TELLURIDE, Colorado—Here’s the thing about the Audi Q8: You don’t need to drive it to understand it. Indeed, all I really needed to know hit me when I first saw one pull around a corner. This is arguably one of the best-looking vehicles Audi has ever made; it’s sharp, futuristic, and sexy, and it makes Audi’s other SUVs look downright matronly. I’m not sure the full effect translates to photographs, but seen in person—and in motion—this is a terrific-looking SUV. (Of course, I did drive it, more on which in a moment.)
The Q8 is Audi’s answer to SUV “coupes” like the Mercedes-Benz GLE-class Coupe and BMW’s X6, over which it possesses one key advantage in that it isn’t useless. The competing swoopy-utes sacrifice back-seat headroom and ease of entry to the point that you could weld their back doors shut and not have much of an effect their real-world utility. The Q8, on the other hand, invokes the mandate of WWII-era Chrysler president K. T. Keller: “We build cars to sit in, not piss over.”
The visual delights continued well past my initial impression. The front end of the Q8 integrates headlights, bumper, and grille in what Audi calls a mask, which I think looks best in body color. (The limited-edition Year One package blacks out the grille surround and roof rails, and in my opinion spoils the effect.) And the doors are frameless, just like the A7—a real surprise in an SUV. (Yes, yes, I know about the Tesla Model X. Still.)
If you like the look outside, you’ll love it inside, where the Q8 features the latest two-screen iteration of MMI as seen in other recent Audis. Differences in trim and a “monovent” on the upper section of the dash set it apart from the mechanically similar Q7 and other recent Audi designs. The Q8’s dash has been designed to optimize the black-out effect so that it looks like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey when the ignition is shut off. Perhaps someday we’ll chuckle at the quaintness of this, as we do today at the square steering wheels in ’60s-era Chryslers, but for now, it simply looks cool.
Actually using that interior—well, that’s another story. I’m personally not a big fan of Audi’s new dual-screen setup; I actually prefer the climate controls in its A4/S4 and A5/S5 models, which use real switches and displays that react when you reach for the controls. Audi’s new MMI looks cool, and basics like temperature and fan adjustment are simple enough, but other functions are buried in menus and it’s difficult to tell whether said menu will appear on the upper or lower screen. When I wanted the steering-wheel heat turned off, I didn’t even bother to try; I delegated the assignment to my co-driver, and even with no road on which to concentrate, it took him a minute or two to figure it out. (Admittedly owners are likely to learn where their most-used functions lie, and the system is customizable.)
But then there’s the Virtual Cockpit, which projects a photo-realistic map right in front of the driver, between digitally-rendered gauges. All is forgiven.
Our drive was a notable departure from the usual press-junket fodder: Audi sent us on a lengthy road trip through Utah and Colorado in the dead of winter, where the predominant road surfaces were snow, ice and dirt, and Audi fitted snow tires to augment the surefootedness we’ve come to expect from Quattro all-wheel drive. In these days of ubiquitous AWD, it’s hard to remember what a novelty Quattro was when it first appeared, Still, we know that even today not all such systems are created equal and we were impressed by how well the Q8 handled those unpaved surfaces.
We started our journey in Salt Lake City, some 4,200 feet above sea level, overnighting in Gateway, Colorado, at 4,600 feet, then climbing to 8,750 feet for our last night in Telluride, Colorado. We know the Q8’s 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6 (here tuned for 335 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque) to be a strong puller, but turbocharging notwithstanding, these altitudes will sap the power of any engine. I was impressed with the pull, but I’m eager to try the Q8 back home at sea level in Los Angeles to see what it can really do.
With conditions that were far from ideal, I found the Q8 to be a fantastic foul-weather road-tripper. I enjoyed the majestic views through the standard-fitment panoramic sunroof—not to mention the superior over-the-shoulder visibility compared to the X6 and GLE Coupe—and the composed ride of the optional air suspension eased fatigue. The cabin remained impressively quiet even with the extra noise of the snow crunching under the winter tires. And when conversation dwindled, the 17-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system kept me duly entertained. (And it’s the lesser of two B&O systems offered on the Q8; there’s also a 23-speaker, 1,920-watt setup.)
But what impressed me most about the Q8 was what was behind me: a usable back seat and a big, upright cargo bay. The Q8 proves that an SUV can look good without giving up the “U” in “SUV.”
But how long will the Q8 retain its exclusivity? Audi has already said that its other SUVs will adopt the Q8’s front end, and while we’re sure the racy roofline and frameless doors will never make it to the family trucksters, there is a baby version, called Q4, on the way as well. Audi is asking $68,395 for the base-model Q8, and while the long list of standard equipment list makes it a good value compared to the X6 and GLE Coupe, that’s a premium of nearly $14,000 over the larger Q7. The Q8 is relying on its looks to earn that extra fourteen grand, and Audi needs to be careful that the upcoming versions of their SUVs don’t elbow in on the Q8’s territory. Granted, the A7 has managed to remain distinct from other Audi sedans, but that’s a harder trick to pull off with a two-box SUV.
Still, while it’s still fresh and new, I like what the Q8 brings to the table: All the Audi goodness we’ve come to know and love in a package that stands out from the crowd. It has substance, and that alone makes it worth looking at—and we suggest you drive it, too.
2019 Audi Q8 Specifications
|PRICE||$68,395/$79,340 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||3.0L turbocharged DOHC 24-valve V-6; 335 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 369 lb-ft @ 1,370 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||17/22 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||196.6 x 86.2 x 67.2 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.6 sec (mfr)|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph|