Friday, November 16, 2001

Hot-rod luxury car. It’s an oxymoron, but that’s where the high-falutin’ guys are headed.
The phenomenon hasn’t spread everywhere. But it’s probably only a matter of time because the Germans already are doing it, and other luxury-car manufacturers tend to follow their lead.
BMW offers souped-up “M” class machines. Mercedes-Benz has AMG versions of just about every vehicle it produces. And Audi substitutes an “S” for an “A” on its high-performance models and adds all-wheel drive as a bonus.
The practice started with the smaller cars in each manufacturer’s line - the better to attract well-heeled younger buyers. But now it’s spread to the flagship models - as witness Audi’s new S8 sedan.
Its slogan, “The future of the luxury car has arrived,” has a good deal of truth in it because the S8 is an all-wheel drive car, and many industry insiders believe that all luxury cars will feature all-wheel drive in the not-too-distant future.
Like the A8, the car from which it was spawned, the S8 is manufactured almost entirely of aluminum - engine, suspension system and body panels are all crafted of the lightweight metal.
The heartbeat is a 4.2-liter V8 engine that delivers 360 horsepower on premium fuel, along with 317 pounds-feet of torque - which is low-speed pulling power - at 3400 revolutions per minute.
Linked to a five-speed automatic transmission with remote and manual-shift modes, it can propel the 4,068-pound S8 to 60 miles an hour in 6.3 seconds, according to the manufacturer’s specifications.
There’s no reason to doubt that. But you have to get your foot in it. For some reason, some manufacturers like to force the driver to put extra pressure on the accelerator pedal to move away rapidly. This delayed”throttle tip-in” can be annoying in a car like the S8 because, in ordinary driving, it makes the car feel much slower than it is.
Conversely, some car builders have a rapid tip-in, which makes the car seem to leap off the line. That can be just as annoying. So the best practice is to get it adjusted somewhere in between. The S8 needs attention in this regard.
Once you get over the tip-in threshold, there’s no question that the S8 is the embodiment of luxury rapid transit. The powerful engine is augmented by the Tiptronic manual shifting mechanism, which can be operated with the shifter on the console or with either of two buttons mounted on the steering wheel.
For maximum acceleration, simply put the shift lever in the manual mode, stomp the pedal and watch the tachometer rush up to the redline. Then punch one of the steering-wheel buttons, which can easily be operated with either thumb.
It makes for an exhilarating ride. But it’s controlled. The aluminum sport suspension keeps the high-performance tires on 18-inch wheels securely planted in the curves. There’s also the all-wheel drive, a sophisticated electronic stability and traction control, and massive antilock disc brakes.
The S8’s interior is best described as understated luxury. There’s bird’s eye maple wood trim, but it’s stained gray and blends into the interior trim.
Four people will find comfort, although the S8 - despite the fact that it is Audi’s flagship - is not a large car. Based on interior space, it is classified as a mid-size. The front seats feel a touch on the small side, and the middle seating position in back is impossible.
The test car had the optional ($3,500) Alcantara upholstery - a suede-like material - with leather trim. It was comfortable but looked as if it could succumb to soiling in short order.
Thankfully, Audi has resisted the common urge among luxury-car manufacturers to make controls redundant and/or needlessly complicated. The stereo system operation is a model of simplicity, for example, and the only buttons on the steering wheel are those for the Tiptronic shifter.
For safety’s sake, there are eight air bags, including dual side air bags for both front and rear seat occupants. And comfort is enhanced by an optional package that includes heated rear seats and sun shades for the back window and rear side windows.
The only jarring note came from the dual-zone automatic climate control system. On the automatic setting, the system refused to move to the re-circulation mode for rapid cooling on very hot days. The only way to get there was to move to manual control.
Because of all of its technology and luxury, the S8 doesn’t come cheap. Thebase price was $73,075 and, with the two option packages and a gas-guzzler tax, the bottom-line suggested delivered price came to $78,975.

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