Want to impress the neighbors with a top-line European sedan? Then get a BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Jaguar. Audi's A8 flagship sedan and new S8 higher-performance version of it are as good—if not better in some respects—as cars with those venerable nameplates. But Audi lacks their prestige.

That situation eventually may change because Audi's reputation is growing—thanks to its slick lower-line models that especially appeal to younger buyers. But the A8 and S8 aren't on shopping lists of many buyers of European sports-luxury sedans because most people aren't aware of these models. They're mostly bought by well-informed folks who understand how good they are—and don't give a darn about what others think.

Almost Secrets
In fact, the A8—and especially the new $72,500 S8 version—are almost secrets in the rarified European top-line sedan market, although they're the only models there with all-wheel drive. For one thing, they're low-volume cars and Audi is putting its advertising bucks behind higher-volume models.

Even the base $62,200 A8 is exceptional. It's loaded with comfort and convenience equipment and has a sophisticated 310-horsepower V8 and advanced aluminum space frame construction that's rigid and lowers unwanted weight. Safety features include no less than eight airbags for front and side protection.

The A8 and S8 have a fairly long 113.4-inch wheelbase that helps them comfortably seat four 6-footers. The A8 also is offered as a $67,900 longer-wheelbase "L" trim that is 5.1 inches longer overall and has limousine-style rear-seat room and more equipment, including heated front/rear seats and power rear window sunshade.

Nimbler New S8
However, a shorter wheelbase allows more nimble handling, and the S8 is designed to be the nimbler, higher-performance version of the A8. While the 130-mph A8 is very fast, the 155-mph S8 is a real tire-burner.

The S8 is nothing less than a highly refined muscle car—or plush hot rod, if you will. It comes from Audi's high-performance "S" division, which is similar to Mercedes' AMG and BMW's Motorsport hot-rod divisions. All develop low-volume, costlier, higher-performance versions of production vehicles. Call them "tuner" cars.

Hotter Engine
Powering the S8 is a 360-horspower version of the A8's 4.2-liter dual-overhead-camshaft V8, which has no less than 40 valves. Special items for the S8 engine include higher-lift camshafts, new two-stage variable intake manifold and less restrictive exhaust system.

The S8 also has stronger Brembo brakes to handle the added power, huge 45-series tires on larger 18-inch wheels and a lowered, aluminum sport suspension that doesn't much affect this big sedan's supple ride. Even the S8 exhaust sounds sportier.

Too Subtle
However, Audi doesn't go much out of its way to emphasize the uniqueness of the A8's aluminum construction. And it doesn't do much to give the S8 unique cosmetic touches. That's a mistake because many buyers of higher-priced specialty models want the world to know they're in something special.

Anyway, the S8 does have a pair of brushed outside aluminum mirrors and special six-spoke alloy wheels. There also is small S8 badging on the grille, trunk and several other places, along with polished doorsill trim. Audi says it "might take a second glance to notice these elegantly subtle design elements."

That's an understandable approach to take, but only if the basic model is easily and widely recognized as being an upscale car. Not so with the S8. It has the same taut, but mostly nondescript styling, of the A8, which turns few heads. And the A8/S8 are competing in a fast league with more established, widely recognized sports-luxury sedans.

Near-Endless Power
That aside, the S8 races to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, compared with 6.7 seconds for the A8. The S8 also has a seemingly endless power supply for quick passing and merging—and for fast moves from stoplights.

The A8 has quick, precise steering and can safely be driven very quickly. But the S8 goes several steps further. Its steering is sharper but—as with the A8's—is a bit too light at high speeds. Also, the S8's power steering doesn't provide much road feedback to the leather-wrapped wheel. The overly soft brake pedal takes a while to get used to it, although stopping distances are impressive.

The S8 handles better and has shorter braking distances than the softer-edged A8, which is no slouch. A newly standard electronic stabilization system for the A8 and S8 automatically intervenes if there is a risk that these models might skid.

The A8 and S8 have a 5-speed automatic transmission that upshifts deftly, but sometimes downshifts in a lazy manner. The S8 should downshift quicker in keeping with its sportier nature. Steering-wheel controls allow manual shifting of the automatic, but seem to discourage downshifts.

Low Fuel Economy
Despite the fifth gear, the S8 only delivers an estimated 21 mpg on the highway. The city figure is just 15. The A8 provides an estimated 17 city, 24 highway.

This Audi has a quiet, plush interior with high-quality materials. Heated front bucket seats provide above-average side support, and the dashboard has the no-nonsense design expected in a high-speed European sedan.

However, power window controls are flush on the driver's door and may break long fingernails. Doors have storage pockets and rear windows go all the way down. Smokers should appreciate the rear ashtrays, although they look as if they can't handle more than one cigarette.

Large Trunk
The A8/S8 is the type of car that encourages long driving trips. Its trunk is plenty big for such journeys and has a low, wide opening, although one must stretch to reach cargo at its far end.

When will the A8 and S8 get the widespread respect they deserve? Nobody knows, but at least you know about them now.

MSN Autos

© 2009 Microsoft

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