At last, Audi has a direct rival to the BMW X6 and Mercedes GLE Coupe. Audi calls it a new flagship model, but is it up to the segment standard?
Sedate styling on the outside, an undeniably upmarket yet ageing interior design, and the typically comfort-focused ride and handling setup one expects from a big seven-seat premium SUV.
That's the nearly four-years-old, second-generation Q7 – previously the leader of Audi's SUV range, now second fiddle to the all-new 2019 Audi Q8 that goes on sale in Australia early next year.
This big new offering – a mere five-seater, despite its size – enters as a trendier alternative to the stately A8 limousine, with pretensions to a more sporting and lifestyle-focused role atop the Audi SUV hierarchy.
The Q8 and Q7 share the same 2995mm wheelbase, but, at 4986mm long, 1995mm wide and 1701mm tall, the Q8 is notably shorter, wider and more squat than the 5052/1968/1741mm Q7 – immediately fulfilling its aim to deliver greater on-road presence than its more family-oriented sibling.
In presenting the Q8 to the Australian press this week, Audi's senior executive for product, Matt Dale, also pointed to models like the Range Rover Sport and Velar, along with stablemate the Porsche Cayenne, as other models this new offering could steal buyers from.
Interestingly, both the petrol and diesel options in the Q8 range will kick off from $128,900 before on-road costs, the absence of the usual premium for diesel models leaving buyers only to decide which fuel type they prefer.
For the foreseeable future, Australia will get a choice of two variants in the Q8 line.
One is the 55 TFSI, driven by a 3.0-litre twin-turbo petrol V6 producing 250kW of power and 500Nm of torque. The other is the 50 TDI, its 3.0-litre turbo diesel V6 offering 210kW and 620Nm.
Both are standard with quattro all-wheel drive, matched to an eight-speed 'tiptronic' torque-converter automatic transmission.
A five-link suspension setup is found at both ends, with steel springs and electronically controlled adaptive dampers as standard. Adaptive air suspension can also be optioned as a top-shelf choice.
Lastly, four-wheel steering is also available, again as an option.
First customer deliveries of the 55 TFSI will occur in January, while the 50 TDI diesel will follow later in the year. The 55 TFSI is a unique offering at this end of Audi's SUV family, with the Q7 available only as a diesel.
A full pricing and specifications story can be found here, but a fairly rich list of standard equipment highlights for both Q8 variants include:
S line exterior pack with 21-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights with high beam assist, Adaptive suspension with damper control, Electric opening/closing tailgate, MMI Navigation plus with MMI touch response (stacked 10.1- and 8.6-inch displays) and 12.3-inch Audi virtual cockpit, Audi connect, smartphone interfacing and wireless charging, DAB+ digital radio, Audi sound system (10 speakers, 6-channel amplifier, 180W), Audi music interface with 2x rear USB outlets, Electrically adjustable/foldable exterior mirrors with heating and memory, Electrically adjustable seats in Valcona leather, with 4-way lumbar support, Front seat ventilation and heating, Sliding rear bench seat with 40:20:40 split fold, Convenience key, Adaptive cruise control, traffic jam assist, 360 degree camera, pre sense, active lane assist, side assist, collision avoidance, turn assist and cross traffic assist, intersection assist.
But, as well specified as it is, there are some items missing that I'd prefer to see as standard equipment on any big car being marketed as a flagship.
Electric steering adjustment, for example, is a $900 option. Really? Throw it in, Audi. Massaging seats at $1050, a leather-trimmed dash at $3300, real wood inlays at $400… even the power-assisted door closure – it's your flagship car, throw this all in.
Perhaps I expect too much. Moving on.
On test was the petrol-powered 55 TFSI, with four cars available to drive: three with optional adaptive air suspension and one on the standard steel springs with optional adaptive dampers, while two of the former were also equipped with four-wheel steering.
A quick spin with the base suspension package told me that most buyers ought to be satisfied with the combination of steel springs and adaptive dampers, providing a perfectly commendable balance of ride comfort and handling ability. We'll have to test that more thoroughly in the new year, though.
Most of my time on launch was spent – touring and tearing through the wide grazing country and winding mountain roads between Canberra and Crackenback on day one, and then the long way to Snowy Mountains Airport on day two – in two models with the up-sell air suspension. One was fitted with the Dynamic all-wheel steering package, the other wasn't.
(Note: the air suspension is technically a $2200 upgrade on its own, but Audi prefers to have it as part of the $11,000 Premium Plus package. Apparently the vast majority of buyers do, too.)
Let's talk power. These days, 250kW is less an impressive figure and more the bare minimum for a car of this size and intent, coming in at 2265 kilograms. Much less than the 500Nm of torque on offer would leave discerning buyers disappointed, too.
But, in this application, both numbers prove – if not scintillating – more than adequate and comfortably up to the task of entertaining drivers. And, after all, one must leave room for an SQ8 to compete with the 287kW/520Nm GLE43 Coupe (if not the 330kW/650Nm V8-powered X6 xDrive50i).
The Q8 also benefits from what Audi is calling a 'Mild Hybrid Electric Vehicle' system, or MHEV.
It's a 48V setup, separate to the 12V system used for accessories and ancillary devices, and its purpose is twofold: one to assist as an extended start-stop system that enables 40 seconds of emissions-free coasting between 55-160km/h. In braking, it can recover up to 12kW of power, fed back into the 48V battery.
Also, its belt alternator starter system is connected to the crankshaft, offering a five-second boost to the internal combustion engine with an additional 6kW and 60Nm. Fair to say that latter number is the more significant...
Audi claims a 0-100km/h time of 5.9 seconds with the Q8 55 TFSI (6.3s for the 50 TDI diesel), which is proper quick while also leaving room for even quicker models.
Fuel consumption is listed at 9.2L/100km on the new WLTP test cycle (6.7L/100km for the diesel), but Audi Australia says this number is provisional for now, with final figures still to be confirmed. Our fuel consumption on test read closer 11 on the first leg of our drive, but a hectic, driver-swapping afternoon – certainly not the usual form of driving for most owners – saw that creep closer to 15L/100km.
As always, we don't consider a launch event the best or fairest environment for testing fuel economy. We'll reserve that for our first proper week-long garage test with the car.
On the road
Pace piles on easy in the Q8 55 TFSI, the tiptronic shifter hopping to attention in Comfort mode quickly enough and fairly seamlessly for a good getaway without feeling frantic.
There's none of the confusion or hesitation generally reserved for dual-clutch units, meaning you'll give little time over to muttering "at your leisure mate…" when taking off from lights or moving to overtake.
Audi smartly chose highways and roads with a good variety of surface quality – as well as good stretches of unsealed sections with light corrugations, loose rock and cattle grates – clearly confident its up-specced SUVs would take most in stride.
In Comfort mode, riding on the optional air suspension, the Q8 is fairly sublime. In the urban and country town sections of our test, potholes are near-enough erased under the Q8 – even on the optional 22-inch wheels. In fact, one of our drive loops had me as passenger, and I took the opportunity to catch a much-needed powernap (#dadlife).
This is a deeply relaxing car to drive, as any flagship should be.
Really, it's all as one should expect, and the same is true in Dynamic mode. (There are seven modes all up, by the way – comfort, efficiency, auto, dynamic, allroad, offroad and individual – but we focused largely on Comfort, Dynamic and Off-Road.)
The air suspension firms up and lowers 40mm from standard, while the electromechanical steering adds weight, and suddenly I'm remarking to my copilot: "It's… a bit stupid what SUVs are capable of, nowadays".
Stupid, but fun. Which is good. If trends are going to drive us all into SUVs, the least it can do is maintain a fun factor.
There's a sense at times that it could do with a few more killer wasps and newtons, with the power under foot never quite abundant, but as I say… that's a slot for the eventual SQ8 or RSQ8 to fill.
Those eventual hero models should be louder, too. Hopefully. Because the 55 TFSI, despite its sporting looks and ability, is almost dead quiet.
There aren't true performance-car levels of steering feel on offer with the Q8 – this is not a driver's car in the traditional sense and it isn't intended to be viewed as one – but there is plenty of feel there nonetheless, particularly in Dynamic mode.
It's not a sports car, obviously, but the Q8 – like the X6, among others – makes a fair go of living up to the charade. Throw in the all-wheel steering system, which does a remarkably convincing job of 'disappearing' the car's mass as you haul into corners, and words like "transformative" enter my mind.
Even in its standard form, the Q8 never quite feels ungainly in the way its companion the Q7 can, but there's a bit of voodoo in that all-wheel steering. It's confidence-inspiring, and not falsely.
(My tip: it's a $4500 option that isn't included with the $11,000 Premium Plus pack, but… if you're drawn to an SUV and you want to have a good time on the way to the wineries, tick the Dynamic steering option box.)
Perhaps less relevant to most buyers, we were also given the chance to take a Q8 off-road without having to worry about what it'd cost us to chip those beautiful metallic finishes.
In short, it's what you should expect and exactly nothing more: Ride height lifts to 254mm, and the stability control and ABS systems are modified to accommodate the unique conditions and maximise stopping performance as needed.
Noise, vibration and harshness is generally befitting the Q8's flagship status. There are no squeaks and rattles in the cabin, and road noise, even despite the huge 22-inch wheels, is largely not present. If not for the wind noise around the stylish pillarless windows, the interior of the Q8 would be simply serene.
As a five-seater on a limo body, interior space and comfort is exceptional. I may only be five-nine myself, but the six-three Paul Maric made a similar remark in his earlier review, noting that legroom in both rows of the Q8 is exceptional.
The tapered roofline does eat into rear head clearance a little – as does the optioned sunroof of our test cars – but there's more room here than in the more coupe-like BMW X6.
The door openings are wide and the pillarless design creates a sense of even greater access, and climbing in and out of the vehicle is a comfortable manoeuvre.
The boot is a touch smaller than in the longer Q7, at 605 litres (compared to 770 litres) with the sliding second row seats in their most rearward position, but it's generous enough. Drop the 40:20:40 rear seats, and space grows to a fairly cavernous 1755 litres.
By comparison, the BMW X6 lists a smaller 550 and 1525 litres, and the GLE Coupe claims a comparable 650/1720 litres.
Materials are standard Audi fare, keeping the brand comfortably positioned as best-in-class. The 'Comfort contour' seats, trimmed in Valcona leather, are beautiful to touch and firm yet comfortable over our 300km drive.
I do think, though, that the optional stitched leather dash trim and oak/ash inlays ought to be standard.
There are two relatively shallow cupholders in the centre console, a reasonable centre cubby and good door pockets, but storage in the front row is otherwise limited and the glovebox is shallower than most will like.
Three-zone climate control is standard, offering temperature and fan speed controls in both rows. There are also four USB points – two up front and two in the rear.
ISOFIX is of course also in place for families, featuring on the two outboard seats of the second row.
As a gadget nerd, one of the main highlights for me in the new Q8 (and in other new models) is Audi's new-generation MMI Touch Response infotainment, which marries the familiar Virtual Cockpit instrument display and a head-up view on the windscreen, to a pair of 10.1- and 8.6-inch displays in the centre of the dash.
The system is a huge improvement on previous incarnations. It's fast and responsive, it features clever haptic feedback on touches, and a number of smartphone-like gestures are also in play. My only grievance with the haptic system is that you can't adjust the amount of touch force required to execution a function, and pressing an on-screen button can sometimes feel oddly laborious. (First-world problems...)
The design of the interface is stylish and intuitive, although the heavy black look to both the background and buttons can occasionally make it unclear what's a button and what isn't.
Apple Carplay and Android Auto are both standard, but in my two days with the system, I felt I'd be unlikely to bother with either. Audi has really hit a new high point with MMI Touch Response.
As with other premium brands, Audi continues to avoid any notion of a warranty longer than its standard three years. It's disappointing that premium brands continue to stand apart from the trend of moving to five-year warranties, and it would only take one brand to step up for the others to fall in line. We'll see…
Service intervals are 12 months or 15,000 kilometres, and Audi offers a three-year pre-paid servicing plan for $1900. That can be purchased anytime in the first 12 months of ownership, although most buyers are likely to bundle it in with their vehicle finance.
In all, the Q8 represents solid buying for those convinced by the segment – and in some ways, particularly its interior space, beautiful finishes and a shape that focuses on a sports look without going into the 'faux coupe' territory of its rivals – it's the most convincing option in the class.
For buyers who prefer petrol, the 55 TFSI also finds a unique spot in the segment, its $128,900 price point positioning it closer to the entry-level models in the X6 and GLE lines – all diesels at that end – and away from the $153,619 X6 xDrive50i and $145,829 GLE 43 Coupe.
Of course… add the $11,000 Premium Plus pack – which Audi says 90 per cent of buyers have been, so far – and you come a fair bit closer to those two performance-focused rivals. And then there's the Velar! A smaller offering, but bound to be cross-shopped by more than a few style-focused SUV buyers.
All in all, the Q8 presents as a winning combination that deserves to steal a few buyers away from the hugely successful X6, and the polarising GLE Coupe.