When BMW introduced its polarising X6 in 2007, many said the curiously coupe-profiled large SUV would be a flop, but it wasn’t. In the ensuing years many mainstream brands have subsequently been scrambling to offer more elegant high-riders as styling scaled the list of customer priorities.
Mercedes returned fire with its GLE Coupe but Audi has been awkwardly standing on the sidelines watching its rivals enjoy the attention - until now.
Read next: 2019 Audi Q8 revealed
With a single variant – the 55 TFSI – introducing the model to Australia with a $128,900 asking price, the Q8 is not at the affordable end of the large SUV spectrum. However, Audi has bundled a significant amount of kit as standard fare.
Extensive touchscreen functionality, cutting-edge driver assistance systems and many luxury features are borrowed from its A8 limo sibling, but the Q8 adds to that with clever off-road enhancements and styling that is arguably more handsome than any Audi SUV before it.
Despite that lengthy honour list, the Q8 is $63,000 cheaper than the most affordable A8. In that context, Q8 customers are getting a lot for their cash. The Q7, which shares a dose of the Q8’s oily bits kicks off from $97,000, but the options list exercise to match Q8 standard kit would be a pricey route to go down.
For those customers on a tighter ownership budget, a Q8 50 TDI will arrive mid-2019 offering a more frugal version with exactly the same specification and price. Its 3.0-litre diesel V6 is the only difference.
Until the diesel arrives, the Q8 is powered exclusively by a 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 petrol, which develops 250kW and 550Nm. It sends power to all four wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission and adaptive dampers, combined with steel spring suspension which is also standard.
Boosting fuel economy and performance when needed, the Q8 drivetrain incorporates a 48-volt electrical system. A belt-driven generator recovers otherwise wasted energy from the engine and stores it in a small battery, but then returns power to the motor when full acceleration is required. Audi says the system saves up to 0.7 litres of fuel per 100km and official WLTP fuel consumption is rated at 9.2L/100km.
The Q8 has the most premium seating in the large SUV line-up with Valcona leather sports seats with the most extensive adjustment included in the price, while Q7 customers are asked extra for the enhancement. Unlike the seven-seat Q7 however, the Q8 is strictly a five-seat proposition.
Other notable standard kit includes smart 21-inch wheels, an S line styling pack that adds a dusting of sporty equipment and is an optional extra on many lesser Audi models, electric tailgate and full LED headlights.
Dwelling at the larger end of the SUV segment, the Q8 roughly shares its overall size with the Q7 but has undergone a nip and tuck for more sporty and purposeful proportions.
At nearly five metres long, 2.0 metres wide and 1.7 metres tall, the Q8 is a little wider, shorter and sits lower than the Q7 but has an identical wheelbase of 3.0 metres.
Inside there is room for five adults and plenty of luggage with a 606-litre booth that can expand another 75 litres by sliding the second row of seats forward. If that’s still not enough, the 40:20:40 split rear seats can fold flat, boosting total luggage volume to 1755 litres – pretty cavernous considering its lower roofline.
If the Q8’s proportions seem a little daunting for negotiating tighter parking spots or narrow alleys, the excellent manoeuvring assistance systems will be a welcome feature. Not only are there parking sensors all round, but a 360-degree camera allows a clever 3D image of the vehicle to be manipulated via the MMI touch response screen. There’s also automatic parking assistance.
At the wheel, the Q8 feels smaller than its exterior appearance but its cabin is spacious and light-filled.
As you might expect from the flagship of Audi’s SUV range, the Q8 is packed with electronic systems, including a plethora of active safety tech.
Previously Audi has introduced a cyclist protection system which detects approaching cyclists and issues a visual warning if an occupant tries to exit the vehicle, but the system has now been enhanced for the Q8 and actually delays the door handle operation, physically preventing the door being opened into the cyclist’s path. In an emergency, the effect can be overridden by pulling the handle beyond the regular unlatch point.
There’s also the usual selection of head-up display, driver fatigue monitoring, lane departure, speed sign recognition and blind spot monitoring tech as well as airbags for all occupants and a safety cell comprised mostly of aluminium.
Increasingly-common adaptive cruise control and autonomous emergency braking are included, allowing the Q8 to control its own speed and distance from other vehicles at freeway speeds and right down to stop-and-start congestion.
Read next: 2017 Audi Q7 Review
Order a Q8 straight off the shelf and it will arrive rolling on steel coil springs with adaptive dampers, but if you really want the best in ride quality and driving dynamics, you’ll have to upgrade to the optional air suspension.
Unfortunately, the more sophisticated chassis is only available as part of an $11,000 Premium plus package, which bundles a heap of other goodies. The pack is good value if you are after all that it includes but if you only wanted the better suspension system, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
Driving on standard springs is not an unpleasant experience with a ride and body control that still allows a rewarding driving experience and decent comfort enhanced by the adaptive dampers. But once you have experienced the superior comfort and resistance to body roll of the Sport air suspension setting, it would be almost impossible to not tick the $11k option box.
Despite the more elegant roofline, rear seat headroom is still more than adequate for tall occupants although obviously not quite as generous as the Q7, and the two spacious outboard seats are suitable for extended journeys. With less support and a slightly elevated position, the central seat is best used for shorter trips.
As is common to all Audis, the interior quality is top notch with numerous examples of well thought out ergonomics and comfort features. We particularly liked the rear climate control panel, wireless device charging and customisable touchscreen displays with haptic feedback.
Read next: Charging Ahead: Audi E-Tron at Pikes Peak
ON THE ROAD (and off)
In accordance with Audi’s new boot badge nomenclature, the Q8 wears a 55 TFSI moniker which alludes to its 250kW power output. Combined with 500Nm of torque and an electric boost from a mild hybrid system, the luxo SUV is brisk when you need it to be and effortlessly mute the rest of the time.
On-road manners are doubtless geared more towards a cosseting ride and comfort without encouraging the driver to stretch its legs. There’s still plenty to praise when pushing through a few bends at speed, but we’ll wait for an unconfirmed S or even RS variant before we attempt any lap times.
With the multitude of driving modes, we found the Q8’s nature was at its best left in the standard Auto setting and allowed a neutral feel for both comfortable cruising and carving the odd corner if it surprised us.
The engine’s hybridisation is about as mild as an electrified system gets but the effect is excellent. From the almost imperceptible engine start up to the extra dose of acceleration at all speeds, the 48-volt system is a subtle but welcome addition and we would love to see a full plug in hybrid joining the line-up.
We didn’t have a chance to test its all-terrain ability to the limit but a blast on unsealed roads hinted at a confidence we would like to revisit and explore at a later date. Flicking the drive select mode to Off Road was perhaps overkill for a little light gravel, with excessively light steering and jacked-up ground clearance, but we can see the benefit for tackling more challenging surfaces.
More road-focused 22-inch tyres will not thank you for taking the Q8 too far off the beaten track, however, and we would recommend the standard 21s with a little more side-wall if you intend to frequently go bush.
On first inspection $128,900 might seem like a lot to outlay for an entry-level SUV, even if it is from a premium brand like Audi. Perhaps an SQ8 or RS Q8 could warrant a heftier ticket without as much questioning?
But, as the new champion of the four-ringed SUV line-up, the Q8 is not a budget or bargain basement way into the brand. Instead, it sidesteps affordable, stripped-out variants and offers just one equipment-rich representative.
Its driving promise is not in the realm of Audi Sport models but nor is it trying to be, and owners will be drawn to the ride quality and respectable dynamics which manage to be subtle but not anodyne.
In the context of other Audi range-topping models, and when viewed alongside its rivals in the increasingly competitive market of coupe-profiled SUVs, the Q8’s value is as attractive as it’s handsome sheetmetal.