The early four-wheel drives – big, ugly, clumsy yet effective beasts – were built for a serious task: primarily to traverse the outback and explore difficult slabs of the wide brown land.
They were tough, unbreakable and durable. Be reminded that these hitherto unreachable tracts of Australian rocks and sand didn’t, and still don’t, include the toffy ’burbs of Point Piper, Peppermint Grove and Toorak.
Then some idiot from a village in the United Kingdom declared he had a great idea, and the world’s first luxury 4WD was created. Yes, what the world was apparently crying out for was a huge square box on wheels, with sponge-cake suspension, an asthmatic V8 engine from Buick, and no rear doors. Buyers, gullible by the score, overlooked these inadequacies because the new Range Rover had a cabin furnished by Nick Scali. Thankfully, modern Range Rovers have come - and gone - a long way since that original, somewhat basic, concept. Trent.
Like a few other Euro brands, Audi was somewhat tardy coming to the SUV party. Its excuse being it had to get it right rather than springboard towards the front of the queue.
Growing SUV demand forced Audi’s hand. Its Q7 finally made its belated appearance in 2005 at the Frankfurt show. It was well received, and so Audi created a whole range of Q-monikered SUVs of varying sizes. Q5, Q3, Q2…
And people bought them.
At the end of 2018, the smart-looking Q8 arrived in Australia sized close to the Q7, but aimed at buyers who like a touch of class and athletic looks yet with no need for a seven-seater. Sports style and vanity can matter more than absolute practicality.
Now, the Q8 has been given the razzle-dazzle RS treatment.
Why take a 2.3-tonne luxury SUV and transform it into one of the most powerful and fastest beasts in SUV-land, with 441kW and a prodigious 800Nm under foot?
Is Audi meeting the market or anticipating the market? Audi maintains the wider demand for mainstream SUVs is being mirrored by an increasing appetite for performance variants. Perhaps we doubters should just accept that certain people make bizarre, impenetrable purchases, and that the RS Q8 will sell in healthy numbers just to confound sceptics?
And, simultaneously, we can laud the remarkable technology that has tamed a blindingly powerful and fast, but (relatively) huge and high lump of metal, plastic and leather, into a sublimely compliant pussycat.
The most powerful SUV from Audi Sport, the 2021 Audi RS Q8 outruns an RS 4 Avant to 100km/h, accelerating there in just 3.8sec. It is faster than many pricey sports cars.
The RS Q8 is currently the fastest SUV around the Nürburgring Nordschleife with a lap time of 7min 42.2sec. For context, be aware this is faster than a first-generation R8 V10 plus supercar around the same circuit.
The even showier and angrier Lamborghini Urus from the same VW Group family uses essentially the same chassis and 4.0-litre bi-turbo engine (with a few more herbs). The RS Q8 is almost as fast as the Urus, though the rowdy Lambo gets more gear. But at $208,500 (MLP), the RS Q8 is barely half the money of the Urus.
None of these sporty SUVs are destined for an unequivocal traditional 4WD role riding high and heading off-road. Do you really want to go bush-bashing in your $200,000 luxury vehicle? Those seriously wealthy hardcore car people who must have the latest, fastest and flashiest set of wheels probably won’t venture further than Perisher or Mount Buller.
If you expect your city runabout to assume a certain muscly presence, this new RS is the business. It wears an aggressive design look with pumped-out guards, broad footprint, bold protruding grille mask, toned tush with characteristic oval tailpipes, and among the biggest available OEM wheel/tyre combos on the planet.
Dissecting the sometime idiosyncratic attributes of the RS Q8, I’d summarise it in three distinct categories: the ferocious engine and quick-changing eight-speed Tiptronic; the almost miraculous dynamics suite that keeps this flying fortress on the straight and narrow; and the confounding raft of fuel-efficiency technology.
The RS Q8 roars into a new market segment for Audi assuming the role of pinnacle of the range. Overkill on a grand scale, its brutally fierce bi-turbo 4.0-litre TFSI V8 easily rises to the task of moving the hefty RS (2315kg unladen/2390kg with driver). The lag-free accelerative surge off the line is breathtaking – 0–100km/h in 3.8sec – with the fast and fluid gear changes from the torque converter automatic.
No less impressive is the glorious available pulling power and drivability, with the abundant peak torque of 800Nm lurking and ready all the way from 2200 to 4500rpm, and not stopping until it hits an electronically limited 250km/h.
Tick the RS dynamic package plus (which is essentially the RS carbon-ceramic brake system), and thrown in, too, is a Vmax potential of 305km/h. Just the ticket for the CBD.
Corners are the big test, and the RS Q8 answers doubters with its all-round dynamic capabilities, which are helped predictably by impressive tech including RS-specific adaptive air suspension, electronic roll stabilisation, dynamic all-wheel steering, quattro sport differential, and the four bits of rubber that contact the road surface.
The higher centre of gravity encouraged Audi to introduce to the SQ8 and RS Q8 an electromechanical active roll stabilisation system (first seen in the Audi SQ7) running off the 48-volt system. This greatly assists in containing the yaw angle of the body, warding off any tendency of pendulum movement and maintaining stability.
For reasons of comfort, the stabiliser system decouples around town and while cruising. But hook into tight bends and it smartly recouples to reduce body roll.
The standard-issue all-wheel steering can turn the rear wheels by up to five degrees in the opposite direction, assisting in low-speed parking and manoeuvring. Get cranking, though, and the RS Q8’s AWS can move the rear wheels up to 1.5 degrees in the same direction as the fronts to assist in directing it around corners. The quattro sport diff assists cornering, too, feeding torque to the inside of the corner, and aiding traction and opposing the potential for the high-riding mass to unsettle.
This SUV is insanely quick and adept, especially when it squats down and forgets it’s a tall and hefty SUV. There’s no discernible front-end push entering turns. Body roll is minimal, grip is maintained, and the front wheels don’t lose interest in going where the steering demands.
The drive-select menu in this monster comes in eight modes – comfort, auto, dynamic, efficient, allroad, offroad, and individual. In the individual mode, the customer can configure the RS how he or she wishes, accessing the result via a button on the wheel (either of RS1 and RS2 modes).
I’m sensing most people will settle on the comfort mode for daily driving. It calms down the ride without the RS losing too much of its poise and performance, though the engine noise falls into the background.
At the other end of the scale, choose dynamic and everything sharpens – engine, transmission and the handling. Without the ride comfort falling away noticeably.
The RS Q8’s ride height is nominally 212mm but conveniently variable. Its air suspension adjusts through a range of up to 90mm – at its lowest in dynamic, and highest in offroad mode.
The standard steel brakes are substantial – 420mm front rotors with 10-piston fixed callipers, and 370mm rears with six-piston callipers.
Finally, the Continental 285/35 ZR23 tyres handle the violent combined assault on adhesion mounted by acceleration, braking, steering and cornering. In other markets, 22-inch wheels/tyres are standard, but Australian buyers get 23s. There is a price to pay; a replacement 23-inch Conti’ retails for around $1075.
The standard sports exhaust can play a selection of seriously pleasant sounds depending on the driver’s predilections. Wonderfully quiet when cruising (save for a light rustle from the big outside mirrors), it becomes guttural, raucous and spirited when you use the right hoof enthusiastically, usually in conjunction with the RS button.
Here’s the bit that bemuses me…
The fastest SUV in Audi history, and the spearhead of the RS range, gets cylinder-on-demand technology, meaning it can drop four of its eight cylinders to conserve fuel. The 48-volt mild hybrid system activates the start/stop mode at speeds below 22km/h. There is coast mode from 55 to 160km/h. A belt alternator-starter recovers up to 12kW of power, and a camera in front of the Q8 reacts when a car in front takes off and turns the engine back on.
All, most impressive. But surely Audi is taking the piss… In an aggressive package that is largely about muscle, force and speed, the conservation amounts to 0.8L/100km in real-world driving. Roughly a 1c per kilometre saving. In a plaything costing well north of $200K.
Technological overkill, methinks.
The claimed average fuel-consumption figure is 12.1L/100km. The 240km test drive, covering a mix of outer Sydney suburban traffic and a pleasant, gyrating run across the mountains to the Hunter Valley experimenting with different driving modes, came up with an average of 12.0L/100km.
Audi always seems to do great cabins with classy materials, excellent fit, ergonomically sound, and a broad timeless appeal. This gets the latest and greatest, and is dressed up with generous lashings of fine nappa leather. Inlays of aluminium race anthracite give a racy touch.
The well-shaped ventilated RS sports front seats, heated and cooled, are trimmed with Valcona leather with striking contrasting honeycomb stitching. The driver and passenger are well planted in the buckets thanks to numerous electric adjustments, including four-way lumbar and side seat bolsters and massage functions.
Front and centre is the latest MMI navigation plus touchscreens (two) with haptic and acoustic feedback. The smartphone interface connects easily with Apple and Android devices, and of course there is a rocking Bang & Olufsen sound system. Wireless charging plus two Bluetooth connections and four USB ports are there, too. Voice control… Yep. And data functionality.
The system gives a whole array of support and info – Google Earth maps, fuel prices, parking info, sat-nav, direct online roadside assist, Audi service request, anti-theft alarm, and car finder with remote signal. If you’re rather forgetful, the MyAudi app can remotely lock or unlock the RS Q8 and provide vital statistics.
Behind the steering wheel is Audi’s latest RS-specific 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit display, which offers different info including sporty data such as g-meter, at-the-moment torque and power outputs, plus shift lights when in manual mode.
This is a beautifully equipped vehicle with four-zone climate, power-assisted door closure, power-operated open/close tailgate, and panoramic sunroof.
Comfortable rear space, too. The three rear seats can adjust back and forth, and the cargo area starts at 605L, but stretches to 1755L with the second row folded down.
The RS Q8 has a 3500kg towing capacity, so it has a functional side beyond leather-wrapped thrills and excitement.
The sledgehammer performance comes with a litany of safety and assistance systems, even loose-wheel detection and low-tyre pressure monitoring for, Audi suggests, track days. Cue head shake. It’s a damned truck, not a sports car.
There is useful support, too. Eight airbags, adaptive cruise control with Stop&Go and traffic jam assist, side assist with blind-spot warning, pre-sense front with autonomous braking and pedestrian and cyclist detection, collision-avoidance assist, rear cross-traffic assist, active lane assist, 360-degree camera with front and rear sensors and visual display, plus HD matrix LED headlights.
Optional packages will get your attention.
That optional $19,500 carbon-ceramic brake package, with 440mm diameter rotors, saves 34kg of unsprung weight and gives you a choice of red, blue or anthracite grey callipers. Along with the Urus, these are the world’s largest brakes on a production vehicle.
The RS interior pack available with red or grey stitching, along with an Alcantara wheel rim and other trim choices, is $2900 extra.
Audi also offers two exterior styling packages dressing up in matte aluminium (no cost) or carbon ($9100).
The RS Q8 is protected by the brand’s three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty. The service plan is $4060 for five years.
It will be fascinating to see how history regards the RS Q8. It is a truly punchy all-round package with few weaknesses. Supremely comfortable, quiet when needed and tastefully equipped, it can be interchangeably docile and (at the touch of a button) boisterous, madly aggressive and spectacularly fast. And safe.
Look at its rivals and you can even mount a case that at $208,500 (MLP) this is a bargain.
Audi RS and S variants usually account for around 20 per cent of any line, meaning the RS Q8 will potentially go to Australian owners at a rate of six a month.