It goes head-to-head against the BMW X6 and Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe, but can it put up a good fight on the performance and handling front? Paul Maric finds out.
So you like the idea of a BMW X6 or a Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe, but you’re not sold on the looks – and I don’t blame you. Guess it’s time to go look for something more conventional, right? Not just yet.
Audi has taken the wraps off the all-new 2018 Audi Q8 that is set to go head-to-head against the BMW X6 and Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe, and it’s arguably one of the best-looking Audis yet. And we’ve had the chance to have a first drive of the car in the Atacama Desert in Chile.
With styling trends taken from the awesome 1985 Audi Sport Quattro (think flared rear arches and that imposing front end), Audi has dared to be different and moved away from the arguably bland styling of cars like the Q7 and A8 in the hunt for something more unique.
In pictures, the Q8 looks pretty small. In fact, when I first spotted press images of the car, I thought it could be a smaller-sized hatchback. But looks can be deceiving, because it measures in at 4986mm long (that’s 66mm shorter than the Q7) and 1995mm wide (27mm wider than the Q7). It sits on a 2994mm long wheelbase and shares its platform with the Q7.
Unlike the Q7, which accommodates up to seven passengers, the Q8 is strictly a five-seater.
While pricing and specifications are yet to be released for Australia, we do know the car is coming here in 2019, and we do know which engines will be available for Audi Australia to pick and choose from.
The Q8 range kicks off with the Q8 45 TDI, which is a 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 diesel engine that produces 170kW of power and 500Nm of torque. It then steps up to the Q8 50 TDI, which is also a 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 diesel engine that produces 210kW of power and a healthy 600Nm of torque.
Finally, petrol fans will sink their teeth into the Q8 55 TFSI, which is a 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 petrol engine that produces 250kW of power and 500Nm of torque. All three engines have been tested under the new WLTP emissions cycle and fuel-efficiency figures are still to be confirmed.
In person, the Q8 has real presence. From behind, you see the sweeping LED band that runs across the rear, while the progressive LED indicators and brake lights make the car look like a space ship when the sun sets.
The front is peculiar, in the sense it houses a number of design elements we haven’t seen from Audi before. For example, the headlight is split into three sections – the top for the main LED matrix beam, a section beneath it for the headlight washer, and a section to the right of that for the high beam. The design intention was for the high-beam light to look like an air inlet.
Housed within the grille are a number of sensors the car uses for advanced semi-autonomous functions. These include lasers, radars and even a night-vision camera. The laser also features a clever system that blasts the laser cover with a high-pressure burst of water when the sensor becomes dirty.
While the front end looks resolved overall, the integration of the sensors looks a little ungainly. They are very obvious at first glance, and once you see them, you can’t unsee them.
The Q8 is available in a number of colours and designs that alter the way it looks. For example, the S-Line package blacks out the fake exhaust outlets and alters the colour of the front grille. The Daytona Grey example we spotted at the launch looked damn nice with privacy glass, big wheels and blacked-out features.
The interior is where this car will win the bulk of its customers. Rear leg room is astonishing, even for taller passengers. With the driver’s seat pushed most of the way back, I was easily able to fit behind the seat with ample leg, knee and toe room. Head room is good – but taller passengers may find it a little cramped.
A centre armrest houses two cupholders, while ISOFIX anchorage points are available on the two outboard seats. The four-zone climate-control functions in the back seat are pretty cool, with a touch-sensitive face that controls temperature and seat heating.
Visibility from the second row is excellent. The glasshouse is big and it’s easy to climb in and out of the car. Cargo capacity is also generous with 605 litres on offer (down on the 770L available in the Q7), which expands to 1755L with the second row folded. The second row can also slide forward to offer extra cargo capacity.
Despite the inclusion of two 12V power outlets in the second row, there’s a distinct lack of USB outlets for smartphone charging. It’s a pretty big miss for a car released in 2018.
In the front seat is where you’ll be most impressed by the Q8. Build quality and fit and finish are unlike any other car in this segment. Audi has absolutely nailed this in its new cars of late, and the Q8 is no exception.
Ahead of the driver is a 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit screen that can be configured to display a number of different items and the speedometer and tachometer in numerous sizes.
Then, two additional screens are fitted for infotainment and climate controls. The top screen is a 10.1-inch unit, while the bottom screen measures in at 8.6 inches. Both screens feature haptic feedback, which is a great function that confirms button presses with a soft retardation on the finger.
These screens can also be configured in a number of ways with shortcuts and the ability to move functions between screens. The system is very easy to use and it’s super-fast – even when zooming in and out of map screens. The only downside to the screens is that they smudge very easily and will get covered in fingerprints before long – unavoidable, I guess.
Voice recognition has been stepped up a notch with an even smarter linguistic system that doesn’t require tiered commands. So, if I want to increase the temperature, I can simply speak to the car with regular speech, as opposed to going through menus and submenus to find the function I’m after.
There’s also Apple CarPlay and Android Auto built-in, along with the ability to use the car ‘keyless’. The entire locking/unlocking and starting function of the car can now be done using a smartphone alone, which is a great step forward in technology for Audi.
If you love music, the standard sound system will blow you away. With Bluetooth, SD and USB connectivity, owners can stream music from a number of sources to service their ears. Those even more serious about music can opt for the 23-speaker Bang and Olufsen sound system.
Storage in and around the cabin isn’t great. In fact, it’s quite poor for a car of this size. While storage within the door pockets is good, the centre console is tiny – partly due to it housing the wireless phone-charging feature. Two cupholders that sit under the closing lid appear to be quite small and are barely big enough to hold a mobile phone, let alone a mega-sized American drink.
The technology on offer with the Q8 effectively mirrors the A8 with the exclusion of Level 3 autonomy. Available features include adaptive cruise control with traffic jam assist, 360-degree camera with panoramic sensors, self-parking, self-parking from outside the car, and a kerb warning system.
You also get high-speed Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) with pedestrian detection, and a great feature that can stop the car, unlock the doors and call emergency services if the driver becomes unresponsive, such as a medical episode behind the wheel.
It’s worth noting that our initial drive of the Q8 was set high in the mountains surrounding the Atacama Desert. Our starting altitude was over 2000m and we closed in on 4000m throughout the drive – around 6500ft and 13,000ft respectively.
Aside from feeling breathless most of the time, this altitude affects how a car performs. The air at this altitude is less dense and it means that the combustion process becomes harder for a car – because fuel mixes with air, and if the air isn’t as dense, you won’t get the same explosion within the ignition chamber as you would at sea level.
So with that in mind, we will reserve final judgement on the performance of these engines for when we get the chance to drive the Q8 back home.
Nevertheless, we had the chance to drive the 50 TDI and the 55 TFSI over a circuit of mountainous roads that stretched over 300km.
Before we talk about how the car drives, what’s with the Audi naming structure? To me it seems ridiculous given it has little relation to engine capacity like the old naming structure did. Audi claims it’s so the brand can more easily identify electric cars when they’re launched, but to us it seems like a confusing step that is hard to explain to consumers.
The way that it works is that the numbers begin at 30 and end at 70 with increments of five in between. They refer to engine output instead of capacity and are broken down like this:
Anyway – we started off in the Q8 55 TFSI, which is powered by a 3.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission that sends torque to all four wheels.
Turn the engine over and the running noise is almost imperceptible. Even when the car takes off, it’s hard to hear any engine note outside of the car. A good thing if you want peace and quiet, but not great if you want the Sport in Sport Utility Vehicle.
The Q8 comes with seven drive models – comfort, efficiency, auto, dynamic, allroad, offroad and individual – each of which configures the vehicle’s performance characteristics differently.
Three forms of suspension will be offered with Q8 models – steel coil springs with adaptive dampers, air suspension with adaptive dampers, and a sport air suspension with adaptive dampers. The drive modes can control the ride firmness and height depending on which mode is chosen.
Vehicles with air suspension can vary ride height up to 254mm in the off-road mode and offer a self-levelling function, along with a lower on-demand feature in the boot to allow for easier access.
As we set off from our accommodation, the gravel road leading to the hotel that was full of potholes went unnoticed as the car moved over each imperfection. Audi has managed to nail the low-speed ride on this car (and also the Q7) in remarkable fashion.
Out on the open road, the Q8 felt just as comfortable as the pace increased. The road noise at highway speeds is also a point worth noting. If it weren’t for wind noise coming in around the frameless windows, you would have no idea the car was moving. Again – a remarkable job making the cabin so quiet.
Getting up to speed in the Q8 55 TFSI is fairly effortless. The gearbox jumps back through the gears without much fuss, while the throttle remains responsive throughout each drive mode. We did find it snoozing a little in comfort mode when hitting the throttle at low speeds, but it wasn’t overly offensive.
Find some corners and the Q8’s party trick begins to shine. The four-wheel steering system gives the vehicle a dynamic feel behind the wheel and makes its circa 2100kg kerb weight go unnoticed.
Switching to the dynamic mode firms up the suspension and adds extra weight to the steering. The Q8 won’t set the world on fire in terms of performance or cornering, but it can be engaging to drive and fun behind the wheel. The brakes are responsive and there’s plenty of feel through the steering wheel.
Visibility out the front, sides and rear is excellent with big wing mirrors featuring integrated blind-spot monitoring to make navigation through traffic easy. The Q7 can feel like a big car to drive at times, and while the Q8 has similar dimensions, it doesn’t feel as large on the open road.
A short off-road stint gave us a chance to see how well the all-wheel-drive system adapts to low-friction terrain. In both the offroad and allroad settings, the car’s ride height will lift to a maximum 254mm of ground clearance. These settings also adapt the vehicle’s stability control and ABS settings to allow maximum stopping performance on gravel and snow.
You won’t go rock-hopping across Australia in one of these, but it inspires confidence knowing that it’ll handle most basic off-road terrain when given the chance.
We hopped into the Q8 50 TDI next and were similarly impressed with the drivetrain. With 600Nm of torque available, there’s seldom a time when you feel like you need more from the package. This altitude really affected the way both the petrol and diesel drove.
We found that as we climbed to our 4000m crescendo that performance began to drop off in a noticeable way. When we hopped out of the car it wasn’t hard to see why – it was difficult to breathe and any surges of energy were soon killed by the lack of air at these heights.
Beneath the skin of the Q8 is a 48V mild hybrid electric system. Why 48V? It allows the engineers more power to work with over the 12V system that’s dedicated to accessories and ancillary devices.
The 48V system allows the engine to switch off between speeds of 55 and 160km/h to conserve energy, and also allows the car to switch off and roll to a controlled stop from 22km/h. The system can generate up to 12kW of energy that it stores in a small lithium-ion battery, which it can use later to propel the car. This comes in handy when moving from a standing start, which consumes a huge sum of energy.
What really excites us are the spy images we published recently of the RSQ8. It’s likely to put a fire under the belly of the Q8 and make it a cut-price Lamborghini Urus. It also means we don’t have to look at the fake exhaust outlets fitted to the Q8!
Specification for the Australian market is yet to be confirmed, but we are likely to get the diesel engine to start with and potentially the 55 TFSI at a later date.
We have been well and truly surprised with the all-new Audi Q8. It takes an already impressive platform in the Q7 and adds a stack of style and new technology. Even without testing them back-to-back, we know this is already a smarter purchase option than the ageing BMW X6 and Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe.
As long as Audi doesn’t go crazy with pricing, we should see plenty of these on the road driven by buyers that want an SUV, but don’t want the image often associated with SUV ownership.
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