The Audi SQ8 is the latest premium brand entrant in what has grown into quite a sizeable market of sporting SUVs conceived to place head turning good looks ahead of sheer everyday practicality.
It shares its mechanical package and a lot more besides with the highly convincing SQ7 already on sale in Australia.
In terms of claimed performance and standard features, the new Audi SUV lines up against the latest BMW X6 M50d and upcoming Mercedes-Benz GLE400d Coupe at a price Audi officials suggest will be close to $180,000 when sales of the diesel powered SQ8 get under way here next year.
This is the first time we’ve had a chance to get behind the wheel of what is now Audi’s most expensive SUV model to date following its reveal in a series of official photographs last week. To do so we’ve travelled to some spectacular roads in the south of France – the very roads many of the world’s elite cyclists are set to face during the more arduous stages of this month’s 106th running of the Tour de France.
They’re not exactly perfect for testing a car this size but they’re smooth and ultimately prove free of traffic, which is not always a given during the European summer.
Parked up on the tarmac at the lonely airport of Lourdes, the SQ8 certainly stands out. It’s a bold looking car, especially from front on, where a large – some might say overly exaggerated – single frame grille boasting uniquely styled vertical louvres and a shiny red SQ8 badge instantly sets it apart from lesser Q8 models.
There’s also a reprofiled front bumper with larger and more prominent air ducts, LED headlamps as standard and new aluminium effect exterior mirror caps – all of which adds plenty of added presence to what is already a highly striking exterior design.
A newly designed bumper at the rear also stamps it out as more than just your standard Q8. It houses a matt black coloured diffuser element and four chromed oval tailpipes.
The SQ8 rolls on standard 21-inch wheels, which are plenty big enough by most standards. But for added visual effect all the cars at its launch were fitted with optional 22-inch rims running less than forgiving 285/40 profile Continental ContiSport Contact 6 tyres at each corner.
Also fitted to our test car were ceramic brake discs – just one of a long list of high price options Audi is set to make available on its latest SUV model in Australia.
While its model designation might suggest otherwise, the SQ8 is actually shorter and lower than its sister car, the SQ7. It is also wider, but only marginally, giving it quite an aggressive hunkered down stance for an SUV. This is further enhanced by its suspension, which uses the same ride height as the sports package offered on the standard Q8.
There are not many SUVs that entice you to drive them simply by the promise inherent in their styling, but the SQ8 is definitely one of them.
As strong as the draw of its styling is, though, it is what lies under the sheet metal that matters most here. Mounted up front beneath the new Audi’s long bonnet is perhaps the most entertaining series production diesel engine in existence right now.
That it is also one of the most potent only helps to add to the driving experience, providing the SQ8 with memorable straight line performance and the sought of boundless flexibility that would clearly make it a great choice for towing big loads.
With mild hybrid properties, including an energy regeneration function that harvests up to 8kW of kinetic electricity under hard braking an a coasting mode that allows the engine to be switched off for up to 40 seconds on a trailing throttle at speeds between 55km/h and 160km/h, made possible through the adoption of a 48-volt electric system, it’s also incredibly frugal given its heady performance potential.
The twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre engine develops 320kW, which is impressive enough in its own right by modern diesel standards.
However, it is the inclusion of an electrically powered compressor, or EPC as Audi’s engineers prefer to label it, that makes the difference. It is used to boost induction until the engine’s two exhaust gas operated turbochargers begin to spool up themselves in a process aimed at maximising throttle response at the lower end of the rev counter.
As a result, the SQ8’s diesel powerplant produces a considerable 900Nm of torque at just 1250rpm, meaning real and immediate urgency is always just a slight flex of your right ankle away in just about any driving condition.
And, what’s more, it remains on tap until 3250rpm, giving it a nicely workable power band that’s every bit as suitable for driving around town as it is out on the open road.
The EPC is claimed to achieve its peak operating speeds of up to 70,000rpm in less than a quarter of a second, so there’s instantaneous response. It helps to provide the SQ8 with wonderfully seamless qualities and outstanding step-off acceleration.
Official performance figures suggest the new Audi reaches 100km/h from standstill in the same time as the SQ7 at 4.8sec before hauling itself with great authority to a limited top speed of 250km/h.
The figures speak for themselves, but you have to experience the SQ8 in action to fully appreciate just how quick it really is. At 2365kg, it is certainly no lightweight. But with that huge plateau of torque, it accelerates with all the vigour of a much lighter car in lower gears.
The whole experience is magnified to a certain extent by the height of the driver seat.
There’s no need to wring the engine for revs; a hefty nudge of the throttle is all it takes to send it down the road at speeds well beyond legal limits in Australia.
The engine in the SQ8 is exactly the same unit used in the SQ7, so it’s no stranger. Nor is it exactly new. But the powerful V8 continues to make an impact as much for the noise it makes as the sheer energy it produces. At start-up there’s an alluring burble from the tailpipes, and it becomes more menacing as you blip the throttle and set off.
The acoustics are enhanced via an active sound generator, which operates through the speakers. However, they are remarkably convincing, striking just the right balance when it matters most.
It’s not all fire and brimstone, though. The new Audi is also a terrific long-distance proposition, with sufficient low-end pull and tall gearing combining to make it terrifically relaxed and quiet at a 120km/h cruise. At that speed, it is the flatter of wind around the substantial exterior mirrors more than the noise of the engine that makes its presence felt in the cabin.
Official fuel consumption figures are yet to be revealed, though expect them to be in the region of those quoted for the SQ7 at a combined 7.2L/100km with corresponding CO2 emissions around 189g/km.
Audi’s eight-speed automatic gearbox, which boasts steering wheel mounted shift paddles as standard, operates with outstanding smoothness despite the heady torque loads, apportioning drive to each wheel the German car maker’s quattro four-wheel drive system.
Buyers can option the SQ8 with a so-called Sport Differential, which uses a planetary drive in the rear axle to juggle the amount of power to each individual rear wheel.
It is recommended for those who place a high price on dynamics, though it really only comes into its own at high cornering speeds. In everyday driving, the standard set-up delivers all the traction you’ll likely ever need,
The 48-volt electric system that helps provide the big V8 diesel engine with such outstanding response also plays an important part in ensuring the SQ8 also remains remarkably agile.
The laws of physics suggest such a big and heavy SUV, even one of such clear sporting pretensions as this, has no place being thrashed over winding roads through the Pyrenees mountain range. But that is selling the new Audi short.
With an advanced air suspension featuring the same single chamber plungers as those used by the SQ7 and optional active electromechanical anti-roll bars that stiffen appreciably in a matter of milliseconds to help suppress body roll in corners, it remains surprisingly flat and stable in its most sporting of driving modes, Dynamic.
The real agility, however, comes through the adoption of an optional four-wheel steering system, which should be on the short list of any potential customer. This sharpens response, allowing the SQ8 to charge over challenging sections of blacktop in a terrifically lively manner given its size.
The precision inherent within the steering allows you to place it well on the road, even if there is not a great deal of feedback through the steering wheel itself. With those 22-inch wheels providing loads of grip, you can drive deep into corners and turn in without fear of the front end losing adhesion and running wide.
It’s at the exit of corners where this car really comes into its own. The quick acting properties of the air suspension support the excellent traction doled out by the SQ8’s quattro four-wheel drive system, giving it great footing when you release the engine reserves in full.
It’s not exclusively sporting, though. With the Audi Drive Select function switched to comfort, the SQ8’s high tech underpinnings provide it with genuinely smooth and relatively quiet ride qualities on smooth surfaced bitumen. There’s an underlying firmness to the air springs that can unsettle it on pockmarked roads. However, there’s sufficient control to ensure it never becomes harsh, even at speed.
Those expecting Audi’s flagship SUV to offer something a little extra beyond the standard Q8 in terms of its interior might feel somewhat disappointed. But that’s not to say it is left wanting in any way.
As with lesser Q8 models, the SQ8 is offered with a twin touchscreen set-up and Audi’s Virtual Cockpit digital instrument cluster, which features S-specific graphics and displays, along with a twin touchscreen set-up controlled by Audi’s latest MMI (Multi Media Interface).
For sheer fit and finish as well as material choice and ergonomics, it is well up to the standard of its rivals, providing an ambience that is both luxurious and desirable throughout.
And while it doesn’t offer quite the same practicality of the SQ7, it still provides plenty of space for up to five adults along with a generous 770 litres of nominal luggage space.
The SQ8 is a car of very few weaknesses. As well as being remarkably quick, it also boasts outstanding long-distance qualities, is relatively roomy inside and projects quality in a way you’d expect given its projected price tag.
It takes the strengths of the excellent SQ7 and adds to them with an arguably more desirable design, increased handling prowess, controlled ride qualities and even more contemporary interior appointments.
If you’re in the market for a sporting SUV that will get you noticed it should be high on your list of potential purchases, provided that is you can wait until next year before it arrives.