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Audi S8 (D2) buying guide, history and review

Words: Matthew Hayward

Fast Audis have always made great getaway cars, something that Hollywood director John Frankenheimer was more than aware of when he personally hand-picked the cars for his 1998 hit, Ronin. It’s easily one of the best car-chase films ever made, and the early star of the film is a menacing yet beautifully understated Audi S8. Although buying a car because it looks (and sounds) great in a film is reason enough, the Audi S8 is a great car full-stop, and one that remains a bit of a bargain.

Prices became cheap for a time, and high relative repair costs quickly saw S8 numbers diminish. There are very few on the market today, yet although good cars are on the up, prices remain sensible. Just make sure you get a good one…

Audi S8 history

Following in the footsteps of the previous range- topping Audi V8, the 1994 D2-generation A8 was a particularly groundbreaking effort. The first of Audi’s cars to use the company’s aluminium spaceframe ‘ASF’ technology, the A8 was lighter and stiffer than the previous Typ 4C V8. It also featured a larger range of engines – from a 2.8-litre V6 up to an initially range-topping 4.2-litre 296bhp V8. A long-wheelbase A8L variant added five extra inches to the car’s already substantial 5034mm length.

It took two more years for the range-topping S8 finally to make an appearance: 1997 for the UK. Following on from Audi’s other well-established S models – the smaller S2, S4 and S6 – the S8’s brief had the same aim. It had to be fast, capable and good-looking, all while keeping a relatively low profile.

The S8 was powered by a tuned high-compression version of the A8’s 32-valve, 4.2-litre naturally aspirated V8 engine, producing a healthy 335bhp. This was coupled to a five-speed Tiptronic automatic gearbox in the UK, although a six-speed manual transmission was offered in Europe. Quattro full-time four-wheel drive, equipped with a Torsen centre differential, ensured secure and unflappable handling whatever the weather. The S8 was more of a limo than other S models, but even so the suspension was lowered by 20mm, giving a relatively firm and sporty set-up. Coupled with an engine that loves to rev, it’s a surprisingly fun car to drive.

Externally the S8 kept things low-key, with a pair of solid aluminium door-mirror cappings, 18-inch six- spoke ‘Avus’ alloy wheels and subtle S badging on the bonnet and boot being the only big giveaways that this was anything more than a regular A8 cruiser. Performance was certainly brisk, with 0-62mph coming in a claimed 5.5sec, and top speed capped at an electronically limited 155mph. It weighed in at 1720kg, which was impressively lean for a luxury saloon with a huge V8 and four-wheel drive.

May 1999 brought the first major update, with a few styling tweaks – new headlights, grille and bumpers, optional 19-inch wheels – along with a new 40-valve 4.2 V8 engine, increasing power to 355bhp. For the final year of production, 2002 saw the introduction of the Special Edition. This included a number of additions to the standard spec, including 20-inch wheels, Bose stereo and xenon lights.

Audi S8 common problems

Audi S8 D2 engine

• High mileages are very common, but assuming the car has been well-maintained even a 200,000-miler should still feel pretty good to drive.

• An aluminium structure means that underbody corrosion is less of a problem, although subframes, pipes and suspension components can still suffer.

• A high priority when looking for an S8 should be to check the health of its transmission. The ZF ’box benefits from regular servicing, but failure isn’t uncommon and will require an expensive rebuild. Treat whining or rough changes with suspicion.

• Ensure all the electronics are working, as problems can be fiddly to fix. A diagnostic scan is worthwhile, and should reveal any fault codes.

What to pay?

Finding a D2 S8 is becoming a challenge, but rougher cars, or those with less-than-stellar histories, can be found from £2500 to £3000. Expect to pay upwards of £5000 for a tidy car, with the best later high-spec examples still commanding £8000 or more.

Audi S8 D2 interior

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