Doesn’t offer as much pace or fun-factor as some in the class, but does technology, dynamic versatility, refinement and cruising range better than most.

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This is Audi Sport’s first performance version of the company’s range-topping SUV, the Audi Q8. Like the firm’s other recent S-brand additions, the SQ8 TDI is diesel only. In fact, it adopts the same 4.0-litre, 429bhp V8 diesel engine as served in the related Audi SQ7 which first appeared a couple of years ago, and which is soon to return to showrooms along with the rest of the facelifted Q7 range.

Such news might come as a disappointment if you were expecting combustive fireworks to rival a Range Rover Sport SVR or Porsche Cayenne Turbo. But then – as Audi insiders still won’t officially confirm, if only for fear of a disciplinary I suspect – there’s sure to be an even more angry and powerful RS Q8 along later to answer that need, as pressing as it undoubtedly is.

Power delivery is always smooth and quite cultured, but leaves just a little bit to be desired on high-range potency and on outright linearity

This car, Audi claims, is designed to compete with the fast diesel versions of the BMW X6 and Range Rover Sport, and Mercedes’ lower-order AMG-branded GLE Coupe. It’s a fast luxury 4x4 for those who like putting 400 miles between fuelling stops as much as putting big speeds on the head-up display, then. And, in cars where you generally get so much of absolutely everything, why wouldn’t you want to maximise your brim-to-brim touring range as well?

The mechanicals of the SQ8 TDI’s suspension and driveline don’t materially differ from those of the SQ7, either. Buy the car in top-of-the-line ‘Vorsprung’ trim (as we tested it) and you’ll be getting a car with Audi’s habitual centre-diff-based Torsen four-wheel-drive setup; four-wheel steering; sports-tuned adaptive air suspension with adaptive damping; active anti-roll bars; and an actively locking ‘sport’ rear differential. Which is plenty of ultra sophisticated chassis tech to be getting on with, it seems to me – although, as we’ll get on to, the complexity of so many active systems is woven into the SQ8’s driving experience with no small amount of care.

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Most of what actually separates the driving experience of the SQ8 from that of its boxier brother, then, is the software tuning of those systems. “We’ve been able to put bigger wheels and tyres on this car than the SQ7 has, and increase lateral suspension stiffness a bit, because there’s less roof load capacity to worry about – and so we don’t have to mitigate against such a high risk of rollover,” explained an Audi chassis engineer. “Other than that, there are only a handful of components that differ.”  

What makes the SQ8 stand out from the standard car?

The SQ8 TDI has the ability to switch between surprising handling agility and no little amount of driver engagement to luxurious, refined touring comfort that has become the hallmark of the modern fast Audi these past few years. That’s the short version.

The longer one starts by acknowledging a subtle but effective design makeover that might even make this car capable of operating under the radar at times. I appreciate how absurd that idea may seem, but bear with me. You get a wider, chromier grille surround for your money than on a regular Q8, as well as the silvered door mirror caps that traditionally mark out Audi ‘S’ cars; and there are unique alloy wheel designs and a quad pipe exhaust. Vorsprung-spec cars swap much of the regular SQ8’s shinier body trim for gloss black dressing. But that’s about it.

The SQ8 TDI’s cabin differs from that of an S Line-spec Q8 only in the details, but that means it remains a very agreeable, comfortable and technologically rich place in which to travel. Slightly punchier two-tone colour combinations of leather are offered; there’s a new glossy carbonfibre trim inlay; and Audi has designed a special ‘S-specific’ display mode for the Virtual Cockpit digital instrument screen, which makes a change at least but isn’t as easy to read as the familiar pairing of analogue rev-counter and speedo. Thankfully, you can switch back to the standard theme if you prefer.

Taller adults can sit in the second row in comfort. The boot capacity exceeds 600 litres, so you’re seldom likely to fill it. The only limiting factor to the car’s practicality, really, is a middle second-row seat that’s narrow and wouldn’t be nearly as comfy as any of the rest. But then if you need transport for more than four, you wouldn’t have very far to look to find the seven-seat SQ7 parked adjacent in the Audi showroom.

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The SQ8’s driving position is first rate, its seat excellent and its control ergonomics likewise. Audi has moved away from fitting flat-bottomed steering wheels in cars like this – not so much because of the resistance to them recorded so often on this website, apparently, but because it asked ‘S’ and ‘RS’ customers and found they didn’t much like them either. Thanks for listening, guys. Visibility isn’t quite as clear or commanding as in some luxury SUVs, but is good enough to recommend the car to those who don’t particularly like sitting low to the ground and feel safer when lifted above the melee of modern traffic flow.

How does the SQ8 perform on the road?

The SQ8’s air suspension is capable adjusting ride height through 90mm of travel between its lowest and highest settings, and of ramping up ground clearance to a pretty serious 245mm. That fact, combined with those clever anti-roll bars and the proper, centre-diff based four-wheel drive, ought to make the car pretty capable off road. Even so, I suspect you’ll be far more likely to spot one in Zermat or Courchevel in February, with skis clipped to its roof, than in the Lake District in May towing a caravan out of a boggy field.

Audi’s test route didn’t allow us to evaluate the car off the Tarmac, but it’d be safe to assume that it’d go better on a really slippery surface than rival with a clutch-based ‘hang-on’ four-wheel-drive system. The car’s diesel powertrain gives it plenty of torque from low revs, and the torque converter gearbox would make careful low-speed progress very controllable.

That engine has real versatility of character, too, being refined, relaxing, long-striding and well capable of 35mpg when you want it to be – but taking on greater responsiveness and aural drama when you select ‘dynamic’ driving mode. Audi fits speakers both inside the diesel’s exhaust itself and inside the cabin to digitally enrich the V8’s sound. You’d imagine doing that on a big diesel would result in a particularly contrived and synthetic result. Well, not really. The V8 just sounds sweeter and more tuneful than you expect it to, but isn’t dialed up to ridiculous volumes or made to seem unnatural on the ear.

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The car’s power delivery is always smooth and quite cultured, but leaves just a little bit to be desired on high-range potency and on outright linearity. Torque arrives in stages when you lock the engine in a high gear and flatten the accelerator. Low-rpm response is respectable, but you don’t begin to get peak twist until the car’s bigger turbo comes on stream just under 3000rpm; not that it wakes up in any way suddenly, though it creates a surge in the car’s acceleration rate big enough to notice.

Above 3500rpm, meanwhile, there’s a gentle tailing off of your rate of gain when what you’d want, for maximum dramatic effect, would be a crescendo building to the redline. Diesels don’t really do crescendos, of course; never have. And as long as you’re prepared for that, you’re unlikely to quibble too hard with what the SQ8’s motor offers.

The car’s ride and handling mirrors the adaptability of the powertrain. The adaptive suspension stops well short of loping along in ‘comfort’, but it still rides very well indeed when you consider how good the car’s body control is, how strong its grip level and how keenly it can change direction in ‘dynamic’. You’ll need to switch to‘individual’ driving mode in order to combine a fluent but taut primary ride with nicely weighty, gently feelsome steering and that more rousing digital engine note, because the car’s body control gets a bit short and tetchy in ‘dynamic’ mode and makes a bit of a fuss around town.

Audi’s habitual preference for stability at all times, rather than for particularly delicate or playful cornering balance, becomes apparent when you fully explore the SQ8’s handling; but then the sheer size of cars like this means you really have to pick your moments to engage with it on those terms. The SQ8 fills its lane with little room to spare on most roads, and while it’s no different from any other car of its kind in that respect, that’s often a bigger barrier than anything else to driving it as you might a sports car. 

This feels like the sort of car for someone who’s been around the block with fast SUVs once or twice already. Someone who would value its just-so compromise of pace and space; of cruising range, ride comfort and driver appeal; of offroad capability, onboard technology and luxury; and the status it implies and desirability it reflects, blended with an understated performance aesthetic.

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Those looking for the biggest, loudest, fastest, most exciting or most bombastic luxury 4x4 for the money should probably apply elsewhere. But if you’ve got just the right number of friends, and an Alpine ski chalet at just the right altitude that you like to drive to two or three times a year, it could suit that champagne-and-fondue lifestyle of yours very well indeed.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Audi SQ8

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Audi SQ8 First drives