x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Road Test: Audi's muted wild saloon lacks requisite craziness

Audi's S8 should be wilder than its A8 cousins but, sadly, it isn't.

The S8 is quite tame when it should be the wild one in Audi's bunch. Newspress
The S8 is quite tame when it should be the wild one in Audi's bunch. Newspress

Pamplona, Spain. A place famous for its bull run. The old Audi S8, a car that, thanks to its V10 engine, had a link with Italy's bull-badged Lamborghini. As associations go, it's not a bad one, even if the V10 engine in the nose of the Audi shared very little with the one in the middle of the Lamborghini Gallardo.

The new S8 drops that shared DNA, as under its bonnet there's now a 4.0L twin-scroll twin-turbocharged V8 engine; it seems downsizing is even affecting the mightiest super saloons. It still packs a punch, though, with the forced induction V8 endowing the S8 with 520hp and a huge 650Nm of torque.

Despite the sizeable increase in power over the old engine, some efficiency wizardry allows the S8 to return a combined fuel consumption figure of 10.2L/100km. That's sensational in a car that, despite its aluminium construction, weighs in at two tonnes. Even more incredible is that it's able to reach 100kph in just 4.2 seconds, 250kph being its electronically governed top speed.

Helping to achieve that impressive fuel-sipping figure is stop-start and a cylinder deactivation system, which sees the S8 dropping from eight to four cylinders when you're on a constant, low-load throttle. The shift between full fat and light modes is imperceptible and Audi has gone so far as to fit active engine mounts to compensate for the differing frequencies of vibrations that the two running modes deliver.

Whether cruising, or catapulting forward, it's very quiet. The trick engine mounts and an engine-rev-matched anti-noise system mean the V8 sound is never more than a dignified backing track. Apparently, that's what Audi's customers asked for. But really? This is the S8; Audi has plenty of other A8s that already do quiet and brisk rather well.

The muted engine does make the S8 deceptively fast, as there's no phonics to define how hard you're pushing it. Take it away from multi-lane high speed roads and the engine continues to impress. Its ability to shorten the straights between corners is sensational. Nonetheless, that does mean hard worked brakes, with even the optional ceramic discs dishing up a soft pedal after a testing section of road.

Traction is, as you'd expect with quattro permanent four-wheel drive, as sure-footed as ever. The S8 puts all its power down with none of the histrionics and ESP and traction light bothering fuss of some of its competitors. The suspension is more supple than before, too, the S8 able to carry speed with composure.

The problems arise when you reach the corners. The S8 might have plenty of traction and good grip but there's little incentive to enjoy it through the bends. There's turn-in understeer for a start, the nose pushing into the bend before the numerous driving aids gather it up. Featuring the same sports differential that turns the Audi S4 from so-so fast saloon (or estate) into something altogether more BMW-rivalling, its effect isn't so dramatic in the S8.

That makes for cornering that's inconsistent at best and frustrating at worst. It's not made any better by steering that's got very little feel. You have the opportunity to change the way the S8 drives, but no amount of fiddling with the drive select controls will turn the S8 into a more engaging car.

That's a real shame, as the V8 engine powering it is an incredible powerplant. Audi can build involving, engaging drivers' cars but it's only apparent when it's got the courage to build what its most enthusiastic engineers want, rather than listening to customer clinics and marketing people. The Audi W12 does extravagant luxury mixed with massive pace and the 4.2L TDI or 3.0L TDI cover the economy angle, so Audi had a real opportunity for something a bit more radical in its sporting S8.

It looks as quiet as it sounds, too, with only subtle S8 badging, a very slightly re-profiled sill, rear bumper, front grille and aluminium-capped door mirrors setting it apart from its A8 relatives. The interior is similarly restrained, even if it's impeccably built.

A car as small volume as the Audi S8 should be a little bit rough around the edges and a touch naughty. Audi could learn a lot from AMG here, which turns staid 'Benzes into utter hooligans. Audi might be courting a slightly different buyer but, with the spread of its A8 range, there's room for the S8 to be a little mental, much like the Lamborghinis it used to share some DNA with.

The S8 will arrive in the UAE later next year; no price has yet been set.

Price N/A

Engine
4.0L, turbocharged V8

Gearbox
Eight-speed automatic

Power
520hp @ 6,000rpm

Torque
650Nm @ 5,500rpm

Fuel economy, combined 10.2L/100km