Cars are a medium for all kinds of romantic ideas. Sit behind the wheel of an Alfa Spider and you’re suddenly a 1960s Italian stud, all smouldering side-eye as you toy with the limit on a Mediterranean coastal road. Jump into a vintage Bentley in thick English drizzle and you become that honking combo of fighter pilot and Toad of Toad Hall. And as I slide onto the plush leather seats of a slightly dinked Range Rover from a few generations back, for one sweet moment I too can be the yummiest of mummies, furiously elbowing my way through school run back-markers like Max Verstappen…
There are some cars, however, that don’t usually evoke strong feelings. I’m talking about saloons. Standard, plush, yet flatly uninspiring business saloons. Snaking up and down motorways, the steel and tarmac spine of the national service economy, mostly full of stern people called Clive or Alan who earn fortunes looking at spreadsheets and intermittently shaking their heads. Perhaps the nicer, faster, plusher ones are full of Reinhards or Markuses, who love deregulated autobahns almost as much as deregulated tax jurisdictions. Yet for the most part, these saloons are unassuming vehicles, drearily comfortable, and often sporting letters no motoring fan likes to see – D for diesel, L for long wheelbase, A for… Ah. Some might say they are just fancy metal boxes for transporting suits. They can’t be alluring, engaging, or fun… can they?
In search of the answer to this burning question (and with no air miles to spare on a foreign jaunt), I decided to go to the spiritual Mecca of Clives, Alans, Reinhards and Markuses: Milton Keynes. I used to think the name of this fair city was a deliberate pairing of the literary romance of John Milton and the creative technical prowess of John Maynard Keynes. What a cunning and beautiful ruse, I thought – to imbue the world of grim commerce with some romantic flair! Sadly a quick fact check revealed this to be fake news. Sorry. On the plus side, Milton Keynes is also the location of the head office of Audi UK, who had kindly agreed to dip into their fleet and lend the Fitzroy Motor team a car which, it had been suggested, would enrich our understanding of what a saloon could be.
However, this was a test with a twist. The car we were about to drive was not just any modern vehicle. It was an S8, a 2001 D2, no less – the very first A8 to be offered up to Audi’s Sport division, or as it was known at the time, the Quattro division. Rather than drive something new and shiny, we wanted to dig back through automotive history and see what the ultimate executive car from almost 20 years ago felt like today, and whether the essential super saloon formula Audi had applied to their A8 of the time (more power, upgraded driving dynamics) could still impress. I say ‘applied’. Perhaps I should say ‘invented’. Because for many enthusiasts the D2 S8 is a legendary vehicle. Not just an impressive Audi, but (putting aside the inconsistent prior efforts of various manufacturers) the birth of the modern super saloon as we know it.
And it’s a competitive segment. In the absence of any romantic design concepts or sexy promo videos, the job of the super saloon as defined by the S8 is straightforward: fulfil the executive fantasy of effortless superiority across all performance areas, even if the trade-off is often a very hefty price. The target customer wants an almost future-proof combination of sports car performance, executive luxury, and technological innovation, all while looking decorous enough to get the approval of the company board.
It’s a demanding specification, and not without some lingering questions. While a garish sports car can be excused as a momentary flight of fancy, the executive super saloon has a far more sober, adult appeal. You want longevity, reliability, quality, practicality. But how far into the future do the sweet promises of the manufacturer take you? How long before the aura of technological and mechanical superiority wears off? God forbid, what if your super saloon of yesteryear, when set against more modern offerings, ends up just feeling… normal?
I was quickly disabused of some of my fears as Alex floored it in the direction of Oxford. He may as well have pointed our car at the moon. While the 2001 S8 is a few seconds slower to 60 mph than today’s equivalent car (the frankly preposterous stats of which we can discuss another time), the S8’s thick surge of low-rev torque which bursts forth under acceleration catches you by surprise. You just don’t expect it from a car of this size, which looks so sensible. Maximal pulling power comes early at 3800 rpm, meaning that the sensation of speed in the S8 isn’t visual; it’s immediately physical. This is helped by Audi’s Quattro four-wheel-drive system, which yanks the S8 rapidly towards the horizon. Any passenger foolish enough to recline their seat is hurled in the general direction of the boot (and you might meet the rest of the board of directors in there, incidentally – it’s utterly cavernous).
But why would anyone need enough power to de-Blackberry your passengers at will? To me, the S8’s 4.2 litre V8 feels like it was engineered with one goal: to make the S8 the first car to pull away from the lights and thrust its way onto the autobahn. You can’t be dealing with petty traffic when there’s a deal to close. Once you’re up to speed and settled, the 360hp powerplant (Audi’s most powerful production engine ever, at the time) will also keep pulling until you decide to be sensible and/or legal, with the Tiptronic gearbox making it almost too easy to shift up and down with its conveniently placed buttons on the dainty steering wheel. If you’re wondering about noise, well, there’s isn’t much apart from the sotto voce grunt of the V8. The sumptuously leathered cabin is double-glazed, so in my experience the only commotion is likely to come from your passenger shrieking every time they accidentally set off the vicious spring-loaded phone holder in the arm rest. Nobody said the business world was a nice place.
While the engine still impresses today, the external looks are perhaps more divisive. If you’re a fan of modern tendencies in car design, you’ll miss the swooshes, wrinkles and gargantuan grilles which seem to be flavour of the month with certain German manufacturers. Compared to newer cars, the S8 looks pretty basic. It sits there all lozenge-like, radiating mitteleuropean confidence and a vague sense of balanced books, with tiny bits of chrome trim making it as exciting, you feel, as an executive car could properly dare to be in 2001. Admittedly it does grow on you. There is something solid and neatly artistic about the way the S8’s bulk is bounded by those curved body panels. It’s almost sculptural, a muted five metre tribute to German engineering. The S8 also has the curious ability to make parking spaces feel like display areas and to make passers-by give you perhaps a foot more space than they otherwise would. No screaming crowds, no tourists grabbing their phones and asking you to rev it, but quiet respect and the odd approving look. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be the boss.
Wafting around Oxfordshire, having preposterous conversations while enjoying infinitely adjustable seats, power steering and the retro-lux interior, we’d lost track of time. I suddenly realised that if we were going to make the London train, we had to get back to Milton Keynes, fast. I was confident, however. I’d obviously seen what De Niro and Reno had squeezed out of the S8 in Ronin. I’d also read through the original spec sheet, boasting aluminium space frame design, ventilated disc brakes, and 2001’s most advanced driving aids. This was going to be a doddle.
Or maybe not. Let me tell you now – pushing an aged super saloon weighing over 1700 kg down Oxfordshire B-roads is a sobering lesson in physics. However much confidence the S8 imbues you with, hard cornering will result in some body roll, irksome lateral G’s and a hint of tyre squeal. It’s a polite but insistent noise, as if the S8 is kindly suggesting that you should think about a smoother line for next time. Traction control winks at you discreetly. Your stomach turns slightly. You get the message. This isn’t a car to fling about. Despite initial impressions, it never was a Teutonic bruiser designed for hammering up and down the roads with abandon. With great power comes, well, some responsibility. The S8 is still a precision tool, imposing and capable but to be used with restraint and judgement. Like your favourite litigation lawyer from the good old days. That is to say: you might never fall in love with it, but gosh, it’s effective.
But would you buy one now? Well, an aged executive super saloon will always be a somewhat rarefied taste, especially given new examples are priced beyond the reach of the non-suited multitude. This kind of car has a job and does it well – transporting you in blessed comfort and peace to your next meeting, with just a touch of flair, a little squeeze of excitement. Whether it really suits you depends on your lifestyle (and your appetite for maintenance bills) but then again, an S8 of any vintage is not a lifestyle choice. It’s not built for Instagram. You’re paying for peace of mind, not carbon fibre; it feels like a vehicle for those who can’t afford to buy cheap.
Even the best part of 20 years later, a car like the 2001 S8 impresses. I can forgive slightly worn leather, the touch of dust in the door sills, aged electronics and the general feeling that time has moved on. Because that happens to everyone – but fundamental quality and standards last. And this is a car of quality. It retains a certain mysterious allure, even if the stardust sprinkled on it at launch has now faded somewhat. So maybe the Reinhards and Markuses at Audi are onto something after all – if the job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing very well indeed.