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Autos: Inconspicuous Consumption

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There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a man who picked up his new Audi A8 in Los Angeles, drove it across the country at enormous speeds to Miami Beach, and then proudly parked outside Joe’s Stone Crab—where no one paid any attention to his arrival. Even if people had noticed the car, from observing it they would not have been able to draw any presumptions about its owner’s tastes, profession, or social standing.


From the beginning in 1910, when August Horch founded the company in Zwickau, Germany, anonymity has been Audi’s hallmark, although that was not necessarily the intention of Horch or his successors. Another popular parable has it that Horch was so underwhelmed by the ordinary shape of his first open tourer that he protected the family name by calling the car an Audi, the Latin version of Horch (both of which roughly translate to “listen”). Nevertheless, through the ensuing decade and beyond, Audi designs remained conservative. At least one history book has described its 1920s models as uninspiring, boxy saloons.

Such criticisms notwithstanding, Audi always has been a respected purveyor of quick, cushy, and substantial motorcars, even if those cars have been unheralded, unadorned, and largely unadored. None of those latter descriptors should apply to the new S8, the performance division’s contribution to the A8 sedan lineup. The S8 is the flagship buffed. It is powered by a 450 hp direct-injected V-10 modified from that of another Volkswagen family member, the Lamborghini Gallardo.

The engine, fuel-injection system, and 6-speed Tiptronic transmission with paddle shifting enable the S8 to scoot from stop to 60 mph in 5 seconds flat. Top speed is 155 mph, but without electronic governing, it probably would exceed 175 mph. Among the engineering subtleties are performance elements that add substance to the almost all-aluminum S8. The Quattro all-wheel drive has an asymmetric torque split that distributes power to whichever wheels request the attention, and the adaptive air suspension offers three different ride heights.

In contrast to the A8, the S8 displays four chrome-tipped exhausts, V-10 badges on the flanks and brake calipers, split-spoke 20-inch wheels, and a hint of an aerodynamic lip on the trunk lid. It isn’t much, but visually it distinguishes the $100,000 S8 from a $68,000 A8.

The S8’s interior includes more than the luxury-car norms of leather linings, suede inserts, and brushed metal trim. Seat surfaces slide forward and expand without producing gaps between the cushions. For audiophiles—and for an extra $6,300—Audi will equip the S8 with a 14-speaker, 1,000-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system that includes a pair of diminutive but delightful tweeters that rise and retract from both ends of the dashboard.

We spent several hours in the S8, ripping around northern Germany through village Strasses and along autobahns. With more than 90 percent of its 398 ft lbs of torque available at 2,300 rpm, the S8 drove smoothly and effortlessly, and left us free of tension and back knots.

On its home turf, the S8 is a standout despite its staid styling. Audis are everywhere in Germany, and they actually are coveted. When we returned the S8 to the hotel, chilly shoppers paused to approve, a doorman moved forward, and someone wanted his photo taken with the car.

They certainly knew we had arrived.



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