While the Mercedes-Benz S-class set new standards four years ago, Lexus launched a much improved LS430 towards the end of 2000, BMW has moved the goal posts with the new 7-series while the new Range Rover claims to offer BMW build quality and reliability with the benefit of true off-road performance.
Where does this leave Audi? Well, the A8 was introduced in 1994 and has become a well-honed machine with sober styling and a choice of a six-cylinder or two V8 engines.
UK customers will be able to buy a new A8 next year, with the promise of diesel variants in the UK for the first time, but Audi says the current aluminium-bodied model still has plenty of life and can compete with newer rivals. And S-models tend not to be available until later into a model's life, so while we will see a new A8 in the UK at the beginning of 2003, it is unlikely that a new S8 will be on sale from its launch.
The 2002 model year S8 gains all the enhancements introduced across the rest of the range over the past eight years, and boasts permanent four-wheel drive while its 4.2 litre engine is boosted to 360bhp.
The car also comes with the option of upgrading the standard substantial 18-inch six-spoke alloy wheels to a set of larger-than-life 20-inch specimens – the closest this car gets to making a statement about its high-speed ability.
The car is hi-tech without making a fuss – as well as the aluminium body there are various weight saving aluminium components.
The interior is well appointed, but not significantly different in appearance to an Audi A4 or A6. The leather seats move electrically and in our test car rear passengers also benefited from heated seats. It also included an optional solar sunroof – the panels used the sun's energy to power the fans while the car is parked, meaning even on a sunny day it is never baking hot when you return to it.
The engine runs virtually silently most of the time and the ride is more comfortable than you would expect for a car more in tune with driver enjoyment than passenger relaxation. Only the worst bumps make their presence felt inside the cabin and the S8 is a car that feels smaller the longer you spend behind the wheel.
Performance is never in doubt and the figures speak for themselves. Progress is so serene that the only clues the the rate of acceleration are the lamp posts passing at a steadily faster rate and the distant spine-tingling roar from the V8 engine. The steering is as communicative as a sports saloon and the standard automatic transmission makes changes discreetly, although there is a do-it-yourself manual override.
Testament to the S8's ability is its residual value. When the old BMW 7-series was near the end of its life projected residual value percentages for the car plummeted into the mid-20s after three years/60,000 miles.
The Audi S8 at the top of the range is still comfortably in the mid-30 percents – not a match for the new BMW 7-series but by the same token it's not disgraced.