Audi S8 Review: The Last True Sleeper?

The S8 is sharper than ever, but it doesn't lose sight of what made its predecessors so appealing

"Something very fast. Audi S8. Something that can shove a little bit. I’m also gonna need a nitrous system. I've got the specs."

Those were the immortal lines spoken by Larry, the wheelman in Ronin, that cemented the idea in my then-15-year-old head that the S8 was superb on every level, many years before Tony Stark and his R8 proved that an Audi could be properly cool.

I can see why Larry wanted one. Even before a shot of nitrous (which Ronin deserves an extra bit of kudos for getting mentioned in a film some four years before The Fast and The Furious landed), the gen-one S8 was good for 335bhp. An impressive output back then, but you wouldn’t know it from the outside - discreet badging and silver mirror caps aside, it looked like any other A8. The ideal getaway car.

Audi - Audi S8 Review: The Last True Sleeper? - Features

24 years on from the launch of the D2 S8, the fourth and latest version of the luxobarge rocketship is here. And it still flies under the radar, perhaps even more so than the original - you can spec sportier-looking alloys on the standard A8 than you can on this thing.

It’s a lot more potent now, of course. The current S8’s 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 develops 590lb ft of torque, getting on for double the figure managed by the naturally-aspirated original. It’s the same story with the power, which over four generations has reached 563bhp. Even the mighty V10 S8, the model line’s one flirtation with anything other than a V8, is comprehensively outgunned by the new one.

Audi - Audi S8 Review: The Last True Sleeper? - Features

It’ll do 0-62mph in 3.8 seconds, but you’re so well insulated from the outside world in this capsule of leather and screens that the S8 doesn’t feel as shockingly fast as the numbers suggest it should. The V8 also doesn’t make a great deal of fuss about all the forward momentum it’s generating. Even in Dynamic mode, it’s hushed, although the rumbly noises you do hear are very pleasant.

Previous S8s were all about what they could do in a straight line rather than their cornering abilities (the hero car in Ronin was converted to rear-drive for those slidey shots), but the latest car has some measures to address this. There’s a torque-vectoring limited-slip differential, rear-wheel steering, and an adapted version of the A8’s predictive air suspension.

Audi - Audi S8 Review: The Last True Sleeper? - Features

All of this stuff does work. The S8 is far more athletic than a two-tonne luxury car should be, even if a Mercedes-AMG S63 pulls off the same trick while feeling even sharper. There’s very little roll, and changes of direction can be done quickly without the chassis having a tantrum. The caveat is the steering - whether it’s to do with the speed-dependent power assistance or the way the front and rear-wheel steering works together I can’t be sure, but it feels downright odd in Dynamic mode.

It’s not easy to predict how much steering angle you’re going to get at first, making placing the front end tricky. Thankfully, it feels much more natural if you stay away from the Dynamic setting for the steering, but whatever you do, there isn’t a whole lot of feedback going on.

Audi - Audi S8 Review: The Last True Sleeper? - Features

There’s also only so much that chassis tech can do before you’re reminded that this is, after all, a big, heavy waft-mobile. Push on enough, particularly in the wet, and understeer tends to be the order of the day. You might feel the occasional loss of traction from the rear axle instead, but this is a classic Quattro Audi in the way its all-wheel drive system works.

And that’s just fine. The S8 may not handle like the RS6 we tried a few months back, but it’s not supposed to. Comfort is a bigger priority, and in that realm, the S8 has it nailed. I don’t quite understand the point in a ‘Comfort+’ setting when there’s no standard ‘Comfort’ mode, but damn, is the S8 smooth when set thusly.

Audi - Audi S8 Review: The Last True Sleeper? - Features

It’s quiet, too, and has all the toys you could ever want. It’s not quite a nice as S8s of old thanks to Audi’s current obsession with aggressive lines and lashings of piano-black plastic, but it’s a cabin I’d happily spend many hours in. Audi has even tuned out that awful off-the-line automatic gearbox lag that has afflicted so many of its products over the last few years. So, that leaves precious little to get stressed about.

There’s something satisfying about enjoying the S8’s relaxed attitude in full knowledge that it could tear down the road at a moment’s notice. And most importantly, on first glance, it doesn’t look like it can. Yes, there may be sharper luxo-barges out there, but most tend to shout about it. The S8, on the other hand, might just be the last true sleeper car.