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Audi S8 for ‘discerning’

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Listen up all you rich and prosperous owners of top-end German luxury cars.

Yes, I'm talking to you well-heeled few driving around in Mercedes-Benz S-Class rigs and BMW 7-Series iron.

How about showing your partners in the law firm and your pals at the country club that you don't need a three-pointed star or spinning propeller logo to assure them (and yourself) that you're a player with whom to be reckoned and you don't need to advertise it.

Instead, how about the next time your auto lease expires you sign up for something a bit understated, more subtle, such as a luxury sedan bearing the linked-rings insignia of Audi, the No. 3 luxury carmaker from Deutschland (we're talking four-door sedans here, so Porsches are out of the mix).

In your case, though, the popular A4 and A6 Audis simply won't do. Too many middle managers can be found in those. What you need is the new 2001 Audi S8, the all-wheel-drive hot-rod version of Audi's flagship A8 sedan that debuted in 1996.

Sure, the neighbors might think you've slipped a bit in the pecking order; figuring you probably lost money in a failed dot-com or two. But when they find out (and if they're serious status trackers, they will) that your new S8 rolled off the showroom floor at more than $80,000 with sales tax, your reputation as someone who likes a good steak but doesn't need the sizzle will be secured.

The Audi A8 and S8 are the modern iteration of the Audi 5000, but Audi dropped that model numbering system following the "unintended acceleration" flap of the '80s, when the cars, supposedly possessed by demons, went off on lethal rampages — charges that were eventually proven baseless but not until "magazine" TV shows like "60 Minutes" had effectively trashed their reputations.

At least that would be an easy answer for why the Audi flagships have sold so poorly in this country over the past six years — only a couple of thousand annually. But I suspect the problem is more prosaic than that: A8s and S8s must compete against the priciest Bimmers and Benzes, and those two marques simply have the prestige market locked up, with only Lexus able to make any serious competitive inroads.

But I've always been a sucker for sleepers, and the new S8 fits the bill. Once reserved only for those wild and crazy Europeans, it is now available in the U.S. for what Audi's marketing people term "the discerning customer," one who can appreciate "a perfect synthesis of a luxurious atmosphere and superior power."

Whatever. What they're really saying is that if you can afford a really expensive sport sedan, the S8 will allow you to blast off the line from 0 to 60 mph in a mere 5.8 seconds (1.2 seconds faster than the A8), which means you have a big, posh five-seat sedan with a voluminous trunk that performs in the neighborhood of the new Honda S2000 sports car.

The "S" in Audi S8 designates that the car is a product of the company's gearhead department. These are the same folks whose work is designated AMG at Mercedes-Benz and Motorsports, or "M," at BMW.

It also means you're willing to pay some serious extra cash — about $12,000 — for the privilege of galloping around with 50 more horses than the A8, along with a bevy of suspension upgrades to keep that extra power glued to the road.

The only downside I could see compared to past A8 models I've evaluated is that the 0.8 inch drop in ride height on the S8 means you'll scrape the front airdam on road depressions that the A8 will pass over unscathed.

Both cars share an all-wheel-drive (called Quattro in Audi-speak), electronically regulated platform, but the S8 gets stiffer springs, meatier anti-sway bars and dual-tube gas shocks, among other goodies.

The 360 horsepower 4.2-liter DOHC V8 has a total of 40 valves (5 per cylinder) and consumes premium fuel at the rate of 15 mpg in city driving and 21 on the highway.

All that extra power finds its way to beefy 18-inch wheels shod with Dunlop tires. Braking is provided by larger diameter rotors all around and Brembo calipers up front.

All this go-go-gear is advertised by only a discreet S8 badge on the deck, making it a very stealthy rocketship. And just in case your insurance agent concludes you are having a midlife crisis, it comes with not two, not four, but eight airbags to cushion you and your passengers.

If your S8 should get front-ended, rear-ended and T-boned all at the same time, it will inflate balloons from everywhere but the CD player.

Price? Well, we know price is no object for "discerning customers" like yourself, but maybe your accountant will want to know so he or she can be sure and accurately write it off on your taxes. Base price of the S8 is $72,500, but the "Alcantra" suede upholstery in my tester, which replaces the "Valcona" leather trim found in A8 models, added a stunning $3,500.

A "premium package" of heated rear seats, ski sack, power rear window sunshade and manual rear side window shades added another $700.

A gas guzzler tax of $1,700 and destination charges of $575 put the bottom line at $78,975. As noted, sales tax would push that figure well north of $80K.

E-MAIL: max@desnews.com