Audi says the S8 will charge to 62mph in just 4.2 seconds, while the top speed is electronically limited to 155mph

Audi says the S8 will charge to 62mph in just 4.2 seconds, while the top speed is electronically limited to 155mph

It's not every day you get to drive an Audi S8, especially one that's been optioned up to the max with extras such as GBP8,650 ceramic brakes and a GBP5,565 Bang & Olufsen sound system.

This being Audi's most expensive saloon, I wasn't surprised to see its price tag of GBP77,900. But it did come as something of a shock to run my eyes down the spec sheet of the press car I was given to try, noting an on the road sticker of GBP107,075. The snazzy brakes and B&O hi-fi were the two biggest ticket extras but would you believe Audi charges extra for a sunroof (GBP1,450)? Some of the other items were power door closure (GBP655), parking system with Top View (GBP770), electric blinds for the rear window and doors (GBP1,020) and four-zone climate control (GBP1,225).

Of course cars which are fitted out for press reviews usually come with loads of options, in the hope that people like me will publicise the technology, so to be fair, this wasn't a typical S8. Audi sees the new model making up approximately 10% of its A8 sales this year which should mean around 130 cars. The company says that percentage had been as high as 30% with the old, second generation model.

The third generation S8 was first seen at the Frankfurt motor show in September last year, with sales commencing in LHD European markets in June, followed by the UK later in the summer. There's just the one wheelbase - not even in China or the US can you have an S8 L, which surprised me, especially as Mercedes-Benz does a brisk trade with its S 63 L AMG and S 65 L AMG in both those markets.

The engine of this most powerful of all Audi A8 derivatives is a 4.0-litre V8 which, thanks to two turbochargers, produces a claimed 382kW or 520hp. An eight-speed automatic comes as standard as do paddle shifters.

Perhaps hearing the cries of those who say they prefer the platform of their big German sports limo to be rear-wheel drive, Audi has also addressed that with the third generation model. While this car has standard quattro all-wheel drive, much of the weight sits over the rear axle. That's due to the decision to place the front differential ahead of the clutch. This allows the front axle to sit far forwards and means a lengthy wheelbase. Ergo, more rearward weight distribution for better driving dynamics.

Fire up the S8 and you're greeted with a little surprise and delight ceremony. The throttle is automatically blipped, while the speedo and tacho needles dance a full arc around their dials. Yes, we've seen that in lots of other cars but in the Audi, these dials are encircled with LED. In the case of the tachometer, these act as your rev counters, so you get progressively more red lights as the revs rise. And when you start the car, the whole circle lights up in sequence. At night, this looks very cool. Oh, and the temperature and fuel gauges either side of those big dials are also LED and each shaped like a hockey stick, as are the daytime running lights, I noticed.

Sitting there assessing the car before driving off, I noticed the tiny B&O speakers that rise out of the top of the dashboard, an S8 logo on the base of the steering wheel, an electric rear blind that gives you something else to play with to break the boredom of traffic jams (perhaps I'm not the target buyer?), and inlays of aluminium and carbonfibre on the dashboard. Leather is also everywhere, and this car had possibly the softest headliner I've ever touched: it's alcantara.

Setting off, you immediately notice huge power and torque and surprisingly heavy steering. I haven't driven an A8 but would guess that Audi has changed the settings so that S8 buyers notice a weightier feel if they test drive the cars one after the other. Everything you touch in fact, gives you the impression of solidity and obsessive engineering. The pedals are beautiful to look at - silver with black, rubbery inserts - the indicator stalks are gloss black and have no play whatsoever in them, while that carbon trim looks very cool, not crass.

It might sound like a cliche but this huge car (it's lower, but longer and wider than an S-Class or 7 Series) somehow seems to become far smaller as you drive it. Grip is phenomenal and the acceleration simply has to be tried to be believed. And as for the stopping power of those ceramic brakes - I put them to the test at high speed and in short, I thought I'd experienced impressive brakes but until the S8, I hadn't. Are they worth the money? I'd have to try the standard car's system to say for sure.

The ride is firm when you need it to be, and compliant at other times. I suspected automatic air suspension was at work and yes, it comes as standard. It really does work amazingly well and armed with my new-found knowledge I sought out and found the settings to lower the body (you get the choice of three ride heights).

I parked the car to try out a few more of the gadgets and that's when I saw my first views from a 360° camera in any vehicle. The S8, I later learned, is the first A8 derivative to have this system, which consists of four small cameras. These record images of the car's immediate surroundings and a computer splices them together. You can call up a variety of views on the dash-mounted MMI monitor, including a virtual top-down vista, which is the one I saw - it's quite something to be reverse parking and see your car moving, from above. According to Audi, the system enhances safety while maneuvering and in narrow driveways. Special views also allow the driver to see cross-traffic.

For technology geeks like me, this car is a chunk of heaven. And it hugely flattered my driving ability too, so however hard I tried to test its limits, the S8 never replied with anything other than perfect road manners, with an enormous margin of in-built electronic safety systems to look after me. I love the engineering genius that went into its development, especially the aluminium body that is said to weigh only 231kg (told you I was a geek).

I loved driving this car and I still love how it looks, though I've only seen two on the road since the day I drove the press car. The full LED headlamps are especially cool - not many cars have these, the R8 supercar is one I can think of - so driving an S8 you're in rarified company in all sorts of ways. And you're likely to remain so - I was told not to believe those rumours about a supposedly more powerful and faster RS 8 derivative. It's a myth, apparently. So if you've a burning desire to drop GBP78,000 (or a whole lot more) on a big Audi saloon, then this is the daddy of them all and will remain so.

Author: Glenn Brooks