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First Drive: 2019 Audi Q8

Cutting through the Atacama in Audi’s newest star

SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA, Chile — Nothing can prepare you for the scope of the Atacama desert's desolation. Far from the romanticized cactus-filled desert biomes of the U.S.A's southwest and the mysterious orange dunes of the Sahara, many portions of Chile's arid region are just long vistas of crushed rock and dusty haze, usually ending in the distant foothills of the Andes mountains. Some particularly bleak stretches are almost menacing—it's easy to perish in the Atacama, and it makes that fact quite clear.

Conquering this terrain in an uber-luxe, range-topping German SUV might seem gratuitous, but for a vehicle as dramatic as the 2019 Audi Q8, you need a similarly dramatic backdrop. After the R8 and the A7, this new two-row crossover is Audi's loudest visual statement, serving as the automaker's first foray into the lucrative SUV "coupe" segment.

Even under a thick coat of desert dust, the Q8's design is handsome. All at once, it's a sharpened-up Q7 and a dressed-down Lamborghini Urus, riding on the same VW Group MLB platform and blending the arched-back profile of the Lambo neatly with the reserved and clean-cut lines of the wagon-esque Q7. Compared to the Q7, it's shorter by 2.6 inches, wider by 1.1 inches, and lower by 1.5-inches.

Before Audi's entrance, this SUV "coupe" segment was an odd one, occupied by ungainly, bulbous designs that rode a little too close to the automotive uncanny valley. Eschewing the soap-bar butts found on the Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe and the BMW X6, the Q8's derriere boasts a rakish interpretation of the traditional SUV shape, making good use of the rear greenhouse buttresses and pillarless windows.

According to the design team, this is a deliberate departure. Now, instead of being pigeonholed into the "coupe" category, the Q8 rightfully squares off against stylish mainstays from the more angular crowd. In the U.S., expect it to lock headlights with the Range Rover Sport and Porsche Cayenne—the latter also a platform-mate.

Still, there's a lot to unpack here. Portions of the Q8 were shockingly inspired by the Audi Quattro Sport from Group B fame—yeah, that one. Chalk it up to a mixture of dinnertime pisco sours and heady elevation, but I can see it, if only just. Homage to the Ur-Quattro can be found in the flat fender protrusions and the C-pillar, along with the skinny black strip that bridges the taillights.

When the Q8 finishes its Patagonian tour and makes landfall on our shores, U.S. buyers will be offered just one engine: Audi's fresh 3.0-liter single-turbo V-6, which routs a healthy 335 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque to all-four-wheels through the ever-excellent Quattro AWD system and a ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic transmission, offering a standard 40:60 split front-to-rear, with a center diff sending up to 70 percent of maximum torque to the front and 85 percent to the rear. Taking a page from the all-new 2019 Audi A6, the Q8 packs a 48-volt mild hybrid system as standard, incorporating a lithium-ion battery that sends power to a belt alternator starter and scavenges up to 12 kW of power during braking. Elsewhere, this system allows the Q8 to cruise (or "sail") with the engine off between 34 and 99 mph, cranking the engine when throttle is applied. Based on previous experience, Audi doesn't think this tech is America-ready, so the "sail" functionality is left behind for a simple start/stop system that's noticeably smoother than traditional, non-electrified setups.

Given the Atacama's punishing aridness and rocky hostility, it's no surprise portions of the desert are routinely used for testing Mars-bound apparatus. As the line of blatantly modern Q8s trundled through the hard-packed dirt roads of San Pedro de Atacama, squeezing through tight corridors lined with adobe structures, it was hard to feel anything but Martian. Even in a region as well-trafficked as this, the four rings are not a common sight, the locals relying more on a conglomerate of charming Mahindra trucklets, Ford F-150s, and Nissan Navaras than anything remotely resembling our Teutonic UFOs.

Free of downtown San Pedro, highway 23—or ruta 23—stretched ahead into the horizon. Not entirely dissimilar from the desert routes of Nevada, there wasn't much topography to see (or run into) aside from a few protruding rocks. Nonetheless, an alarming number of colorful and carefully constructed memorials called animitas dotted the roadside. The more cheerful animitas contained smiling portraits, bottles of wine, and flowers in a small shrine, while more somber examples featured the victim's mangled and twisted vehicle mounted on a plinth.

As we continued our climb into the Andes, sand and rock was replaced with snow and the shrines replaced with adorable alpaca-esque vicuñas. These are the winter months in the Southern Hemisphere, so the temperature began to drop to the low 30s, but even softest SoCal individuals among us weren't worried. Awash in the requisite leather, metal, and wood surfaces, the Q8 feels every bit of its range-topping position. Its is decked out with the same level of opulence as the A6 and A8, incorporating the fetching bi-level touch screen setup of the center stack found in other recently launched Audis.

The 10.1-inch screen on top handles traditional infotainment duties, including navigation, media, and vehicle settings. Below, a full-size 8.6-inch touchscreen manages climate controls and one-touch toggles for auto start/stop, defrosters, and lane departure. The screens incorporate haptic feedback, returning a satisfying click with each press. Audi's exceptionally handsome Digital Cockpit is here too, providing an eyes-up way to display maps, media, and driving assists.

For a moment, our altimeters pegged at just under 14,000 feet as we reached the summit of a rather large hill. We ventured into shallow snow, hopping out of the cabin only for a group photo before heading down the other side of the slope. Now, the smooth tarmac sluiced through snow-covered valleys, requiring a firm foot on the throttle and setting both the transmission and chassis to Dynamic. Our S-Line Q8 rode on a sport-tuned adaptive air suspension, allowing the driver to cycle through comfort, auto, dynamic, and off-road settings. It's not an SQ5, but it hustled through dirt and tarmac with more than enough confidence.

If you ever expect to take your Q8 on a challenging road, the optional rear-wheel-steering system is a must. With it on board, turn-in at-speed is exceedingly quick and low-speed maneuvers reuire less effort, especially around the blind jackknife corners in downtown San Pedro. Even loaded with four passengers at 14,000 feet, the 3.0-liter pulled strong with smooth shifts. Expect a 0-60 mph sprint somewhere in the low six-second range, with a top speed near 150 mph. Want more? Wait for the inevitable SQ8 for extra power and corner carving ability.

Eventually, paved roads gave way to rocky canyon paths as we tested the Q8's offroad prowess. Hill descent control, when combined with the suspension raised to off-road mode gave the big crossover the legs to scramble up dusty ruts with relative ease. Don't expect to stage a full-scale Patagonia expedition, but it's nice to know even the glamorous Q8 can play in the dirt when needed.

Nine hours and hundreds of kilometers later, we're back in San Pedro. The once-shiny Q8s are moved to an industrial-strength detail area where a day's worth of dust is washed off and the pebble-filled interiors are vacuumed out. The air is thicker here, clearing altitude lightheadedness and giving me a better chance to think about Audi's newest star.

I'm still not convinced that SUV "coupes" are anything beyond cynical cash grabs. They're uglier, more expensive, and often less practical than their traditional semi-boxy counterparts. They're unnecessary automotive effluvia, contributing more to model confusion and lazy, compromised design trends than actually advancing the conversation. Thus far, I'm happy to admit the Q8 has proven to be the lone exception to this hateful trend, built from smart design on an excellent platform. It's got oodles of usable interior space thanks to the absent third-row, especially for rear passengers, and offers an unmatched level of tech. For buyers who have no use for a three-row SUV but still want something with impeccable curb appeal that's quite sizeable and stylish, the 2019 Audi Q8 is as good as it gets this side of a Lamborghini Urus or Bentley Bentayga.

2019 Audi Q8 Specifications

ON SALE Late 2018
ENGINE 3.0L turbocharged DOHC 24-valve V-6/335 hp, 369 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
L x W x H 196.2 x 78.5 x 67.1 in
WHEELBASE 117.9 in
WEIGHT 4,728 lb (European-spec diesel)
0-60 MPH 6.2 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 150 mph (est)