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Double-Dueling Audi S8 Takes on Mercedes-Benz, BMW

Double-Dueling Audi S8 Takes on Mercedes-Benz, BMW
A 2013 Audi S8. The luxury sedan starts around $110,895. Source: Audi via Bloomberg

The S8 executive sedan is what happens when Audi takes off its gloves. More accurately, the S8 is what happens when it takes off its gloves and uses them to slap Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

That is an invitation to a double duel.

The Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7 Series have long ruled the roost when it comes to full-sized luxury sedans. The segment doesn’t sell a load of cars, but it does carry a lot of prestige.

Mercedes and BMW typically stuff their luxury haulers with as much new-age technology as possible, and then offer versions with extra horsepower and long wheelbases. These uber models include the S63 AMG and 760Li, both which go for around $140,000.

Audi’s A8 sedan has been around since the 1990s, but the high-performance S8 model has only been offered sporadically. The last generation came out in 2006 and was outfitted with a V-10 engine. While it was certainly game, it wasn’t a game changer.

The 2013 model year brings an all-new S8 and this time it isn’t playing fair.

The sedan starts at $110,895 and is a technological showpiece. It looks great. And it’s faster than most sports cars.

Leather Seats

Titans of industry who prefer to be driven might take pause, however. No long wheelbase model is offered.

That means you can forget about a rear throne that reclines like a leather-lined Barcalounger. Audi buyers who want to spread out in the rear will have to endure the vagaries of the long-wheelbase A8. It’s offered as both a V-8 and W-12 model. However, even the latter, the $137,000 A8 L W12, has less power than the S8.

The S8, comparatively, is like a Lear jet. Smaller, and really, really fast.

How fast? Well, Audi says it can crack 60 miles per hour in 3.9 seconds. That’s speedier than most muscle cars. Heck, it’s significantly quicker than the company’s supercar, the V-8 powered R8 4.2.

The S8’s previous gas-thirsty V-10 was jettisoned in favor of a smarter, more efficient V-8. The 4.0-liter V-8 is twin-turbo-charged and direct injected, and built of lightweight aluminum. With 520 horsepower, it is more powerful than the 5.2-liter V-10, and propels the car to 60 mph a full second quicker.

Better Mileage

It also gets better mileage, with 15 miles per gallon around town and 26 highway. The previous one managed only 13 and 19 mpg. Now that’s progress.

I drove the S8 around the Tri-State area. The weather was cold and damp, and aside from my own couch, the cabin of the Audi was the best place to take refuge.

The gorgeous leather seats had an exquisite cross-stitched diamond pattern, electronically adjusted in 22 different positions, had a massage function and were also heated and air-conditioned. Come to think of it, they were better than my couch.

Executive sedans always get car makers’ latest gadgets. I first experienced a night-vision system on a BMW 7 Series and adaptive cruise control in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

If the S8 doesn’t have anything on it that I haven’t seen before, the reason is Audi doesn’t wait to let its latest technologies filter down to lesser models. Like the A6 and A7 sedans, the S8 gets a thin navigation screen that slides out of the center console and employs Google Earth. The car also acts as a movable Wi-Fi spot. The cabin is a happy place for a technophile.

Driver’s Paradise

It’s also a great place for a driver.

Around the city and during rush-hour on the highway, the S8 performed its duty perfectly: It mitigated the irritation of modern driving. The swell of the stereo kept me entertained at red lights, and it moved smoothly in spurts of hurry-up-and-stop freeway traffic.

Exactly as a luxury sedan should.

Then I got it out onto quieter roads, far out of town, and let the S8 show me what it could really do. From a stand-still, I dropped my foot on the accelerator. All thoughts of shiny gadgets and leather luxury were wrenched from my head.

An expletive might have fallen from my mouth. The S8 rips like a hopped-up Porsche 911.

It also turns beautifully. Moving a big luxury car through a narrow two-lane road often feels like a chore. Try to go through that same road with speed, and it can feel like either an act of bravery or stupidity.

Local Hero

The S8 seems to shrink around you. I was always aware just how much room I had between the fenders and the edge of the road. The all-wheel-system pulls the car through turns with an ease that is nearly insolent. Yeah, it’s a 4,600-plus-pound car. So what? Watch this.

I’ve had a long love affair with the BMW 7-Series. The steering is better than the S8, and there is better sense of road feedback. But it isn’t as heroic as this Audi.

This is no empty challenge. Expect that both Mercedes and BMW will have to answer back. The luxury sedan segment just got a lot more interesting.

The 2013 Audi S8 at a Glance

Engine: 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 with 520 horsepower and

479 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 15 city, 26 highway.

Price as tested: $129,995.

Best features: Amazing interior, roaring drive.

Worst feature: No long wheelbase offered.

Target buyer: The CEO who likes to drive himself.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Lance Esplund on art and Rich Jaroslovsky on gadgets.

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