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2020 Audi RS Q8 First Drive: A Compelling Enough 591-HP Alternative to the RS6 Avant Wagon?

The new RS Q8 is an über-SUV that happens to share its engine with the saucy RS6 Avant station wagon.

TENERIFE, Spain—Not so long ago, the very idea of any lumbering SUV having the gall to claim a speed record would have seemed as ridiculous as a V-12-powered airport parking shuttle or a forklift racing series. Here in 2019, there is no more lumbering for SUVs, nor any job description the tall people movers can't aspire to—track performance included. Thus, we have SUVs jostling for on-pavement alpha status like oiled-up heavyweight fighters, and with plenty of fans to argue over who's about to get their ass kicked. The latest brawler to enter this octagon is Audi's RS Q8, a Q8 worked over to deliver a 190-mph, 591-hp right hook at the similarly beefcake Porsche Cayenne Turbo, BMW X5 M, and Mercedes-AMG GLE63.

In August 2019, before our turn behind its wheel, the RS Q8 stormed the German Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit in seven minutes, 42 seconds. However briefly, that smoking 12.9-mile run established the 'Ring record for production SUVs, kneecapping the smaller Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S and Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio by seven seconds and (nearly) 10 seconds. The Q8's record was set by Frank Stippler, the unusually tall, elegant Audi works driver and test engineer whose resume includes a pair of wins at, go figure, the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. His daily driver is an Audi RS4. His featherweight 1970 BMW 2002, he says proudly, can keep up with the latest Audi TT RS—thanks to its M3 engine aboard. So when I ask Stippler what he thought when Audi approached him about running the 'Ring in a roughly 5,100-pound SUV, he admits feeling skeptical and not especially interested.

"I was worried, perhaps, that it would be boring," Stippler says over dinner, a finger pressed thoughtfully to his lips. "But then I saw how the steering was good, and the handling very flat."

Steering good, handling flat? Those are two descriptors that nicely sum up the RS Q8, based on our off-Nürburgring driving impressions gathered in Tenerife, Spain's chill resort in the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa. The feelsome steering is actually better than good, its eager 13.3:1 ratio helping the Audi divebomb corners like an XL-sized sport sedan. The Audi's requisite handling tricks—including electromechanical, 48-volt body roll stabilization, an adaptive air suspension, four-wheel-steering, and optional, Audi-first 23-inch wheels and tires (22s are standard)—made unwinding the death-wish ascent to Tenerife's Mt. Teida a snap. As surreally barren as Mars, only capped with snow, this 12,198-foot volcano is the tallest mountain in Spain. Picture a Pikes Peak run, with a pimentón flavor, and you'll have some idea. Boring? Not on your life, even as the Audi marinates us in luxury, including massaging RS Sport seats wrapped in honeycomb-pattern Valcona leather and a mighty 23-speaker Bang & Olufsen 3D audio system.

Versus a civilian Q8, the RS adds an appropriately baleful grille in a gloss-black honeycomb design, flanked by arrow-shaped air inlets. Front and rear tracks are a skosh wider, as are the fenders wrapping the wide tires at each corner. For the rear bumper, natty trim doglegs over a pair of black, oval tailpipe outlets. Buyers can choose matte aluminum, gloss black, or carbon fiber trim finishes. LED lighting is punctuated by striking, illuminated hash marks on both the headlamps and the animated taillamps. As on the regular Q8, there is a full-width rear lighting strip that is trendy, yet effective at making the Audi easy to spot.

In the cabin, a horizontal, black-glass panel beautifully integrates the Audi Virtual Cockpit digital gauge cluster and the latest MMI Touch center screens. Peering through the flat-bottomed RS steering wheel reveals cool RS displays, including a dogleg-shaped tachometer that flashes green, yellow and red as the V-8 engine approaches its 6,800-rpm redline. As with Mercedes' latest MBUX system, for all the visual wonder, certain functions just don't work as well in screen-based form. Those include the no-button climate controls, which sometimes ignore commands and deliver unsatisfying haptic clicks as you prod the screen. A self-learning navigation system makes suggestions based on previously-driven routes, including stored data on the time of day and traffic density. Audi claims more than 30 driver-assistance systems; forgive us if we don't list them all. The optional Audi Connect key lets up to five people unlock and start the Audi with their Android smartphones, and store up to 400 personal parameters.

Audi's Drive Select drive mode system is one interface we don't mind fiddling with, and on the RS Q8 it expands its repertoire with eight adjustable settings for myriad systems, including an off-road mode. Audi takes a page from BMW with individualized RS1 and RS2 driving profiles, conveniently accessed via a dedicated steering-wheel button.  The RS2 mode further allows drivers to dial up a more-freewheeling ESC Sport mode, and stability control can be fully sidelined.

Pressing the RS2 button is a spicy proposition given how, with a pair of twin-scroll, turbochargers buried between its cylinder banks, the RS Q8's 4.0-liter V-8 generates 591 stirring horses, just 49 fewer than the same engine makes in the Lamborghini Urus. A near-matching 590 pound-feet of torque is yours anywhere from 2,200 to 4,500 rpm. Some fans will inevitably call for the engine's sound to be cranked up to 11, but it's hardly quiet; the optional, black-tipped RS Sport Exhaust option emits plenty of V-8 gruff and chuff without tipping into wearying drone or public obnoxiousness. And whenever we lifted off throttle, the Audi turned deathly, brilliantly silent inside. An eight-speed, paddle-shifted Tiptronic automatic transmission joins a Quattro all-wheel-drive unit that maintains a 40-percent front, 60-percent rear torque split. The AWD system's center planetary gears can boot up to 70 percent of engine power forward, or 85 percent to those gargantuan rear wheels. A standard "sport" rear differential apportions engine torque between the rear wheels, for added bite when exiting corners.

Aiming our Audi expedition up Mt. Teida, the results of the Audi's RS treatment speak forcefully: The RS Q8 pins me in my seat, grips like a 2.5-ton leech, and can lean on its front tires to a ridiculous degree in corners. Squeezing the throttle summons the Quattro all-wheel drive, rear-wheel steering, and that fancy rear differential to sort things out and cannonball the SUV forward, be it in a straight line or out of a corner. Judicious entry speeds are aided by a mammoth braking system largely shared with the Urus and Porsche Cayenne that includes 10-piston front calipers. Carbon-ceramic rotors are optional, measuring 17.3 inches up front, and 14.6 inches rear. (That compares with 16.5 and 14.6 inches for standard steel brake discs.) Those long-lasting ceramics also trim a whopping 75 pounds of unsprung weight, nearly 19 pounds at each corner.

Audi has tuned and tortured the RS Q8 over more than 11,000 miles on the Nürburgring Nordschleife, the equivalent of more than 850(!) laps. While I lament not having been offered even one of those hot laps, Audi driver Stippler says the engineering squad made the (surely) better use of them. The track time directly informed several engineering changes, for both the record-setting lap attempt and for factory models that should reach U.S. showrooms this summer, likely as 2020 models. Tuning for heavier rear-axle torque bias revealed unexpected heat and wear for the bearings and electric anti-roll bars back there, necessitating uprated bearings and additional underbody ducting to route more cooling air to the brakes and rear diff. Stippler says that 'Ring testing also revealed steering fluid starvation under extreme g-forces, which would make the steering's power assist tap out, stiffening up the steering's weight mid-corner. That issue, too, was addressed. The faster you go in the RS Q8, it automatically hunkers down to reduce drag and the SUV's center-of-gravity—above 100 mph, the suspension drops by 1.6 inches—but the full, 3.9-inch bandwidth of ride height was lowered by 0.4 inches across the board during track development.

On 'Ring or off, Audi estimates that the zippy Q8 will catapult to 60 mph in just under 3.8 seconds. We're betting on a real-world zero-to-60-mph time of 3.5 seconds, maybe less. (Audi's 13.7-second estimate for the Q8 reaching 124 mph is similarly likely to turn out bashful.) The SUV's near-supercar, 190-mph top speed will require an optional Dynamic Plus package, which boosts the electronic 155-mph limiter. To maintain some semblance of fuel efficiency (good luck with that) cylinder deactivation and the Volkswagen Group's 48-volt mild-hybrid system enable smooth engine shutdowns at streetlights and in traffic jams while continuing to power vehicle accessories. A starter/generator motor is tied to the engine via the accessory drive belt, and is able to return up to 12 kilowatts to a small lithium-ion battery during regenerative braking. While we're talking practicality, this Q8 is a legit five-passenger SUV, with a maximum 62 cubic feet of storage with its rear seats folded flat, a figure that drops to just 21.5 with those seats raised (versus 37.5 in the roomier Q7).

Having charged up Mt. Teida on our own, we were given the opportunity to ride shotgun with Audi's Stippler in an RS Q8 girded with five-point racing harnesses and a roll cage for the trip back down the mountain. As we hurtled toward the ocean below, straight into ominous clouds that spit some concerning moisture onto the road surface, the RS Q8 did its damnedest to prove that modern SUVs are nothing like those you remember from even ten years ago. To wit, from behind the big Audi's wheel, Stipper sets about proving to me that he's a quicker wheelman when braking the old-fashioned way, using only his right foot. (This author tends to be a committed left-foot braker on downhill plunges in automatic-transmission cars.) The driver knows the ways of left-foot braking, to be sure, having trained his left foot by juggling a soccer ball and even winning one race in ambidextrous style. These are conversations one expects to have in BMW M3s or Acura NSXs, not two-and-a-half-ton crossovers.

The road snaking down the mountainside is barely wide enough for two cars, and its wooden guardrails look as fragile as No. 2 pencils. No matter. Stippler holds the Audi's brakes deep into turns, forcing the Q8's mass onto its front tires at speeds that would leave more primitive SUVs understeering off the cliffs. The front wheels skitter but then bite, as Stippler unwinds the flat-bottomed wheel and slingshots toward the next turn so deftly that I suspect he's flashing back to his 'Ring run. Ausgezeichnet, Herr Stippler!

Free-spending Audi fans may never discuss braking techniques, but can use both feet to run to their nearest dealerships to plunk down the $120,000 or so we suspect the RS Q8 will cost. That is, if those fans don't get caught up in the fierce debate sure to rage amongst car folks like us—that over the RS Q8's relative merits over the slightly less expensive, drop-dead RS6 Avant wagon. Both Audis share the same powertrain. The RS Q8 rides higher and holds a nominal edge in cargo space, but is heavier and not as quick as the RS6.

Broke automotive journalists and station wagon holdouts who've waited a long time for Audi to bring a fast wagon back to the States will argue for the Avant. All 10 of the latter group will buy one. Everyone else, we suspect, will take the RS Q8 and wonder why those wagon weirdos didn't get the memo that one way or another, the SUV always wins in today's marketplace, if not yet on the racetrack.

2020 Audi RS Q8 Specifications
ON SALE Spring 2020
PRICE $120,000 (est. )
ENGINE 4.0L twin-turbocharged DOHC, 32-valve V-8, 591 hp @ 6000 rpm, 590 lb-ft @ 2200 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD wagon
EPA MILEAGE TBD
L x W x H 197.3 x 86.2 x 67.2 in
WHEELBASE 118.0 in
WEIGHT 5,100 lb (est. )
0-60 MPH
3.8 sec
TOP SPEED
155-190 mph
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