When you think of luxury sedans, qualities such as comfortable, calm and quiet come to mind. Performance is often a quality neither sought after nor exercised by those who own such expensive vehicles. However, there's a sect of enthusiasts who demand the size and presence of a big sedan, but desire the power and handling of a sports car. Several manufacturers meet this demand, but one has tried harder with a series of cars based on its existing production vehicles.
In the mid-90s, Audi altered its A6 and A8 platforms into a crossbred class of sport and luxury. Identified by an "S" for Sport, the S6 and S8 would offer improved power and handling but maintain luxury qualities.
Ten years have passed since the S6 and S8 were introduced, and in that time Audi has continued to enhance the sedans with their innovation.
Motorsports has been at the heart of the Audi brand and its research. The knowledge learned from building racers such as the R8 and R10 TDI, both winners of the 24 Heures du Mans, have improved the performance of its consumer offerings.
The development of Fuel Straight Injection (FSI) technology has changed everything. FSI adds precisely metered fuel at high pressure directly into the combustion chambers. This gives the highest, most efficient combustion, translating into more power.
The new S6 and S8 come factory-equipped with massive 5.2 liter V10 engines featuring FSI. The S6 is tuned to 435hp and the S8 carries 450hp. In reality, the engine is detuned because it's based on the 500hp Lamborghini V10. Despite this, the S6 has a 0-60mph time of 5.1sec, while the S8 can do it in 4.9sec. Both share a top speed of 155mph.
The brute power of these naturally-aspirated sedans is comparable to the fastest sports cars. To test Audi's claims, we ventured to Montreal, Canada where the two cars were at our disposal for a day.
It was like a scene out of a car commercial. The autumn sun emerged in the clear blue sky, the leaves were changing to incredible hues of red, orange and yellow, the roads were smooth and freshly paved with little or no traffic, and I had keys to an Audi S6 and S8. But what could two big hitters do in the beautiful, open roadways of Canada?
First, I'm biased. Smaller cars fit me better and I imagined the Audis would be sluggish compared to the nimble hatchbacks I'm used to. Boy, was I wrong.
From a standstill, both cars accelerate well, especially after 2500rpm where the torque feels strongest. The S6 has a louder exhaust note, but both are refined. Each has a sport mode to give them tighter throttle response.
Because the cars are long and heavy, handling was my main concern. Taking both cars into a combination of tight twisties, long dips and sudden rises, the S6 and S8 handled incredibly well. Audi notes the suspension is tuned stiffer than the base models, with better shocks and springs. There was some body roll from both cars, but for their size they handled well. The steering remains tight yet effortless. In addition, the quattro drivetrain maintained grip when pushing the limit.
Styling is subjective, but I felt both cars were rather conservative - neither would catch my eye on the streets of LA. The aerodynamics and wheels lacked creativity and didn't portray the performance of the cars, although they have a sleeper look that someone who doesn't want attention would appreciate.
One highlight of the S6 was its LED running lights - five bright LEDs on either side of the car represent each side's five cylinders.
The interior was more what I expected from a luxury sedan. Believe it or not, Audi uses 'nose' and 'creak and cracking' teams to ensure the cars smell good and don't make unnecessary noise.
Both cockpits have ample space and the front seats were sporty thanks to an integrated headrest and side bolsters. The door cards and headliner were suede while the seats were two-tone leather. Both cars also featured gorgeous carbon trim.
The sound system in the S8 stole my heart with tweeters that emerge from the dash. The Bang & Olufsen 14-speaker, 1000W upgrade is pricey at $6300 but worth it.
Another nice feature is the Music Interface with iPod integration that will allow iPod menus to appear in the instrument cluster, showing artist, title and album.
The S6 and S8 combine sport and luxury exceptionally well. One day, when I have the disposable income, I might consider one of these talented sedans for myself.
S4 Cabriolet and RS4
Audi was gracious enough to let me drive two other cars. The first was a S4 Cabriolet. With 340hp, the car had decent power and accelerated well. The exhaust rumble was better than the S6 and S8, especially with the top down. It could have used more top-end power, but handling was above average.
The second car was the RS4. Now, this was everything I'd imagined it to be. Starting the car and accelerating out of the parking lot, the exhaust note was perfect. I took it on the highway and hit the "S" button that tightens the throttle response and makes the voice of the 4.2 liter V8 FSI more distinct.
Overall, the power, handling and traction were phenomenal. Even on high-speed runs, I could turn at speeds I never imagined possible in a factory-tuned car.
After raging on the freeway, I headed toward Montreal to cruise and test acceleration from a stop. The quattro keeps the car planted and when sharp cornering was required, the 60/40 rear torque split enables the tires to break loose in a drift while remaining under complete control.
I finished the test drive in the Catherine Street shopping district and the yellow RS4 grabbed attention. With a deep exhaust note and aggressive styling, it has the stance of an exotic car.