2020 Audi SQ8 review: Leather-lined linebacker
Sometimes, you don't need all the power in the world to make a great car. While the eyes of most fast-SUV fans might be on the hot-to-trot Audi RS Q8 , don't sleep on the middle-child SQ8 . With a whole bunch of thrust and all the things that make the standard Q8 great, the 2020 Audi SQ8 makes a compelling case in the large luxury SUV segment.
Not much of a showoff
The Q8 isn't actually much of a peacock -- sure, there's a dramatic rear end and a whole lot of creases front and rear, but the overall visual impact of this large SUV is pretty under the radar. My Prestige-trim tester rocks 21-inch alloy wheels and has silver trim around the grille and on the mirror caps, neither of which deliver a heavy punch. The most obvious signs that there's something more nefarious happening under the hood come from the rear, where there's a sufficiently large SQ8 badge and a honkin' set of oval tailpipes. If you want to hustle without letting the whole universe know, this is the way to go.
While the outside may not be the flashiest, the SQ8's interior carries a whole lot o' theater. A flat leather panel rests atop a whole bunch of seamless high-gloss material, which makes for a premium look in combination with its "seamless" vents and silver trim. Piano black isn't my favorite material from a smudge-prevention standpoint, but hoo boy, it looks properly posh. I'd probably skip the $500 carbon fiber inlays if it were my car, but they do add an extra dash of sporting pretension. I wouldn't opt for dark red leather, either, but there's no denying that the quilted stitching on the S-specific sport seats is top-notch, making the front buckets look as comfortable as they actually feel.
Despite the abridged roofline, the Q8 doesn't carry many of the sacrifices expected in coupe-ier SUVs . Each direction offers appropriate visibility through the windows, even rearward, where the back glass fills the rearview mirror. Headroom is ample enough for my six-foot frame to never feel cramped on the rear bench.
Storage is a bit of a mixed bag. Open the trunk and you'll be pleasantly surprised with 30.5 cubic feet of space, a figure that puts the SQ8 at the top of its segment. The door pockets are sufficiently capacious, too, but the bulky center console offers no behind-screen storage, and the cubby under the armrest is only big enough for a phone and a keyring or two.
Can't go wrong with a V8
The standard Q8's 3.0-liter V6 is all well and good, but when it comes to a sport-forward large SUV, Audi saw fit to throw another couple cylinders into the mix. The SQ8's 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V8 puts out 500 horsepower and 568 pound-feet of torque, and all that sweet power heads through the car's four tailpipes, creating a pleasing-but-not-annoying burble of bass both inside and outside. It's a good noise, but the powertrain itself is even sweeter, with torque available at nearly every opportunity and every throttle position. If the SQ8 does need a different gear, though, the eight-speed automatic transmission will find it quickly and smoothly. There's loads of power on tap, but it never overwhelms.
In fact, smoothness is the name of the game for the entire SQ8 driving experience. The S-specific adaptive air suspension irons out nearly every kink in the road, so keeping the car in its default Comfort mode leaves me with a ride that's as smooth as any other large luxury car out there. If you deign to throw the SQ8 into a corner, just tap the mode switch over to Dynamic, where the dampers focus on eliminating body roll to give this big boy some surprising agility, which is further enhanced in my tester by the $5,900 Sport Package that adds active roll bars, a sport rear differential and red brake calipers. It's plenty fun that way, but honestly, my favorite setup keeps the suspension in Comfort for a good mix of hustle and chill. It's like Terry Crews in a suit -- everything's fancy and sedate, but you're keenly aware that there's a wall of muscle hiding underneath.
The only real annoying part of the SQ8 experience comes from its stop-start system. This getup is keen to cut the engine a little too early while stopping, so when I go for the ultra-smooth stop, there's a bit of a lurch as everything cuts out. If I lift the brake pedal too far in pursuit of a dip-free stop, the engine kicks back on with yet another stumble. If the V8 would take an extra half a second to turn off, this wouldn't be a problem, but that's not going to happen, because an extended stop-start window is an intentional byproduct of the onboard 48-volt electrical system.
The SQ8's fuel economy also lacks chill, but I feel that's expected in a V8-toting sports SUV. The EPA rates this guy at a paltry 15 miles per gallon city and 21 mpg highway. While my city figures are… demonstrably worse than that (probably because I love torquey starts), I am at least able to match the highway numbers with little issue -- until, again, I remember how much fun it is to accelerate.
Lots of tech, all of it good
Audi's MMI Touch Response system is good -- so good, in fact, that when it debuted it won our Roadshow Shift Award for Cabin Tech of the Year. It remains one of the best systems on the market after a full model year, tot. The whole shebang boots up quickly, even after a night spent chilling on the driveway. The response time is fast, and when handwriting recognition can be used, Audi's tech picks up my awful finger swipes perfectly.
The 10.1-inch screen in the center of the dashboard covers all the usual infotainment bits, and its built-in haptic feedback makes it easier to hit the right button with little distraction. The 8.6-incher underneath is mostly for the climate control system, and it, too, is plenty responsive and easy to commit to muscle memory. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto make it easier to use my phone in the car in the event my dumb brain forgets a cord. While I'd like to see USB-C ports in here, I'm happy with the USB-A ports that populate both rows of seats. Virtual Cockpit is standard, too, with its 12.3-inch gauge screen displaying nearly every bit of information I can ask for on the usual drive with simple manipulation through the steering wheel controls.
My Prestige-trim SQ8 comes standard with almost every safety system, although all Q8s come from the factory with automatic emergency braking, automatic windshield wipers and automatic headlights. The adaptive cruise control is mighty smooth, with no major braking or acceleration events causing unwanted head bobs. Lateral motion is well under control, too, with the lane-keeping assist offering a gossamer touch on the wheel to keep the SQ8 centered in its lane. The head-up display isn't really necessary in my opinion, but it can show the speed limit, which is about all I'd want it to do, anyway.
How I'd spec it
The 2020 SQ8 is an expensive proposition, starting at $89,995 including destination. I'll stick with my tester's Prestige trim, which starts at $95,495, throwing a $595 Galaxy Blue paint job into the mix because the only free options are black and white (yawn). A black leather interior is gratis, as is the high-gloss gray oak trim. I'll also plunk down $1,750 to remove all instances of shiny metal from the exterior, as well as $4,000 to add more leather inside and massaging front seats. That leaves me with an out-the-door price of $106,840, which slides just under my tester's $107,490 window sticker.
Down to brass tacks
Perhaps surprisingly, there's a decent market for souped-up luxury SUVs with six-figure price tags. The BMW X6 M50i offers a lot of oomph, but its aesthetics are… an acquired taste, and I don't think its interior is as well laid out as the Audi's. The Mercedes-AMG GLE53 Coupe's mild hybrid system offers an actual output boost, unlike the SQ8, but again, you have to look at the thing. Those looking for a more driver-forward experience will want to turn their attention to the Porsche Cayenne GTS, which you can thankfully get in non-coupe form (although there's a Cayenne GTS Coupe on offer, too).
Of all those choices, however, none delivers the two distinct experiences that the 2020 Audi SQ8 does. It's as cool as a cucumber most of the time, acting like a car built for chauffeurs. Hit a few buttons (or, honestly, just depress the accelerator far enough) and things take on a whole new life of brisk acceleration and deft handling. It's the best kind of two-for-one deal.