Eric Adams

Words/photos for Wired, Gear Patrol, PopSci, The Drive, Men's Health, Air&Space, more

Apr 22, 2020
Published on: Forbes
2 min read
Audi's new S8 is a performance-modded variation of the flagship A8 sedan.
Audi's new S8 is a performance-modded variation of the flagship A8 sedan.

On the week I had the Audi S8 to drive, there was precious little that I could actually do with the poor thing. The stay-at-home orders had begun proliferating, places were closed. and we were frantically adapting to a variety of bewildering new realities. In fact the only thing I could think of to do with this car was, well, go on a crime spree.

Of course, that wouldn’t have been smart for a variety of reasons, but the seed of mischief had been planted in my psyche by a well-timed reminder that the S8—the performance-enhanced version of the company’s flagship A8 luxury sedan—had played a prominent role in one of the most revered heist movies of all time, Ronin. Rewatching its scene in the 22-year-old film is both awe-inspiring and horrifying, in terms of what the then-first-generation S8 in question is subjected to while a bunch a bad guys pursue a different set of bad guys. It’s thrashed, beaten, bottomed-out, taken off-road at high speed, its brakes fried to a crisp, and its engine and transmission abused to within inches of their lives.

It’s all pure cinematic trickery, of course, with plenty of stunt cars, but while no individual vehicle could likely survive the entirety of such mayhem in real life, it’s entirely possible that each of the discrete abuses it endures is survivable. Presumably, cars were also different then—lighter, more analog, a hair more bendable than the fussy, sensor-laden, computer-controlled rides we have today, especially at this level. Plus, cars today just feel bigger. Looking at the S8 now, the S8 of two decades ago looks like a Honda Civic. No way it would have wriggled through some of the tight spots featured in Ronin.

But I was curious if all that was actually true, and what advantages this new car could bring to a similarly, shall we say, energetic pursuit. So having plenty of time on my hands to investigate this matter, I took it out for a spin. Needless to say, I didn’t abuse any government-enforced restrictions on my drive—this was over a month ago, and in my area, it was fine to go out in your car as long as you observe social-distancing protocols. Something that’s still true. There’s just not anything you can do, except drive and, say, hike. Nor did I abuse the vehicle itself. But I did stretch its legs, analyze its details, and put it through some spirited twists and turns to gauge whether you could have actual fun with the thing—or maybe outrun someone if you need to.

Audi's S8 performance sedan.
Audi's S8 performance sedan.

Of course, it all depends on who you’re evading, and what they’re driving, but the truth is that the new S8 compares pretty favorably to the old, first-gen car. In terms of dimension, yes the new one is slightly larger, but only an inch or two in any direction. Though any car designer will tell you that an inch or two in any dimension is a very big deal, in practical terms it’s not all that huge. Today’s car will be able to wriggle around obstacles about as well as its predecessor, all things considered.

On the other hand, the car today is heavier—5,500 pounds to the 1998 model’s 4,068 pounds. That’s a massive difference, and as a result today’s S8 would be far less likely to be able to take the abuse the model in Ronin endured—with an extra 1,500 pounds of mass crashing down on every curb, berm, and stone, it simply wouldn’t be able to deflect itself off anything and keep going.

Having said that, the technology in today’s S8—a $131,795 car, by the way—is leaps and bounds beyond what was available back then. The 2020 S8 include’s the same sensor-enhanced suspension as the A8, which allows it to read the road ahead and program the wheels to actively lift or plunge in response to the terrain ahead. So it can make bumps appear to essentially disappear. It hasn’t been proven yet—to my knowledge, anyway, that the system would aid in a reckless, ride-or-die high-speed urban pursuit, but it certainly can’t hurt.

Nor does it hurt that the car includes a new all-wheel-steer system, that would likely have gone a long way toward the first-gen car’s ability to steer around obstacles and navigate tighter environs. Couple that with an enhanced dynamic suspension to minimize body roll and more precisely tuned, ultra crisp steering, and it’s entirely possible that the new car wouldn’t have been quite as abused in the one in the first film, thanks to its improved maneuverability. In my own pursuits, so to speak, the car held firm in tight turns with little indication that it was, in tamer trims, a luxury borderline chauffeur-car.

Of course, it powered out of the turns even more impressively, thanks to the 563 horsepower and 590 lb-ft of torque generated by the twin-turbo V8. The first-gen S8, by contrast, had a 364 hp V8, which could get it to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, against the 2020’s staggering 3.8 seconds. That’s Porsche turf.

Ultimately, that kind of energy in a car this size is a testament to just how much better engines have gotten over the years, given what they’re now tasked with. All the rest of the technology is similarly a testament to what they’re more broadly capable of: Keeping you poised and in control when the going gets tough. It feels astoundingly good—the kind of thing that makes you feel you can take on the world, and win. Could it hold its own in a Ronin sequel? Not sure about jumping curbs and off-roading at 80 mph, but otherwise, no doubt at all.