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Loaded with a host of chassis and driveline tech as standard and improved by an engine of so many qualities, this feels like a new Audi done to a practiced old luxury-car recipe - and done well.

What is it?

The new SQ8 Vorsprung is an appealingly traditional kind of Audi; the kind that reminds you that this company is still world class when it’s using the very best technology at its disposal to make the most accomplished luxury cars that it can. 

Sounds simple enough. The trouble is, when you start making arbitrary rules about the kinds of engines that your lower-order performance cars should have, or branching out into vital developing areas of the market (like electric cars), you can often make life hard for yourself by ruling out the most direct route to ‘vorsprung durch technik’.

Rules are made to be broken, luckily; and even when Audi first set out to switch so many of its ‘S’-badged performance models from petrol- to diesel engines back in 2019 in order to drive down the emissions burden they place on the company’s fleet CO2 average, it made exceptions. The S8, S3, SQ2 and TT S have remained petrol-engined options all along. Now, as Audi introduces both to the North American market, the SQ7 and SQ8 performance SUVs have switched from diesel to petrol.

What's it like?

For the SQ8, that means swapping a 429bhp 4.0-litre hybridised turbodiesel V8 for the VW Group’s Porsche-designed ‘EA825’ 4.0-litre turbo petrol V8. In its various states of tune, this engine powers so many Bentleys and Porsches, the odd Lamborghini and even some of Audi’s faster RS models. In the SQ8 it makes a slightly detuned but still very hearty 500bhp; it causes the car’s 0-62mph dash tumble from 4.8- to 4.1sec; but also makes WLTP lab-test fuel economy tumble from 36.2mpg to 22.1-.

Clearly there will be some owners who were well-served by an SQ8 TDI who won’t be quite as well-served in every way by an SQ8 TFSI. Even so, Audi claims that most of the recent growth at the upper end of the luxury SUV market has been fuelled by petrol engines; and you can’t imagine too many people who can afford a car like this caring too much whether it does a real-world 20- or 28mpg - especially if having the former happens to bring certain other advantages for the car with it, which it undoubtedly does in this case.

This is a fine petrol engine. It can change from super-refined, through rich and mellifluous, to become growlingly, distantly menacing as you cycle through the drive modes. It’s got great throttle response, revs keenly, and it develops more than enough grunt to keep life interesting in any 2.3-tonne luxury SUV. Drive in dynamic mode and the slightly brusque-feeling paddleshift manual upshifts delivered by the gearbox are the only way in which any part of the SQ8’s new powertrain ever comes close to attracting your ire. 

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The car’s handling is a pretty good match for the character of the engine; it’s very effective in so many different ways, although super-capable, filtered-feeling and somewhat aloof rather than entirely involving. The car will cruise in limo-like comfort; but it can also claw its way around slippery corners as level, fast, and securely locked onto its line as a four-wheel drive hot hatchback when you want it to.

The top of the line Vorsprung version gives you height-adjustable adaptively damped air suspension, mechanically torque-vectored four-wheel drive, four-wheel steering and active anti-roll bars all as standard. There isn’t a single version of the Bentley Bentayga that can match that roster of chassis and drivetrain tech, and if you want a Porsche Cayenne to the same mechanical specification it’ll cost you a hefty chunk of change more. 

In a car that feels like a traditional Audi that’s really loaded with technology, those systems combine to give the SQ8 really impressive dynamic adaptability and lots of luxury appeal. You might not be able to perceive all them working, but that’s entirely the point: Audi’s aiming for a masterly, all-encompassing kind of dynamic competence here that makes the car seem effortlessly superior, and entirely on top of its own game however you choose to operate it. 

The majority of the time the SQ8 hits that target pretty well. The car’s dynamic mode suspension settings can be too short and firm for ideal vertical body control on lumpy backroads, and its 22in rims can very occasionally make their mass felt in the low-speed ride even in comfort driving mode.

Personally, I’d have preferred slightly lighter and more delicate steering when the car is hunkering down and cornering hard, when the rim can feel slightly leaden and numb - but it very seldom fails to make the car grip and change direction in any case.

The rest of the SQ8’s luxury-car package is as complete as it was before: which is to say, very much so. Despite that gently descending roofline it’s got plenty of room in the second row and the boot, while the cabin both looks and feels lavishly expensive and is brimming with digital technology.

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Upper-trim-level cars come with a blacked-out grille and door mirrors which won’t appeal to everyone and won’t work with every body colour; but they did seem to suit our bright metallic test car quite well, making it stand out in traffic and lending it plenty of visual presence.

Should I buy one?

If you’re comfortable with the idea of the modern SUV as both your default-pick luxury car and go-to status symbol, and if your personal tastes are well catered to by bold, assertive, sharp-edged styling, high-definition digital graphics, and a slightly detached- but still rich- and accomplished-feeling driving experience, you should. Especially now.

The SQ8 already had strong luxury credentials even with a diesel V8 two years ago, but now it’s got even more of them. As Ingolstadt moves away from combustion engines and further into the electric arena, it won’t be easy to continue to make cars with such a clear sense of technical superiority and dynamic versatility as this.

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chocolater 4 July 2021

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