TESTED 15.6.18, CHILE ON SALE SUMMER PRICE £65,000 (EST)
Porsche Cayenne and Lamborghini Urus building blocks have been fused with Audi DNA to create a new flagship SUV
The BMW X6 turned 10 years old this year. Like it or loathe it, it’s still here. When the original ‘sports activity coupé’ was launched in 2008, there was much doubt in car journalism circles about how many buyers would be ready to pay a premium for a slightly less practical X5, made only very debatably better looking and more interesting to drive – if at all. The answer, we predicted, couldn’t possibly be ‘very many’. Amusingly enough, it turned out to be ‘quite a lot’.
And so, as BMW homes in on what would be an equally commendable and surprising half-million X6 sales in the car’s first decade, what chance of similar success should we give the new Audi Q8? It has marginally more distinguishing features than the X6 had compared with the conventional SUV on which it was based. And yet, after our first taste of it, I can’t say that it strikes me as much more or less than a Q7 made a bit better looking, a bit less practical and a bit more interesting to drive. Less the bold new-groove Audi passenger car flagship model for 21st century tastes, then, and rather more another ‘Russian doll’ Q-car for the stack, dare I suggest.
So, good news: if the X6 is anything to go by, the Q8 should sell brilliantly. And although it isn’t quite the Porsche Cayenne Turbo- or Range Rover Sport SVR-level steroidal performance machine you might have imagined it might be – at least, not yet – it’s still every bit as plush, pleasant, comfy and luxurious as any top-grade SUV you could hope to own.
Such a precisely finished, immaculate-looking dashboard can attract few criticisms
That ‘Russian doll’ line won’t please Audi chief exterior designer Frank Lamberty, who, at the Q8’s press launch in Chile earlier this month, went to great lengths to illustrate all the ways his team had differentiated the Q8 from its sister car. His presentation involved virtual reality headsets and superimposed 3D graphics, showing very clearly how much lower the Q8’s roof and bonnet lines are than the Q7’s; how much wider and more prominent its ‘single-frame’ grille is; how much fuller and more aggressive its wheel-arch flares are; and how much shorter its rear overhang and ‘faster’ the angle of its rear window are. All well and good.
But stand back and stare at the Q8 and, while you perhaps ought to have seen something of a design landmark unrestricted by the usual Audi styling conventions, what you actually see is another familiar SUV. A broadly handsome and desirable car, sure – especially so for its frameless doors, and perhaps in spite of that thrusting octagonal monolith of a grille – but, unlike the original TT and A5 coupé, pretty plainly not one of Audi’s design smash hits. A Q2 is, in my eyes, a better-looking car. Shame, that.
The Q8 becomes the sixth Volkswagen Group luxury SUV in three years, then, built on the MLB-Evo platform. Like the Q7, Porsche Cayenne and Volkswagen Touareg, it’ll be built in Bratislava, and it shares the same wheelbase and overall cabin width as the Q7. Outwardly, the car bears more than a passing resemblance to the Lamborghini Urus, and not by chance. Audi’s Q8 project actually started before Lamborghini committed to making the Urus but, because Lambo weren’t held up by the need to negotiate space on that busy Bratislava production line, Sant’Agata managed to beat Ingolstadt into production with its rakish SUV.
“They came along on our coat tails. If we hadn’t made the Q8, there’s no way the Urus could have existed. It’s payback for the R8, I guess,” Lamberty wryly acknowledges. (The original R8, closely related as it was to the Lamborghini Gallardo, was Lamberty’s own design.) “But the only body parts that are actually shared are the door mirrors,” he points out. At least an Audi with Lamborghini door mirrors is probably a more alluring prospect than a Lamborghini with Audi ones. In your face, Italy.
The Q8 will go on sale in the UK this summer but, until 2019 at least, will be on offer with only one engine: Audi’s 282bhp 3.0-litre V6 diesel, badged 50 TDI. Although it’s integrated with a 48V electrical architecture, an extra-large lithium ion battery and an extra-powerful engine starter/generator alternator (the combination of which now constitutes ‘mild hybrid’ powertrain status in Audi technical lexicon), that’s clearly not the kind of engine likely to tempt performance SUV buyers out of their higher-end Cayennes, Range Rover Sports and X5s or X6s. Another shame; but perhaps only a temporary one. Because in 2019, a 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 petrol 55 TFSI version, with 335bhp, will definitely join the range. And after that, who knows?
All UK-bound Q8s will get height-adjustable, sport-tuned adaptive air suspension and proper centre-diff-based, torque-vectoring quattro four-wheel drive, to which you can add four-wheel steering if you so desire. When asked why they left off the 48V active anti-roll bars that have featured so prominently on SUVs related to the Q8 (not least the SQ7), Audi’s product managers claimed that, because of the Q8’s lower roofline and wider tracks, active roll control was deemed to be unnecessary. When the RS version finally appears, I suspect it may be deemed rather more necessary – but we’ll see.
One thing’s for sure: the Q8’s chassis is ready for more than 282bhp
Unlike in some of its style-conscious SUV rivals, you’ll find plenty of passenger space even for taller adults in both of the Q8’s
rows of seats. There’s no denying that your sense of space on board suffers a bit as a result of the extra tumblehome on those side windows and the lower roofline above your head, though. If I was buying a Q8 to regularly carry older, taller teenagers and adults as passengers, I’d certainly buy one without a panoramic sunroof. But I wouldn’t be put off buying one at all for reasons of space. Unless you’ve a need for a third row of seats, there would surely be few practical purposes to which you’d want to put a big SUV that a Q8 couldn’t serve – including carrying three adults across the back seats as and when you had to. The car’s boot is huge too.
Up front, what separates a Q8 from a Q7 primarily is the Q8’s adoption of Audi’s split-level MMI Touch touchscreen infotainment consoles – the same as in the current A8, A7 and new A6. Although you might find the idea of two landscape-oriented touchscreens on the car’s centre stack distracting in principle, they’re not so much so in practice because Audi is very clever with the provision of shortcut keys on both displays. You’re therefore seldom more than one prod away from the menu screen you’re looking for; and you can also arrange the home screen to have all the functions you use most often.
Dead in front of you, meanwhile, are Audi’s fully digital Virtual Cockpit instruments, and all around you evidence of the undisputed mastery of the deployment of upmarket cabin materials that Audi has demonstrated so often in its latest big cars. Such a precisely finished, immaculate- and expensive-looking dashboard can attract few criticisms, except that if you don’t go a bundle on high-gloss piano black, the Q8 may not be for you. Then again, there’s gloss black and there’s Audi gloss black…
On the move, the Q8 has the capacity to be almost as smooth, comfortable and easy-going as its Q7 sibling, its Comfort drive mode making for cushioned ride isolation that wants for little except on really uneven Tarmac. Here, the engine’s remarkable refinement and the cabin’s excellent sealing (suffering nothing for the frameless fit of those doors) make the Q8 a typically demure, low-effort cruiser.
But I don’t think I’d drive it like that – at least, not much. Because the Q8’s mission is surely to bring a dose of handling poise and driver involvement to the big Audi SUV party beyond the abilities of its sturdier sibling. And, without ever really making your eyes widen with surprise, it does that well. Well enough, certainly, for those who want the occasional brush with excitement, but more often will just want the Q8 to act the consummate luxury conveyance.
In Dynamic mode, the car’s steering takes on plenty of weight, its suspension firms up to a taut but not bothersome level, and (assuming you’ve remembered to have it fitted, as Audi had to our test car) its four-wheel steering system does its best to enliven the handling. The car changes direction keenly, and although it doesn’t swivel beneath you like a Cayenne can, it has the abundant lateral grip and mid-corner stability you expect of a fast Audi.
One thing’s for sure: even as it is, the Q8’s chassis is ready for more than 282bhp – and, I suspect, more than 335bhp. Until more alluring performance engines are added to the range, the car’s appeal as a top-level SUV won’t be fully realised; and its ability to take its owner a step beyond the driving experience of a Q7, as it really ought to, will remain in question, at least to this tester.
So the best is probably yet to come from the Q8. For the moment, although it’s not short on admirable qualities, it feels a little bit like a ‘by the numbers’ effort – and it really ought to have been the sort of flagship dreamboat SUV to breathe even more life into the brand.
THE AUDI THAT’LL SAVE YOUR ALLOYS
A new black box described by Audi as a central driver assistance controller gives the Q8 some unique abilities when it comes to convenience features. Over and above the usual lane keeping and active safety systems fairly common in the class is a Park Plus Assist package, which is due to be added to the Q8 options catalogue after its launch.
Besides the familiar automatic parking functions, the system will allow you to get out of the car and park the Q8 in a tight bay using only the car’s key remote or a smartphone app. It also supports the driver when parking by pulsing torque through the car’s power steering to help him or her onto the best line; by braking the car to a stop independently before hitting a wall, pillar or neighbouring car; and by monitoring the position of nearby kerbs and stopping the car before damaging a rim. You can also use the car’s surround cameras to bring up a zoomed image of the nearside wheels onto the car’s Virtual Cockpit display.
If you don’t like the pronounced chrome of the Q8’s single-frame grille, Audi does a Black pack for the car’s exterior brightwork. And with black trim, there’s a real sense of menace about the Q8’s looks. MS
Price £65,000 (est)
Engine V6, 2967cc, diesel
Power 282bhp at 3500-4000rpm
Torque 442lb ft at 2250-3250rpm
Gearbox 8-spd automatic
Kerb weight 2220kg
Top speed 144mph
CO2, tax band tbc
Rivals BMW X6 xDrive30d M Sport, Mercedes-Benz GLE 350d 4Matic Coupé