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Audi A8: the cutting-edge luxury limo with 'modern classic' status guaranteed

2001 Audi S8 - modern classic - Alex Robbins driving
Executive express: this 2001 Audi S8 belies its age - and the 155,000 miles on the odometer Credit: Andrew Crowley

It isn’t often, in this preposterous excuse for a job, that a press car arrives on the back of a transporter, sparkling clean and in immaculate condition, only for you to start the engine and be greeted with an odometer that reads 155,000 miles. Yet that’s exactly how many miles the Audi S8 belonging to the company’s UK heritage fleet has covered. 

This is worthy of note not because it’s an unheard-of milestone, but that it suggests Audi places a great deal of faith in its old limo. 

It also shows how rare these old A8s are becoming. Finding one with low miles is becoming a Herculean task – even for Audi itself.

The S8 has arrived in celebration of the anniversary of the A8, the Audi range-topper of the day. For it was at the 1994 Geneva motor show that we first clapped eyes on the A8, which makes it – somewhat unbelievably – 25 years old. 

Mind you, the A8’s styling is actually older still. The production model’s imminent arrival had been strongly hinted at by the Space Frame concept car of 1993, a vision in gleaming mirror-finish aluminium, whose understated yet beautifully-proportioned lines caused a real stir when they were revealed at the Frankfurt motor show. 

The light woods and two-tone leather of the interior look great and there are no squeaks or rattles from the trim, which is testament to Audi's zeal to rival BMW and Mercedes  Credit: Andrew Crowley

This was not an Audi in the vein of the nice-but-dumpy 80 or the inoffensive-but-bland second-generation 100. This was a sharp-suited, square-jawed statement of the company’s intent to challenge Mercedes and BMW for supremacy in the premium car sector. 

It was also an expression of Audi’s technological ambition. The A8 was the first mainstream, mass-produced car to be built entirely from aluminium, and its equipment list included some seriously advanced kit: a Tiptronic automatic transmission, for example, which was the first time such a thing had been fitted to a saloon car; dual-zone climate control; even electronic brake force distribution.

The high-performance S8 variant arrived in 1996, pitched directly against the Jaguar XJR, the BMW 750i and the Mercedes S500. Stern rivals, no doubt, especially the Jaguar, whose blend of supercharged straight-six performance and lithe handling had made it something of a legend in its own time.

The high-performance S8 was launched in 1996 to take on the Jaguar XJR, BMW 750i and Mercedes S500 Credit: Andrew Crowley

But the S8 was not to be outdone. Its thumping 4.2-litre V8 kicked out 335bhp – a remarkable figure given the 5.0-litre V12 in the BMW could ‘only’ muster 322bhp, and more than the Jaguar or the Mercedes. But its trump card lay in Audi’s Quattro four-wheel drive system as standard, which was something its rivals simply couldn’t match.

The result? Well, we’re about to find out. For a 155,000-mile car, this S8 feels distinctly good. Yes, there are a few telltale signs – some patchy leather here and there, a couple of switches whose icons have faded or worn away – but for the most part, the interior is in fine fettle – a testament to the quality with which it was built.

It looks great, too; a vision in light woods and two-tone leather, its classy styling nowhere near as antiquated as you’d expect for a car whose design roots can be traced back so far. 

As we get underway, what strikes us is the complete lack of squeaks or rattles. The S8’s interior feels as tight as a drum. And all of the plastics, all the switchgear, all of the wood inlays – when they’re prodded or poked, all feel as secure and as snug as they day they were made. 

Brisk driving is accompanied by the characterful, albeit respectfully muted, woofle of the 4.2-litre V8 Credit: Andrew Crowley

It would be easy to suggest that Audi’s heritage garage has taken this S8 apart and put it back together properly to give that impression, but we happen to know this car arrived on the fleet just a few days before we drove it. This, then, is a bona fide used S8, straight off the market. 

So what’s a bona fide used S8 like to drive? Pretty good, is one answer. Better than you might think, is another. But first, we need to talk about the gearbox. 

Audi was a little way off its current, rapid-shift dual-clutch gearboxes, and while Tiptronic was all the rage in the early 1990s, all that really meant was that the shifter would allow you to control the traditional torque converter gearbox by changing up and down through the ratios sequentially.

As a result, it’s a slushy old thing, and slurs its changes whether you’re in automatic or manual mode, which rather takes the edge off the performance.

Quattro permanent four-wheel drive set the A8 apart from its rear-wheel drive rivals Credit: Andrew Crowley

Nevertheless, while the S8 doesn’t feel as blisteringly quick as a modern rapid Audi, it offers up plenty enough pace to be going along with. This S8 is a post-facelift car, and as such benefits from the 40-valve cylinder heads Audi fitted in 1999. As a result, it got a 20bhp boost over the original, enough to see it to 60mph in 6.6 seconds – and this despite that less-than-urgent gearbox. 

So while it won’t snap your head backward against the headrest, the grunt the S8 nevertheless delivers is delightful – and addictive. Floor the right pedal, the nose rises slightly and you surge down the road, accompanied by the characterful, albeit respectfully muted, woofle of that lovely V8. 

What about cornering? The S8 is a big car, and it feels it through the slow, deliberate steering and the give in the suspension, which causes it to heel if you turn in too enthusiastically – but not so much that it feels uncontrolled. 

There's plenty of roll, but the grippy S8 is rewarding as long as you set it up properly and power through a corner in traditional manner  Credit: Andrew Crowley

But if you set it up properly on the way in, let it settle on to its outer wheels, then apply the power, it sticks to its line faithfully and provides an awful lot of confidence. Traction, as you’d expect from a car with all four wheels driven, is exemplary, and you really have to be going some to reach the A8’s limits; it’ll tell you about it well in advance, and if you do step over the line, all you’ll get is linear, progressive understeer, the whole car pushing wide of its line laterally in a very balanced and predictable way. 

No, it isn’t as scintillating as a Jaguar or a BMW, but the S8 is still impressive; most likely, of all of these big old super-saloons, it’s the one you could cover ground on a back road most quickly, even if it isn’t quite as involving. 

Should you buy one? It’s certainly tempting. A half-decent A8 can be had for less than £2,000; raise that to £4,000 for an S8 with respectable mileage and a good service history, or £7,000 for a low-mile minter. The trouble you’ll have, given the A8’s increasing rarity, is locating one.

Handsome. And at about £7,000 for a low-mileage S8, we think it's a bit of bargain Credit: Andrew Crowley

These first-generation cars aren’t quite classics yet, although anything 25 years or older now assumes the epithet “modern classic”. Given the way numbers are tailing off, assured classic status won’t be long. Especially given the A8’s pivotal place in the history of the company that made it. 

Today, Audi’s range consists of 13 cars; when the A8 was launched, that figure was just three. The original A8 was the car that spearheaded that product offensive; it was the first modern Audi, a car that showed what the company was capable of, and the car which signalled its massive ambition to take on the might of BMW and Mercedes. One which today, you’d have to say, has been successful. 

Quite aside from its place in history, though, the A8 and S8 are, simply, lovely old executive saloons, blessed with handsome looks and fabulous build quality, the like of which are a real joy to glide around in. If that sounds like your cup of tea, we’d urge you to seek one out – before they become even more rare. 

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