The Audi S8, 2013 edition, moved around the track smoothly and efficiently, like a knife cutting into an oozing wedge of farm-fresh cheese. It steered without hitch, taking the turns with flawless deliberation. Inside the luxurious leather-stitched cabin, Audi’s unique sonic-reduction technology masked the skidding tires until they were nothing more than the delightful squealing of a litter of acorn-fed piglets. Outside, the Spanish sky was stark and cloudy, the hills around the track wheat-yellow. The car braked quickly and parked on a diagonal dime, with maximum grace.
I sat in a Munich hotel room wearing only my boxer briefs, watching the car do all this on a YouTube promotional video. In fewer than 24 hours, I was supposed to get into a similar Audi S8 in Spain for a “first drive” around the Circuito de Navarre, a Formula One racetrack that opened in 2010. I felt very nervous; I didn’t know how to drive on a racetrack. An Indy driver had just died in a fiery and horrific crash. Didn’t the Audi people see that footage? Shouldn’t caution rule the day? But maybe they hadn’t. Just look at their S8 on YouTube, going so fast and taking those turns so close, skidding to a stop like it’s finishing a victory lap. The car has 520 horsepower. No one uses that much horsepower, except for movie spies.
The newest version of the S8, which will likely cost around $115,000 when it appears in the U.S. in the summer of 2012, has an all-new twin-turbocharged V-8 engine. With a stiffer suspension than the A8, it’s extremely high performance, a real “driver’s car.” But it isn’t technically a racing vehicle. It’s an executive-class sedan designed for commuting and weekend drives. Audi decided to deploy it on a track, a company PR guy told me, “to show what it can do.”
German car executives often pick Spain for testing because there are open roads and a long sport-driving season. Spain brings to mind warmth and leisure and hot-shot driving. But the thought of Spain, which I’d always wanted to visit, suddenly filled me with terror.
That morning, I’d arrived in Munich and had immediately gone to a co-ed public bathhouse, on purpose and by design. I’d walked more than three miles to get there because I didn’t want to spend money on a cab. Then I’d gone to a public market and eaten weisswurst and a pretzel. I like to travel slowly and cheaply. These people were going to let me into their luxury car? Was I really the best man for the job? I’m qualified, possibly even over-qualified, to sit in an outdoor sauna with naked old German ladies. Driving an Audi around a racetrack, not so much.
I was going to do it anyway.
The next morning, Audi flew me and ten other automotive writers to Pamplona, via private charter jet. The corporation had transformed a significant corner of the Pamplona Airport into a private Audi hospitality suite, with beverages and petits-fours available at all times. Apparently, Audi hadn’t received the memo about the global recession. Their customer base isn’t the 99 percent.
We sat in high black-seated chairs at white plastic tables, like we were about to enjoy happy hour at a trendy bar, and received the briefest briefing in briefing history. “We are presenting Audi’s most high-end powerful sedan,” said the Audi employee, publicly reading in English for the first time since secondary school, “the ultimate in comfort, efficiency, and quality.” This 3rd-generation car used 23 percent less fuel than the previous generation. The twin turbo V-8 engine produced up to 650 Newton meters of torque, whatever that means [that’s 479 ft-lbs of torque, to American gearheads—Ed.]. Despite the massive power at our disposal, Audi advised us not to break any local traffic laws, because “the police are out and efficient,” ready to slap down a 100-Euro fine on the spot.
It was time to drive to the track, which was nearly an hour away.
Outside the airport, an Audi armada awaited us. As always with such missions, we traveled with partners. I ended up with a nice young man named Joe, from Kelley Blue Book, who let me drive. We spent 15 minutes in the roundabouts coming out of the airport, because we found the GPS instructions confusing.
“This is not good,” Joe said.
At last, we escaped. Joe had driven the Audi A8 on a separate trip to Spain. This was more or less the same car, he said, with the big exception being the 520 hp engine. Other than that, he said, the major difference was the sporty chrome décor in the S8 as opposed to the A8’s wood veneer. The Audi S8, Joe said, is “full of luxury-car things that wealthy people like.”
The car accelerated to 80 mph (140 km/h) very easily. Also, the windshield wipers, which I activated because it was raining, didn’t make a lot of noise. That seemed like a plus. My editor had told me to bring some music, because the car contains a $10,000 Bang & Olufsen stereo system. But it didn’t accept my first-generation iPod. Audi had programmed a couple albums into the system, which we ignored because they were just too terrible. The radio stations in Spain don’t offer much of interest unless you’re a hippie raver -- Bob Marley and the Pet Shop Boys were the best case -- but despite our inability to find anything worth listening to, the audio sounded clear and costly.
Joe and I were so busy trying out the sound system that we missed the turnoff for the racetrack. Soon after, the texts and calls started coming in; we’d delayed the proceedings. At 1:15 pm, we pulled up, and were met by several sleek, attractive Germans who were all “velcome, velcome, the press event is starting,” and then they ushered us into an upstairs room which had been decorated just like the hospitality suite at the airport, and I was wearing a headset tuned to channel 2 for the English translation. Two men in black suits were performing a skit in from of the S8’s gargantuan engine, saying things like,
“What Audi is putting on the road now is superior to all its predecessors in all ways.” They went on about “throttle response” and “a new and redesigned rear-end diffuser.”
Outside, the track loomed.