It's no secret that Audi has been on a major product roll of late, turning out some exceptionally well-polished vehicles targeted at equally well-heeled buyers looking for premium alternatives that effectively push the limits of design convention. Headlining that list are the Audi A6, Audi A7 and Audi A8. Even in baseline form, all are formidable players that impressively integrate style, elegance and innovation with a healthy dose of pure driving fun. For 2013, that latter commodity becomes even more abundant in their new Audi S6, S7 and S8 siblings. Crafted for serious enthusiasts, this Teutonic power trio cranks up the adrenalin rush to 11 and puts the fun factor into overdrive - truths we can attest to following our day-long back-to-back-to-back immersion session.
Rolling on common ground
Like other members of the Audi "S" lineup, the new S6, S7 and S8 share a penchant for refined performance that manifests itself in well-sorted suspensions, purpose-tuned Quattro all-wheel drive systems and -- in this case -- a new twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter TFSI V8 engine, all appropriately set off with tasteful cosmetic touches and interior enhancements.
Other features aside, the new V8 is the real star of the show here. While served up in two distinct iterations, each are spun from the same compact, lightweight, all-aluminum design and couple variable-valve timing with two twin-scroll turbochargers nestled between the cylinder banks for added muscle. The design brief also includes a new cylinder deactivation system that seamlessly transitions them into de facto V4s under light load conditions. That latter feature helps improve fuel economy by up to 25 percent compared to the 5.2-liter V10 that was used in the prior-generation S6/S8. To keep everything smooth, quiet and refined, these Audis also use special "active" motor mounts and an in-cabin noise-cancellation system.
In the Audi S6 and S7, this super-efficient V8 makes 420 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of launch-enhancing torque from 1,500 revs all the way up to 5,300 rpm. The variant used in the Audi S8 benefits from a series of focused changes that bump its output to a heady 520 horses and 479 lb-ft of twist. While all three of these audacious Audis get a bespoke version of the legendary Quattro all-wheel drive system and a torque-vectoring rear sport differential that can transfer power from side to side to improve cornering and acceleration, the S6/S7 are fitted with a 7-speed S tronic dual-clutch automated manual transmission while the S8 has an 8-speed Tiptronic automatic. As you'd expect, both cog changers include supplemental shifter paddles on the steering wheel.
Underpinning these S-spec Audis is an adaptive air suspension system that's tauter and lower than the conventional equivalent while upgraded brakes provide loads of fade-free stopping power. Rounding out the mix is the Audi Drive Select system that allows the driver to modify throttle response, shift points and steering effort as well as the suspension feel using Auto, Dynamic, Comfort settings or by selectively programming the Individual mode.
Subtle understatement is the order of the day for the Audi S6, at least on the visual front. Now in its third generation, this formal 4-door nets a distinctive fascias/grille treatment, unique rear diffuser, tasteful decklid spoiler and dual-paired exhaust outlets set off with S-specific 19-inch alloy wheels that can be upgraded, as they were on our tester - to 20-inchers plus "V8T' badges on the front fenders. Inside, S6 kit brings unique instrument graphics, a sport steering wheel, Valcona leather-wrapped sport seats with a diamond-stitching pattern and other dedicated trim elements. The package also nets a load of cool tech touches that include a Bose premium audio package and Audi MMI Navigation plus with Audi Connect and Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities.
Dynamically, the S6 feels quick - think 0-62 mph in 4.5 seconds - helped in no small measure by near-immediate throttle and transmission responses. For a near-4,200-pound charger, it feels remarkably agile as well, particularly when you're carving through corners with Drive Select in Dynamic mode. Dial up Comfort for a leisurely freeway cruise, and the S6 remains a consummate performance sedan, reacting smartly to all inputs, albeit with a bit less intensity. Frankly, we suspect that most owners will find the well-sorted Auto mode to be the setting of choice for the majority of their travels.
Most aggressively styled of this top-echelon Audi threesome, the first-ever Audi S7 model is a virtual carbon copy of the S6, but wraps its enhanced mechanicals in an S-enhanced version of the A7's liftback bodywork that uses similar cosmetic elements to add an equivalent measure of curb appeal. The cabin of this elegantly energetic GT features the same unique trappings found in the S6, but trades the sedan's 60/40 split folding rear seat for a bucket-style 2+2 configuration that, even with its more rakish roofline, will still accommodate a pair of average-sized adults.
Although it weighs about 100 pounds more than the S6, the S7 sacrifices little in the way of measureable performance under any circumstances. It's official 0-60 mph time rises by a mere 0.1 tick, and the same 155-mph electronically limited top speed remains in force. The dynamic parallels also hold true when the going gets twisty, you just experience the visceral rush in a flashier package.
Uber-achieving flagship of the fleet, the Audi S8 displays the same type of low-key exterior changes as its S6/S7 runningmates, although it does feature full LED headlamps that are optional on those two cars and standard-issue 21-inch alloy wheels. The cabin also adds S-specific touches to the bounty of existing A8 items, the most notable being 22-way heated/ventilated massaging front seats, Carbon Atlas trim and an analog clock. Like the S6/S7, it comes with a 630-watt/14-speaker Bose audio package that can be upgraded to a 1,400-watt/19-speaker Bang & Olufsen premium sound system.
The S8 is the most alloy-intensive of these Audis. While all feature aluminum body panels, the A8's are wrapped around a spaceframe that's over 90 percent aluminum while the balance in the S6/S7's common core is closer to an 80/20 split, the majority being steel. Even though larger and about 100 pounds heavier than the S7, that edge in the inside game helps the Gen III S8 transition from a captain-of-industry cruiser to a high-energy hauler for junior execs with a burning need for speed in a most impressive manner. Fortified with an extra hundred horses underhood, the S8 can sprint to 0-62 mph in a scant 4.2 seconds. And its luxury pedigree notwithstanding, this ultra Audi also boasts the balance and handling chops to be quite engaging when the road does take a serpentine twist.
The Finish Line:
Parlaying its stunning good looks into a slight emotional edge, the 2013 Audi S7 earned our top spot in this internecine luxury-performance shootout. However, those with more conventional tastes -- or anyone requiring seats for five -- will find the 2013 Audi S6 delivers the same level of scintillating performance but opens at $72,795, almost $7,200 below the entry point of its sexier sibling. Neither car is priced or powered like a BMW M5 or Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG, as Audi sees the BMW 550i xDrive and Mercedes-Benz CLS550 4Matic as natural in-market rivals for its S6/S7. While there's no confirmation, that fact does raise the tantalizing possibility we'll see even more intense and potent RS6 and RS7 variants in the pipeline at some point. Third place on this imposing podium goes to the 2013 Audi S8. Opening at $110,895, the most sophisticated member of this super squad trades off of a bit of at-the-limit agility for extra measures of room and refinement, character traits that should serve the S8 well given the mission it's been tasked with by Audi.