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.
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.