Audi has extended its crossover line-up with the launch of the new Q8 flagship model – Motormouth puts Ingolstadt’s 2019 SUV to the test way up above the clouds…
I found a place where man and machine come together. Where they share something in common: oxygen – and the lack of it, which had the same effect on both of us.
While driving the new Audi Q8 in the Atacama Desert on the edge of the Andes in Chile, we pulled over by the roadside to take in the stunning scenery at 4,520m above sea level.
I got out of the car and took in yet more water as we were warned about the dangers of dehydration even if it didn’t feel like it. Leaning against the big Audi, its thermo fans were sucking in copious amounts of air to cool the 3.0-litre, diesel V6 and its two turbochargers.
We were like a double act as I was doing the same, taking in as much oxygen as I could, not as if I’d just completed a marathon, but more like a strenuous walk up a few flights of stairs, and that’s from just walking to the front of the car.
Up there both car and human perform at just 57 percent of their capacity and as I’d watched the world famous Pikes Peak hillclimb race not long before from Colorado where they race with oxygen masks, I realised that we were actually higher up in the Audi than the Pikes Peak finish line.
I felt somewhat justified in my heavy breathing as should our showroom stock Q8 as the Atacama Desert is a hostile place to launch a luxury car like this. With a 30 per cent loss of power due solely to the thin air, the engine’s radiators and intercoolers have to work hard to stop a car from overheating up there despite the near zero temperatures.
From our vantage point, we looked across to a mountain not far up the road which was in fact a volcano and marked the border with Bolivia. It seemed like an easy drive given what we’d just achieved until we were told that it was another 900 metres higher.
It still seemed easy. What’s another 900 metres now? Up there, it’s a lot because 5,500 metres marks the halfway point in the atmosphere, the Troposphere to give it it’s correct term, and it’s not habitable by humans for any length of time.
As our preparation consisted of little more than a jacket, some drinks and a charged phone, this was turning into quite a morning drive and testament to the faith we had in the Audi Q8’s reliability to not leave us stranded should anything go wrong. Of course we were in the hands of experts, but it makes you wonder nonetheless how modern cars like the Q8 have been engineered to such a degree that we can drive literally from the showroom to the edge of civilisation without a second’s thought.
As is usual for drive programs, we travel two up and in this case, I opted to let my colleague take the opening stint while I perused the car’s incredibly slick interior without paying too much attention to where we were going. I also didn’t realise that my colleague was extracting the most from the engine by keeping it in Sport mode and changing gears with the paddles to maintain momentum, yet it didn’t seem that steep.
However, the second I stepped from the car at our driver change-over high up in the hills, my head went light and fuzzy, there was a slight imbalance under foot and what I feared were the early stages of a headache confirmed that we were simply at a ridiculously high altitude.
My first time behind the wheel was at 3,500 metres and thanks to the thin air, it felt as if the car’s turbos weren’t connected to anything. I slipped it back into Sport to get some extra response as there was still some serious altitude ahead we needed to conquer.
Our off-roading experience consisted of light gravel, snow and river crossings. Its power deficit from the atmosphere was compensated by a 48-volt mild hybrid system that generates 12kW of energy stored in a lithium-ion battery. This helps it to cruise from 55km/h to 160km/h with the engine switched off as well as power an upgraded stop-start system which cuts the V6 from 22km/h.
There are three suspension options, all with adaptive dampers from the base coil springs to air and sports air. The air models are self-leveling and provided us with the extra ground clearance we needed.
Seven drive modes cover the full spectrum of off-road and on-road conditions running through the Q8’s eight-speed transmission but we focused on All-Road and Off-Road mainly to make use of the 254mm variable ride height from the air suspension, and kept it in Sport on road using the manual paddle shifters.
Inside of course, you wouldn’t know as the four-zone climate-control regulated the environment to perfection. As expected, the Q8 gets the increasingly familiar 12.3-inch screen that’s now on nearly all Audis and can be configured to display a number of different items while Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are also built-in.
It also houses an additional 10.1-inch screen for infotainment on top of an 8.6-inch screen for air conditioning controls. Both include haptic feedback that sends a small pulse back through you finger so that it feels like a button, but in terms of keeping your eyes on the road, it’s still never as good as the real thing.
The Q8’s swoopy roofline and five seat capacity tricks you into thinking its competitors are the BMW X6, Mercedes GLE Coupe or even Range Rover’s Velar but in reality, as it’s the flagship, its rivals are closer to the Mercedes GLS and BMW’s upcoming X7 or even X8.
The technology on offer with the Q8 effectively mirrors the A8 with the exclusion of Level Three autonomy
Driving along the same rough clay, potholed roads in our hotel shuttle cars and then the Q8 the next day, showed the difference a good air suspension package can provide.
Once we were back down to 2,500 metres at the end of the day and into the denser, more horsepower-friendly air, it was like someone had added two extra cylinders and normal power was resumed. The difference just from the air density was remarkable.
At just under five metres long, the Q8 is a bit shorter than the Q7, though marginally wider and shares the now familiar platform with the Bentley Bentayga and Lamborghini Urus where its likeness can be seen across the rear, in the C-Pillar and through its use of pillarless doors and four-wheel steering.
The design team excelled with interior space given its four-door coupe profile. There’s plenty of headroom even in the rear which is partly due to the pillarless doors – aside from style, having the double-glazed glass not housed in door pillars meant the design team could extend the roof panel right to the outer edges. Rear legroom is outstanding and even with the driver’s seat pushed back, I had no trouble fitting behind the seat.
The Q8 debuts Audi’s bold octagonal grille for the Q range and gives the off-roader a much-needed aggressive look that has been missing from the Q range. It also introduces blistered guards which the team tried to link back to the original ur-Quattro from the 1980s though it’s a tenuous bridge at best.
The technology on offer with the Q8 effectively mirrors the A8 with the exclusion of Level Three autonomy. Available features include adaptive cruise control with traffic jam assist, 360-degree camera with panoramic sensors, self-parking and a kerb warning system.
The first to market will be the three-litre, V6 50 TDI diesel that pumps out 286bhp and 600Nm, followed by the 45 TDI which has the same engine configuration but with a more frugal 231bhp and 500Nm. The petrol 340bhp, 500Nm Q8 55 TFSI will arrive later and all come with the eight-speed auto as standard.
All versions will arrive sometime next year with prices yet to be announced.
2018 Audi Q8
3.0-litre, twin turbo V6 diesel | eight-speed automatic, all-whee drive | 286bhp @ 3,500rpm and 600Nm @ 2,250rpm | 0-100km/h in 6.3 seconds and a top speed of 245km/h | Price NA