Cars can occasionally be movie stars, too. You may remember the rumbling Highland Green Ford Mustang GT fastback that Steve McQueen manhandled in the 1968 thriller Bullitt. The car chase scene is widely regarded as one of the greatest in film history. You might otherwise recall the trio of Mini Cooper S getaway cars that Michael Caine and his merry bandits drove down steps and through sewers in the 1969 crime caper, The Italian Job. Then, of course, there's Herbie, the lovable Volkswagen Beetle that starred in a series of wacky comedies, such as The Love Bug.
Also staking its place among celluloid star cars is Audi's S8, which stole much of the limelight in the 1998 action thriller Ronin, in which a team of special operatives is hired to steal a mysterious briefcase. Robert De Niro and Jean Reno may have earned the acting kudos, but the rapid German saloon also became something of a cult classic through its role in the film. Its entrance is foreshadowed when Larry (Skipp Sudduth), the wheelman of the crew, is asked what sort of vehicle is needed for the coming job. He responds: "Something very fast, Audi S8. Something that can shove a little bit." And so, the S8 went on to feature in a series of gripping chase sequences that were cutting-edge for the era in terms of cinematic realism.
Skip to 1:08 to see the Audi S8 join the chase:
Ronin comes to mind as I'm testing the all-new, fourth-generation S8 in Barcelona. Like its ancestor, the car is essentially a gangster in an immaculately tailored suit. There are no briefcases to steal or gun-toting henchmen for me to foil, but what awaits is a tantalising smorgasbord of winding Spanish backroads to attack.
In normal circumstances, a luxury leather-lined limo that weighs 2.2 tonnes and stretches close to 5.3 metres from bumper to bumper isn't ideal for narrow, sinuous roads such as these. However, this car comes armed with technology that's designed to not only make it hustle in a straight line, but it can also scoot around corners with a surprising level of agility.
As proof of how much the automotive game has moved in the last two decades, the S8 that starred in Ronin eked out 340 horsepower and needed 6.2 seconds to get from standstill to 100 kilometres an hour. Its latest descendant thumps out 571hp and scorches from 0-100kph in 3.8 seconds. The new S8's top speed is electronically limited to 250kph, but there's no doubt it could top 300 if it weren't for the limiter.
The car's silken ride and light-footedness are the real eye-openers, though. The secret here is something that Audi refers to as Predictive Active Suspension, which uses a camera to scan the road ahead and electromechanical actuators to pre-emptively vary the ride height accordingly. Each wheel can be separately loaded or unweighted depending on the road conditions across five driving modes. This means body roll is all but cancelled out as it leans into corners and this tech also counteracts the nose dipping under braking and tail squatting under hard acceleration.
Complementing this is four-wheel steering and a clever all-wheel-drive system that maximises traction by individually apportioning power delivery to each of the tyres, enabling the juggernaut to simply devour snaking backroads.
The rest of the package is stellar, too, as the 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 and eight-speed auto team up to deliver ballistic, yet smooth, acceleration, while the cabin is finished to the same impeccable standard as the more restrained A8 saloon the S8 is derived from. The only real criticism after a few hours behind the wheel is synthetic-feeling steering that delivers minimal feedback to your fingertips.
Audi's latest go-faster limo is possibly the finest of its genre, but it would take a back-to-back test with the Mercedes-AMG S63 to arrive at a definitive answer. One thing's for sure: if they ever remake Ronin, the choice of wheels is a no-brainer.