First Drive: 2019 Audi Q8

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San Pedro de Atacama, CHILE — Frank Lamberty, the designer who penned the original Audi R8, is in the back seat of the Q8 as we course through the (literally) breathtakingly beautiful Atacama Desert high in the Chilean Andes. He smokes at every stop. He bubbles with enthusiasm and intensity. He calls things as he see them. A design god in my books, Lamberty is also responsible for this latest premium SUV from Audi, one that dives headlong into the lucrative luxury crossover/coupe niche. This is how he frames it.

“Ten years ago a company, which is also in Bavaria called BMW, created a segment that was actually totally senseless. They brought the X6 out. And we asked, ‘what is this now?’ But customers really accepted it. Mercedes caught up with the GLE Coupe, which is kind of a clone. So we said, ‘if we do our own SUV coupe, we have to give it our own identity.’”

The five-seat 2019 Q8 is based on the Q7. It keeps the Q7’s wheelbase, but the Q8 is 44 millimetres lower, has shorter overhangs and gets a wider track. In fact, the Q8 shares this version of the VW/Audi MSB platform with the snorting Lamborghini Urus.

The Q8’s chunky and angular C-pillars are a departure from the smooth, fastback sweep of the BMW and Mercedes-Benz offerings. As Lamberty points out, the forward raked pillars and fender flares get their inspiration from the legendary Audi Sport Quattro rally car. Out back, we see a narrow gloss black element with integrated light bar connecting the taillights. The exhaust tips integrated into the rear diffuser are faux — the real outlets are hidden behind. Full LED headlights are standard, but we won’t get the groovy European matrix technology that steers into corners and eliminates any high beam dazzling of oncoming traffic.

The Q8’s more upright profile makes for greater usability, as it beats the X6 and GLE Coupe in both rear headroom and cargo space. Ah, but is it a real “senseless” SUV/Coupe without that swoopy fastback?

One of the Q8’s more unique features is the “mask” framing the octagonal grill. On base Q8s, it will be body-coloured. Moving up to the S Line begets a titanium grey finish, and if you go for the Black Package it’s gloss black. “That’s really important because it changes the character of the front,” Lambert says. “You can go from sophisticated to more aggressive.”

The most striking Q8 at this launch was an S Line, finished in Dragon Orange and rolling on 22-inch wheels. It actually rivaled the scenery.

Arriving near the end of 2018 and priced above the Q7, all Canadian-spec Q8s with be powered by Audi’s silky 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6, twisting out 340 horsepower and 369 lb.-ft. of torque between 1,370 and 4,500 rpm. It’s hooked to an eight-speed auomatic transmission, and the standard Quattro all-wheel-drive system — with a default 40/60 front/rear torque split — gets the power to the ground. If conditions dictate, the system can send up to 70 per cent of the torque to the front wheels and 85 to the rear.

Helping with efficiency is a 48-volt, mild-hybrid system that incorporates a lithium-ion battery and a belt-driven alternator/starter, aimed at recouping kinetic braking energy and allowing for a seamless coasting feature that sees the V6 decouple and shut down when conditions allow.

Despite the Q8 checking in at a hefty 2,145 kilograms, the V6 delivers a decent turn of speed, even up here in these dizzying altitudes. The transmission is the model of smoothness, and it responds quickly to paddle-shifter inputs. A day of driving had us covering everything from long straights to spaghetti mountain switchbacks, and the Q8 performed as every modern Audi does — with composure, refinement, perceptible aloofness and an overarching sense of quality.

This being the top-dog of the Audi SUV family, the automaker naturally throws everything in the technological arsenal its way. Okay, they save all the third-level autonomous kit for the flagship A8 sedan, but the specimens we evaluated were generously equipped. The Q8 comes standard with 19-inch wheels and a steel-sprung suspension with adaptive dampers, but here we experienced more stylish rolling stock, along with the height-adjustable air suspension that provides a smoother ride, greater dynamic bandwidth, and if a little bit of luxury off-roading is in the cards, a ground clearance of 25.4 millimetres. These cars also had the optional rear-wheel steering that will shave a meter off the turning circle and give greater high-speed stability.

Inside, we see Audi’s all new interior architecture that also arrives in the 2019 A8, A7 and A6. Goodbye twirly knobs, hello haptic touch panels — there’s a lot of digital real estate in here, starting with the impressive 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit that forgoes a tradition gauge cluster for a fully configurable, pin-sharp digital display. The centre console houses two more screens – the upper 10.1-inch screen deals with infotainment while the lower, slightly smaller panel controls vehicle functions with haptic/acoustic touch points. It also acts as a writing tablet for inputting navigation info and the like. Scribble in “fast food” and the Q8 will dutifully bring up a list of the closest artery-clogging establishments with their Yelp ratings. Not here in the Andes, though.

These “black panels” (in Audi-speak) certainly allow for a clean looking interior, but always at the expense of functionality — at least for those of us with opposing thumbs. Finger smudges on glass panels are the new reality, and there were times in the brilliant Chilean sun when said smudges were all I could see.

Okay, I get it. With 39 available driver’s assistance systems, fed by a full 360-degree sensor suite consisting of ultrasonic, short- and long-range range radar, and LIDAR, along with six drive modes, massaging and ventilated seats, a high-end audio system, app suites, the latest connectivity and so on, hard buttons for all are a non-starter. At least we still have a volume knob.

Ultimately, it’s a pretty intuitive system, augmented by voice control and steering wheel mounted controls. And as is expected of Audi, the Q8’s interior is a paragon of quality, trimmable in a variety of woods, metal finishes and various hues of fine leather.

2019 Audi Q8

2019 Audi Q8

A cool feature is the available trailer control that will save much embarrassment (and possibly the odd goose) when backing your Chris Craft at the boat launch. You’ll see a 360-degree, bird’s eye view of the proceedings while the Q8 handles all the tricky steering inputs. All you do is work the gas, and hopefully the brakes. But on this day, there were no boats to be launched. It was just pure driving, and the Q8 showed itself to be an exceptionally well-rounded, and ultimately coddling luxury conveyance that serenely lasered down the highway, showed some respectable athleticism and negotiated a pretty challenging off road coarse.

We hopped out at our last stop of the day that overlooked a deeply crevassed and hauntingly beautiful, Mars-like landscape. Lamberty lit up a cigarette and I asked him about the R8’s iconic side blades, a dramatic feature that sent that beautiful sports car to a new design plateau.

“Ah, the blades,” he said, then tapped his temple and grinned. “The Q8’s front mask is a bit like the R8’s side blades, no? Think about that.”

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