Car Culture: Audi joins ‘boutique’ SUV class with the Q8
Stylish two-row SUV wants to take on the Porsche Cayenne and Range Rover Sport
If you’re looking for an upscale sport utility vehicle that puts a little more emphasis on sport than utility, then the 2019 Audi Q8 should be on your shopping list.
Audi already offers two perfectly good SUVs in the form of the Q7 and Q5 – both strong sellers. But like other luxury brands, the German automaker wants a slice of the growing SUV sub-segment devoted to consumers who want more style and performance in their vehicles.
This ‘”boutique” SUV class is typified by the BMW X6 and Mercedes GLE coupe, with their distinctive arching rooflines. Audi, however, sees the Q8 competing more directly with the likes of the Porsche Cayenne and Range Rover Sport. As with these rivals, the Q8 has a flat roofline that does not compromise interior space, compared to the coupe-like X6 and GLE.
The Q8 is based on the same platform and wheelbase as the three-seat row Q7, but with only two rows of seats, the newcomer offers superior rear passenger space, better even than the new BMW X5.
As such, the Q8 should be perceived as an upscale version of the Q7, says Anthony Foulk, senior product manager at Audi. “The Q8 takes the Q7 design to another level, as a sporty SUV, but not a coupe,” notes Foulk. “Inside the Q8 is a five-seater, versus seven, but the rear outboard seats are more roomy than Q7 and the back angle is more comfortable.”
On the road, the Q8 accelerates fairly smartly thanks to its 335-hp turbo V6 mild-hybrid powertrain, with the 0-60-mph dash taking 5.6 seconds. But at more than 5,000 pounds, this Audi is heavy. Buyers looking for more spirited performance will want to wait for a forthcoming high-output SQ8 model, with a V8 engine.
A variety of suspensions are offered with the Q8, including the standard adaptive damping suspension or an optional air suspension set-up that can raise the body to provide extra ground clearance or lower it for aerodynamic efficiency on the highway.
During a test drive in the wilds of Utah and Colorado, my route did involve some modest off-road trails and fairly deep snow, so the ride height adjustability was welcome.
Like virtually all Audis, the Q8 comes with the company’s well regarded quattro all-wheel drive system and it made short work of the icy and slippery conditions I encountered. All-season tires are standard on the Q8 but my test car was fitted with Continental winter tires. These performed well enough on snowy and icy surfaces, but the soft compound rubber did not flatter the car’s handling on dry roads. At speed on winding roads, the steering lacked the degree of precision I expected and the vehicle tended to understeer too much. I look forward to an opportunity to drive the car on the standard tires, which should provide more confidence-inspiring road manners.
On a positive note, the Q8’s composed ride quality, noise suppression and overall refinement is little short of astonishing, especially for an SUV. The interior is remarkably quiet in the front and in the rear, which benefits from sound dampening dual pane side windows.
As one would expect from a company renowned for its high quality interiors, the Q8 cabin is beautifully executed, with a fine combination of leather, wood and metal trim materials. A full Alcantara headliner is an attractive if expensive option.
Notably, the rear passenger compartment is not skimped in terms of amenities, which include separate digital climate controls for each side. Rear headroom and legroom are excellent. Technically there are three seating positions in the rear, but the center seat is not too enticing compared to the outboard positions, because of a narrower backrest and foot room compromised by the transmission tunnel.
Up front, the cockpit adopts the triple display layout from the new A8, A7 and A6 sedans, which delivers a clean, high-tech looking instrument panel, with mostly touch screen controls. Functionally, the screens are straightforward to operate and intuitive, although you have to dig for some information, such as tire pressures. Also, it’s frustrating to have to stop the vehicle to access certain functions.
Given the piano black trim around the displays, the whole dashboard is on the dark side, which means a smart choice for an interior color scheme might be the elegant grey palette offered as an alternative to black. The dark grey seats, accented by blue stitching, and lighter grey Alcantara headliner make for a pleasing combination.
At nighttime, the Q8 interior steps up its game with a subtle, classy lighting system that includes discrete light piping around the center console and doors, plus an illuminated quattro emblem on the dashboard. Coupled with the colorful screen displays, the interior lighting creates an ambiance that’s truly impressive.
Prices for the Q8 start at $67,400 and can run into the high $80,000 range, depending on the package and options selected. However, Foulk says a typically equipped Q8 will cost around $70,000.
The arrival of the Q8 crowns the existing SUV range from Audi, although more expensive variants are coming. And at the lower end of the SUV line, a new compact Q3 model arrives later this year.
For Audi, as with other premium and some mainstream brands, the emphasis on SUVs makes sense, given the demand from consumers. Last year, SUVs accounted for close to 60 percent of Audi sales in the U.S. The Q8 is arguably the most artful expression of the SUV formula yet from Audi, but it is unlikely to be the last.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at email@example.com