-star hotel.

Also fine-tuned for the S8 is the speed-dependent Servotronic power steering — it's quicker and sharper than on any other A8 and offers a more 'direct' feel and is nicely in sync with the rest of the S8's dynamic abilities.

The S8's brakes are, as you would expect, potent. Stopping power is first-class and there's good feel throughout the pedal travel. However, for ultimate stopping power you can specify high-performance ceramic brakes. These offer a high-braking performance, especially at the limit, and are largely unsusceptible to heat fading. Not only that, but they last four times as long (approximately 180,000 miles) as steel discs and, weighing half as much as their steel counterparts, improve unsprung weight and consequently handling and ride comfort.

Ensuring safe night-time driving is Audi's Adaptive Lights system: dynamic cornering lights including pivoting headlight units that follow the steering wheel movements. And when it comes to safety, all the boxes are pre-ticked. Front airbags for the driver and passenger, side airbags front and rear and Audi's Sideguard head airbag system along with Isofix child-seat mountings on the front passenger and outer rear seats. There is also key de-activation of the front passenger airbag, electric child locks for rear doors and windows and a First Aid kit. The front seats belts also have electric height adjustment with memory.

And you don't have to have children to appreciate the huge 500-litre boot beneath which is — well done Audi! — a full size spare. And, proving that real people drive cars like this, there's also a pull down, double bag hook perfect for a take-away.

Active safety is taken care of by an array of state-of-the-art safety systems — including the quattro permanent four-wheel drive, an Electronic Stability Program with ABS, EBD, ASR and Electronic Differential Lock (EDL) traction control. And don't forget the electronic tyre-pressure monitoring system.

A bold, beautifully-built, sophisticated super-saloon with commanding road presence and with the serious firepower from its fabulously hard-charging V10 powerhouse always primed and ready to go — for those wake-up-and-smell-the-cordite times when you crave the stimulation and engagement of a hard-edged sports car. All backed up by surefooted handling that makes it a formidable machine not just in the dry, but in all weathers. Given the sum of its abilities and the fact that it leaves very little to be desired (actually, we couldn't think of a single thing!), the S8's £71,070 price tag makes it a genuine bargain! — MotorBar

Audi S8 5.2 quattro
| £71,070
Maximum speed: 155mph | 0-62mph: 5.1 seconds
Overall test MPG: 21.7mpg | Power: 443bhp | Torque: 398lb ft
CO2 314g/km | VED Band G £400 | Insurance group 20E