- What’s best: Stylish with minimal compromise to interior room, legendary quattro four-wheel-drive system, excellent road manners
- What’s worst: Digital dashboard not my cup of tea, engine could use more grunt, mild hybrid propulsion system seems rather pointless
- What’s interesting: Being late to the SUV coupe party seems to have played right into Audi’s hands by avoiding the compromises others have taken.
ATACAMA DESERT, CHILE—The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth. Lucky for us, this year’s “rain day” happened the day after I drove the new Audi Q8 here.
The Q8 is the new flagship of Audi’s SUV line. Prices won’t be released until closer to its fall intro, but it will be positioned above the Q7 upon which it is based. That vehicle, with the 3.0-litre V6 engine that is standard with the Q8, starts at $74,750. So I’d expect the Q8 to start in the high-70s.
Q8 shares most of its technology and much of its body structure with the Q7, but is intended to be a more luxurious, more stylish entry. It also shares the MLB component set, which is the Volkswagen Group’s component-sharing system that also underpins its corporate cousins: Volkswagen Touareg, Porsche Cayenne, Bentley Bentayga, and Lamborghini Urus, plus the larger Audi sedans.
The chief exterior designer for Q8, Frank Lamberty, noted that Audi was a bit late to the party for a style-driven SUV, compared to BMW and Mercedes-Benz. So he figured he couldn’t just lop off the rear roofline of the Q7 to create a coupe-like silhouette while reducing rear seat headroom. Too derivative.
Instead, the Q8’s roofline is lowered by just 40 millimetres and tapers gently downward as it proceeds rearward, which retains decent interior space while giving the car a sportier profile. A lower hood, a wider and slimmer grille, and wider track all assist in this endeavour.
The lack of external tailpipes, often a hallmark of performance cars, gave one of my German colleagues fits — he just could not accept a performance car without them. Lamberty understands this detail will be controversial, but to get the low look he wanted at the rear, there was no room for them.
He demonstrated all this with a virtual-reality display.He also included a slide of the early Audi quattros, upon which their rally dominance of the 1980s was based. Lamberty and his team combined some elements of that car’s design into this new one.
To me, the Q8 is an excellent blend of the current Q7 and that older iconic car, which means it looks sleeker than the former, but has more rear seat headroom than its most obvious modern competition. And, pretty from any angle.
Despite extensive use of aluminum and lightweight high-strength steels, the Q8 still tips the scales at more than 2,100 kilograms.
Q8 maintains Audi’s long-time excellence in interior design, with first-rate materials and execution.
The car has three screens in this car.
The one directly in front is like the one in various Audis and upscale VWs. It is reconfigurable so can be changed to suit your tastes or specific interests.
Rather than combine all ancillary functions into one massive centre screen, Audi has split it into two, the upper, more handy part for entertainment and interaction with the car, the lower part for the air conditioning system, which you typically set once and then leave alone.
The head-up display is bright, clear and colourful, and can be adjusted to display just the information you want. I understand the theory behind these things; I also don’t like them because I find them distracting. If you’re with me, you can shut the whole thing off.
The sports seats are very comfortable and supportive, and adjustable about a million ways. Heated on our test car; cooling is also available.
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The rear seats are also spacious. There is a bit less headroom than in the Q7 but I doubt anyone who would ride back there would have cause to complain.
At launch, we will only get one powertrain, the 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6, which would presumably be the same as in our current Q7. In that application, it produces 333 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque.
It is mated to an eight-speed Tiptronic transmission and Audi’s justly famous full-time quattro four-wheel-drive system, which nominally splits drive torque 40/60 front/rear, but can send it to whichever axle can best use it.
The Q8 also gets Audi’s mild hybrid system. A 48-volt lithium-ion battery pack under the trunk floor is charged via a belt drive off the engine. It can allow the car to coast for brief periods with the engine switched off. Audi says this can save up to 0.7 L/100 km, which seems like a fairly small payoff for a pretty expensive and heavy set of hardware.
The first thing we noted in our test drive was how quiet the car is. Frameless side windows, as in the Q8, are usually associated with increased road noise. Not here. Kudos to the sound-isolation people.
The Atacama Desert provides a wide variety of road surfaces to test a car’s suspension. The surfaces are pretty beat up and our test car with the optional air suspension provided a remarkably smooth ride.
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Handling was athletic. With the various drive programs available, we kept the suspension and variable-ratio steering in their sportiest settings. Ditto the engine, to help compensate for the high altitudes in the Andean foothills — over 3,000 meters in places.
Four-wheel steering — counter-phase at low speeds; in-phase at higher speeds — gives up to five degrees of rear-wheel angularity to supply the big car with an extra dose of agility in the tighter stuff, and more stability in fast bends.
Turbo engines always do better in higher elevations, and the 3.0-litre V6 was eager. You can never be too thin, too rich or have too much horsepower, and the Q8 is not blindingly fast. Still, we never felt undergunned, despite some fairly aggressive driving on these largely uninhabited roads.
The transmission shifts well, either on its own or when being massaged by the shift paddles.
A brief and fairly mild off-road course proved that the Q8 will easily handle anything any owner would ever reasonably expect to tackle. In this mode, the suspension raises itself to reduce the risk of underbody damage.
In sum, the Audi Q8 is easily the most handsome in its segment, both outside and in. It has modern technology coming out its ying-yang. And it has proven four-wheel-drive capability.
Will Q8 succeed? Looks like a slam-dunk from here.
2019 Audi Q8
Price: TBA, likely in the high $70,000 range
Engine: 3.0 L V6 turbocharged
Power/torque (estimated): 333 hp/325 lb-ft
Fuel consumption: TBA (premium fuel)
Competition: BMW X6, Jaguar F-Pace, Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe
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