2019 Audi Q8 first drive review: Cross-country tech titan

You can't be help but be struck by two immediate but very distinct thoughts when powering the 2019 Audi Q8 SUV through Chile's Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth:

  1. This part of the world perpetually dishes out the sort of once-in-a-lifetime, 360-degree panoramas that make it seem like someone's clicked the widescreen button on the cinema of your life. It's both stark and vast enough to make one feel utterly insignificant, a mere sentient smudge on an interstellar canvas.

  2. The 2019 Audi Q8 is an all-wheel-drive tonic for any such ill-advised navel-gazing. You can't help but feel very special and significant when getting behind the wheel of this luxurious and tech-rich SUV.

Flagship Q

The Q8 is Audi's new range-topping SUV, riding atop the same basic architecture as its bigger but less posh sibling, the Q7. Designed to take on rivals like the Land Rover Range Rover Sport and Porsche Cayenne, this two-row SUV will also be cross-shopped against models like the Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe and BMW X6. The Q8 may be smaller than the Q7, but as its alphanumeric designation makes a bit clearer, it'll be the company's ultimate SUV, one that's available loaded to the gunwales with tech.

While the larger Q7 is something of a 21st-century station wagon for the affluent, the 16.4-foot-long Q8 takes a markedly more personal approach to SUV luxury, including more athletic dynamics. If sharing its underlying DNA with a three-row family truckster is somehow off-putting, know that the Q8 also shares its MLB Evo architecture with the Bentley Bentayga and Lamborghini Urus, two of the highest-performance SUVs ever to nuzzle a valet stand.

Audi's snarly Q8 squares off against the Range Rover Sport and Cayenne this fall.

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It helps that the Q8 also looks very different than the larger Q7. Or, at least, it helps if you are a fan of this new model's face, which incorporates what Audi officials say is the future of their SUV design language. In the main, that means a much more prominent eight-sided grille, with a thicker "mask" frame surrounding thin vertical supports. Out back, there's a full-width band of taillamps that look an awful lot like those of the aforementioned Lamborghini (no bad thing).

The Q8 won't arrive until late fall, and Audi USA is still determining whether they'll offer the grille in body color, gloss black, contrast gray, or some combination thereof. After seeing examples painted each way on the launch (Europe will get all three), I'm convinced this will be an unusually important determinant to how well this look is received by buyers. While the Q8 looks better in person than in the photos, I still find the new nose unsettling and not particularly successful -- especially when finished in contrasting colors. My recommendation? Go for a dark body color to help the front end blend in.

Hybrid helper

When it arrives in dealers late this fall, the 2019 Q8 will be powered by Audi's well-regarded 3.0-liter turbocharged TFSI V6, tuned here to deliver 335 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque backed by an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters.

A 48-volt mild hybrid system comes standard, consisting of a small 10-Ah lithium-ion battery and a belt alternator starter (BAS). The powertrain not only improves efficiency via stop/start, but also through its ability to coast for extended periods with the engine off and uncoupled at speeds between 34 and 99 mph. Between the electric assist and the engine's forced induction, I found there to be plenty of power, even at extremely high altitudes. We ascended mountain roads to a (literally) breathtaking 15,000 feet at speed -- up into the sort of thin air that would wilt a naturally aspirated engine -- and I still found plenty of power, particularly in sport mode.

The mild-hybrid assisted V6 performed like a champ, even in high altitudes and dusty conditions.

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That said, it's also important to note that the standard Q8 isn't intended as a foil for higher-power versions of rivals, including models like the Porsche Cayenne Turbo or the BMW X6 M. While officially unconfirmed, higher-output SQ8 and RSQ8 models are all but assured, so if standard model doesn't pack enough oomph, there figures to be many dozens -- if not hundreds -- of additional ponies cresting the not-too-distant horizon.

Unlike in the Q7, there are no plans for a less powerful, less expensive 2.0-liter inline four model.

It's hard to ballpark a solid 0-60 mph time for this vehicle given I drove it power-sapping altitudes, but Audi quotes a 0-60 mph time of 5.7 seconds for a similarly powered Q7. Given that the Q8 is smaller, lighter and has a mild hybrid assist for extra torque, it's likely reasonable to assume it's quicker by a few tenths.

Similarly, fuel economy figures aren't fully baked yet, but a comparable six-cylinder Q7 checks in at 19 miles per gallon city, 25 highway and 21 combined. Given that the Q8 a bit more aerodynamic, slightly lighter, and it has the aforementioned mild-hybrid assist, it's probably reasonable to expect that it will eke out a couple more digits in each cycle.

The Q8's cabin is all screens and slickness.

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MMI, my, my

Inside, the Q8 further breaks with its Q7 stablemate thanks to a completely different interior. In fact, because it uses Audi's latest MMI Touch Response system with its two large touchscreens and no multicontroller, the Q8's cabin experience is very different, having more in common with Audi's almost-here A8, A7 and A6 models.

While I understand why car designers do so, experience has taught me to be suspect of automakers who remove physical switchgear in favor of touchscreen-based infotainment systems, especially multi-screen solutions. Generally speaking, they're more trouble than they're worth, being convoluted of layout, and most importantly, frustrating to use in a moving vehicle.

The flat-top gearshift acts as a steadying base for your wrist when using the lower touchscreen.

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That said, I didn't have prior experience with MMI Touch Response, yet I found it to be about as well-engineered a touchscreen system as I've found. In my estimation, only Genesis' single-screen setup is more intuitive among luxury brands, and the Korean setup isn't anywhere near as slick or powerful as this Audi rig. Even for existing users of previous MMI systems, it'll still take some getting used to, but it's actually a pretty friendly setup.

Particular likes include the crispness and speed of the double-decker screens themselves (sized 10.1 and 8.6 inches, respectively), as well as the ability to create personalized shortcuts for key functions. The slick manner in which the optional 360-degree camera system can be viewed (including spinning a virtual version of the Q8 to see what's around it) is also particularly nice work, as is the handwriting function for data entry (it even allows for both cursive and overwriting letters). Naturally, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support are present.

Cabin cruiser

The rest of the Q8's cabin is no less impressive, with the usual array of high-quality materials and switchgear present, as well as all-day-comfortable sport seats. It's worth noting that despite its more rakish roofline, the Q8 still has surprisingly generous room in the back. The rear seat slides fore-aft and the 60:40 split seatbacks recline, but you needn't monkey with the settings to get comfortable.

We'll have to wait for final cabin numbers, but the Q8's second row feels much more spacious than some of its more hunchbacked rivals (I'm looking at you, BMW and Mercedes). My five-foot, nine-inch frame had plenty of headroom and a surplus of legroom. In fact, it's so roomy back there that it's surprising that Audi doesn't offer rear-seat entertainment screens or even an upscale four-seat layout with fitted center console.

There's 21.4 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats, and 62 with them folded. Pardon our dust.

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Cargo space is likewise solid, with up to 62 cubic feet of space available with the second row stowed.

Outward visibility in the Q8 is quite good -- also markedly better than in competing "four-door coupe"  SUVs. And despite the tremendously varied Chilean terrain I drove on, the cabin was unerringly quiet. Almost spookily so, actually, especially when considering that the Q8 is the only Audi crossover to employ frameless doors (which typically don't seal out the surrounding world as well). Plus, my test car featured massive 22-inch optional wheels (19-, 20- and 21-inch units are also available) wearing wide 285/40 Continental rubber, making such serenity an even more impressive accomplishment.

All-road all 'rounder

Oversized wheels also tend to negatively impact ride quality, but the Q8 was exceedingly well behaved throughout, especially given the wildcard nature of the surfaces we experienced in Chile, which varied from well-tended sunbaked superslab to pothole-laced secondary roads to hard-packed red dirt, muddy trails and even snow in the mountains.  

Some credit is owed to my test car's optional air suspension (adjustable steel springs are standard), which can alternatively provide up to 10 inches of ground clearance for light off-roading or hunker the Q8 over its fenders to look like a steroidal hot hatch.

Chile isn't just gorgeous, it's a tortuous and treacherous high-altitude testing ground.

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Even standing on its tippy toes, the Slovakian-built Q8 won't worry any Land Rovers when it comes to traversing the rough stuff, but I was able to ford a shallow stream and bound around a simple hilly off-road course with impunity. In other words, the Q8 is more capable when the pavement ends than 99.9-percent of potential owners will ever need.

In the US, the available air suspension will be bundled with four-wheel steering, which helps this largish midsize-SUV handle more adroitly when pushed, as does the all-wheel-drive system's default 40:60 front-to-rear torque split. While no sports car, it's easy to drive the Q8 with confidence, thanks in part to its strong brakes and good steering accuracy.

The Q8 is a must-drive entry for those in the market for a personal luxury SUV.

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21st-century personal luxury

Historically, I've failed to understand the allure of "four-door coupe" SUVs. Without exception, they sacrifice cabin space and extract more money from wallets than their more upright and conventional counterparts, all without paying much in the way of dividends aesthetically or in terms of performance. Even Audi execs I spoke with admitted an aversion to the genre, but the long-running success of rivals eventually became too much to ignore, especially in such a lucrative segment.

The thing is, despite its racier greenhouse and prominent blistered fenders (homages to Audi's legendary Ur-Quattro, I am told), when I look at the Q8, I don't actually see a four-door coupe SUV at all -- I see a tech-rich, helpfully athletic and sensibly proportioned premium crossover.

Perhaps that's for the best.


Editors' note: Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists.

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