Audi S8. Driven. Headlights ahoy

Audi facelifts the A8 range by adding some very clever new headlights. We didn’t get to try them, but we did get a thrash about in the S8.

[Not a valid template]

It’s three years since Audi revealed the fourth generation A8, the tech-filled luxury saloon that sits atop its ever-expanding range. About time for a facelift, don’t you think? Audi certainly does, and so we find ourselves in northern Germany to see what’s new.

Headlights. That’s what’s changed, and you could be forgiven for thinking ‘is that it?’. Not entirely – there are also some tweaks to some of the range’s engines, and the bonnet has extra creases pressed into it  – but it’s the headlights that Audi is shouting about, and in fairness, they are rather clever.

The new A8 range, which includes the S8 we’re about to sample, now comes with the option of Matrix LED headlights, which are, as far as we can tell, the cleverest lamps on the market. Equipped cars have a camera in the windscreen which spots oncoming headlights at night. It then sends a signal to the 25 individual LEDs making up the main beam, and turns off those shining at the oncoming traffic. This essentially lets you keep your full beam on at night, ensuring maximum visibility without dazzling other motorists, as they’re blocked out from the light ‘cone’. This clever trick can work with up to eight oncoming drivers simultaneously.

Other manufacturers have implemented similar systems that use mechanical means – servos and the like – to switch off part of the light cone, but that means they can only block off one part. The Audi can block off multiple parts, meaning that if there are two cars ahead and a gap in the middle, you can still see into the gap.

All very clever, and it’s optional on the 3.0 and 4.0 A8s coming to the region, and standard on the A8 W12 and the top-of-the-range S8. So, what’s it like it person? No idea. Unfortunately, we only got to drive the cars in the daytime, so never got to try them out. Bad planning there, Audi.

So instead, let’s focus on other aspects of the latest model. The S8 is the most powerful variant, sending an unchanged 513bhp to all four wheels from its twin-turbocharged 4-litre V8 through an eight-speed tiptronic gearbox. Visually, it’s distinguishable by its enlarged air inlets at the front, a different grill and deeper side sills, as well as two sets of twin exhausts at the back. It’s not that different from what’s gone before, but the new lights, as the focal points, make it look surprisingly different in the metal.

Inside, things are also little changed, but that’s not a complaint when the standard of interior is as high as anything else south of a Bentley. Build quality is impeccable, the leather – apparently soaked in vegetables to make it more supple – is luxurious and the gadgetry offered first rate. It’s not quite as technologically impressive as the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class, but it’s not exactly lacking in acoutrements.

On the move, the A8 is almost silent at autobahn cruise thanks to active noise cancellation (similar to noise-reducing headphones), gliding with considerable pace across the German landscape, soaking up road imperfections with barely a clunk. The engine is all low-end torque, effortless gathering up its skirts and heading to the horizon at a whisper, but push the throttle further and there’s a distant rumble of power. It’s nowhere near the levels of the S63 AMG, but it at least lets you know where the extra cash for the S-badge went.

Although the whole A8 range is light for the size, thanks to aluminium space frame construction, the S8 is still a big, heavy car, and it feels it when roads get tighter. But the steering is weighty and firm and the adaptive air suspension keeping things tight when the tarmac gets twisty. There’s a feeling of solidity to the A8; a sense that it’s built like a tank but with far more nimbleness to call on. Four-wheel drive means it hauls its way out of the bends with ease. It doesn’t really encourage you to get stuck in though – it merely copes with your whims if you decide to see what it can do rather than applaud your audacity.

We also had a go in the A8 W12, which is the most powerful model you can get without changing the prefix letter. It boasts a 6.3-litre W12 engine as found in the Bentley range, producing 493bhp – not too far short of the S8. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly so nimble and lithe. A lot of the weight saved with the aluminium space frame is piled on again by the unnecessarily large engine, and the softer suspension means even with everything set to Dynamic, it’s somewhat wallowy and boat-like. The steering, although programmed to weight up through the bends, is utterly lacking in feel and there’s no incentive at all to push the pace. I can’t help thinking the W12 is there solely for bragging rights, and that a version of the S8’s twin-blown V8 would work better.

Overall then, it’s business as usual for the A8 range. Of the two we drove the S8 is much the preferable driver’s car, but it’s more the power cruiser than a devourer of bends. It’s more restrained in character than something like a Mercedes-Benz S63, but which is better? Without trying them both side-by-side, it’s hard to tell. I sense a twin test in the offing when the new A8 range touches down in the Middle East in the middle of 2014.

Audi S8
Engine: V8, 3993, twin-turbo
Power: 513bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque: 479lb ft @ 1700-5500rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed tiptronic, all-wheel drive
0-100kph: 4.1sec
Top speed: 250kph

Categories: Road


Comments are closed