It's probably worth pointing out right from the outset that I like big cars. Even as a gangly teenager, I avoided the universally popular small, sporty hatchbacks in favour of something a bit bigger and a lot more luxurious. Whilst my friends were tooling about in tuned two-door pocket rockets, I was buying Ford Capris and Toyota Celicas. Despite being of normal height and weight, I obviously like my space.
As the years have rolled by this has become a fairly common theme in mycar buying and driving, and I love nothing more than a test drive in a big German saloon. They seem to have it all — power, poise and pose.
About a year ago I flew over to Europe to play with Audi's latest incarnation of its hugely popular A8. The new version bristled with tech and devices to keep even the most car-hating exec interested on a long journey. It was good.
So I was suitably interested when I got the call to go and try the new S8, Audi's tuned and fettled version of what was already a car I knew and liked.
As you may have already noticed from other test drives in wheels, car companies don't tend to launch new models in boring locations. We never end up testing cars in the back streets of Ajman or testing sideways-handling limits on the outskirts of Al Ain.
For the S8, Audi chose Pamplona in Spain, home to the chaotic Running of the Bulls. They'd even put us up in the sumptuous La Perla Hotel in Pamplona's main square, the very spot where Hemingway enjoyed panoramic views of the start of one of the world's strangest races. If Audi were trying to set the scene they were certainly going about it in the right way.
Driving the S8 for the first time on the run down to the hotel, the thing that struck me was the interior. The cabin is truly amazing and the seats are both ultra comfortable and supportive. The S8 gets illuminated sill panels, an S badge on the steering wheel and a smattering of carbon throughout the interior. It also gets an aluminium footrest and pedals.
The only complaint is the pop-up navigation screen. As most people will have this on most of the time, it looks a little ungainly sticking out of the dash. It also houses the clever 360-degree camera, which gives you a bird's-eye view of the car and its surroundings.
The S8 is easy to place on the road, is stable and planted at any speed and accelerates like a scalded cat. Even under heavy acceleration it feels like it is hardly trying. This is one potent car.
On the outside, the changes are minimal. A slightly more aggressive face with signature LED lights, coupled with a hardened stance give the S8 a tough look. The rear remains the same as the last version and isn't the car's best part.
It also gets lower spotlights, extra air vents, flat aluminium mirrors and a lower aluminium blade spoiler. The S8 comes with four tail pipes, a visual that will remain unique to the S model.
Buyers will get 20in alloys as standard, with an option of 21s. You can also choose ceramic brakes if you're planning to require some serious stopping power.
One slightly odd option is the foot-operated boot release. In a movement, which I've dubbed the ‘Beckenbauer boot', you simply wave your foot as if kicking a ball under the rear valance and the boot pops open. The idea behind this is that people with their hands full can open the boot without having to put everything down. You simply need the key in your pocket for the system to work. Very neat and beautifully simple.
Under the bonnet, the new V8 twin turbo engine is extremely compact, perhaps preparing it for an A6 beast? The exhausts are mounted inside the V, keeping the overall size down and shortening the exhaust run. Even the intercooler is mounted inside the V.I don't envy the mechanics at Audi dealers if one of these cars has an engine issue.
The V8 uses Audi's cylinder deactivation system, which shuts down four of the eight cylinders when not required. They kick back in instantly when the driver demands more power. The car also comes with a smooth stop-start system, although it tends to shut down a little quicker than you want, especially at stop lines.
After a lovely night in the hotel and morning stroll around Pamplona's narrow streets, the second part of the test-drive programme was based at the Navarra Circuit, hidden away in the hills outside the historic city. The track is an undulating joy of a test facility and a challenge for a car of this size. Its tight turns and downhill charges would be a serious test of stability and computing power for any car.
Leaving the pits, the S8 powers down to the first fast right turn. I turn in and — surprisingly — the car simply goes where I point it and heads swiftly for the far tighter turn two. Hard on the brakes, the S8 finally reveals its true nature. This is a very big and (despite Audi's weight-saving attempts) heavy car. It gets up on its toes and squirms around under braking, but doesn't get too out of shape.
It's the same story at the next corner, and the next and pretty much all the way around the track. My only slightly scary moment is when I run way past my turn-in point at the end of the back straight, as I discover the brakes are long past their best, having been ragged around the track all day long by heavy-footed journalists.
Returning to the pits after numerous laps of the excellent circuit, my mind was caught in a quandary. What had the track time really taught me? All I had learnt was, as expected, the S8 is a very powerful but heavy car. What keeps it on the road (or track in this case) are a lot of very clever computers and some serious engineering skill. Had we only driven on the road this wouldn't have been so obvious.
In trying to demonstrate how clever the S8 is, all Audi managed to do was show me the compromise all super saloons suffer from.
Physics is difficult to alter and weight doesn't share a bed well with rapid changes in direction. All the big saloon builders from Audi and Mercedes, to Jag and BMW are fighting physics, and it has to be said, doing a darned good job.
No S8 owner in their right mind will take this car anywhere near a racetrack. These cars will spend their time between the highways and Autobahns, and the corporate car parks of the world.
Audi sees its core buyers as mainly male with a focus on aesthetics and technology. They'll certainly get plenty of the latter. As 14 per cent of S8s are expected to come to the Gulf, this market is key to the success of the model. The cylinder deactivation won't interest many, but the 15 per cent power increase will.
I can't help but be pulled back to the question of why we need cars like this, but then I could ask the same question about all supercars, sportscars and a whole host of other motoring genres. Let's not even begin to talk about the BMW X6.
Car buying isn't about the head; it's about the heart. No one on the planet needs a huge saloon that can hit 100kph in4.2 seconds, yet we still buy them. Judging by the new Audi S8, our appetite for these cars is far from over. Let's not get away from the actual story here. The S8 is a brilliant car and with such insane performance figures will upset a great deal of the motoring fraternity by taking convention and shaking it to pieces. Bear in mind the S8 weighs in at just under two tonnes, but will out-accelerate a Jaguar XKR and an Aston Martin Vantage. It's a second quicker to 100kph than a Porsche Cayman S. I'm not sure we need a saloon that can do that, but it's great fun trying to find out. You can keep your small cars, I'll stick with the big stuff thanks.
Model Audi S8
Engine 4.0-litre V8 twin-turbo
Transmission Eight-speed auto, AWD
Max power 520bhp @ 5,800rpm
Max torque 650Nm @ 1,700rpm
Top speed 250kph (limited)
Plus Incredible power, stunning interior
Minus They could have been more daring with the design