Limo meets swoopy SUV in Audi Q8, the brand’s new flagship
THE Atacama desert on the edge of the Andes in Chile is a hostile place to launch a luxury vehicle like the Audi Q8 SUV. At 4520m above sea level, we're higher than the summit of Pikes Peak, home of the "Race To The Clouds".
Vehicles and humans alike perform at just 57 per cent of their capacity and it doesn't take long for both to feel the effects.
Stepping from the Q8, I feel light-headed, then the early stages of a headache and a slight imbalance under foot - confirming we're at a ridiculously high altitude for a day's drive in an area where the life expectancy is about 42 years.
From behind the wheel the lack of oxygen shows when I bury the throttle of the Q8 50 TDI and wait from something to happen. The twin-turbo diesel V6 feels lifeless, as if its turbos aren't connected.
The peak of the volcano on the border with Bolivia just 10 minutes up the road is, at 5500m, well above the halfway point in the troposphere - in layman's terms, the inhabitable layer of our atmosphere.
The Q8 and its driver, accordingly, are struggling. The engine in the top-line Audi has to work harder, having lost a significant portion of its power. With thinner air flowing through the radiators, engines tend to overheat - especially turbos, which require massive radiators and intercoolers just to survive.
So despite the relatively wide-open roads and flat terrain, this is a serious test of the Q8, which is now Audi's flagship and shares almost all of its comfort and performance features with the A8 limo.
However as SUVs are the industry's big sellers, the Q8 has stolen the A8's mantle.
Earlier last month, we were in Shenzhen for the SUV's static reveal. China is Audi's biggest market and, as company CEO Rupert Stadler explained (this was before his arrest in connection with the Dieselgate scandal), it's where the Q8 will dominate sales.
In Stadler's view: "When we see what's happening not only in China but in the US and Europe, the trend toward SUVs is ongoing.
"In the same way the A7 and A8 live together, the Q8 is a premium product which complements the Q7. There's still expectation that SUVs will (exceed) 50 per cent of total market share, so I think there is substantial room for both Q7 and Q8."
The Q8's swoopy roofline and five-seat capacity trick you into thinking its competitors are the BMW X6, Mercedes GLE Coupe or even Range Rover's Velar. In reality, the flagship's nearest rivals are the Mercedes GLS and BMW's coming X7.
Our Atacama off-roading combines light gravel, snow and river crossings. Compensating for its lack of power, its 48V mild hybrid set-up generates and uses current stored in a lithium-ion battery.
This electric boost helps it to cruise from 55km/h to 160km/h without the diesel, as well as powering the upgraded stop-start tech.
Seven drive modes cover the full spectrum of driving conditions but we focus on All-Road and Off-Road to make use of the 254mm ride height that can be varied via the air suspension. In Sport mode for the road, we get to work on the eight-speed auto's paddle-shifters as it needs very ounce of power in the rarefied conditions.
Back down to 2500m, it's as if someone added two cylinders, so remarkable is the power delivery.
There are three suspension options: base coil springs, air and sports air, all with adaptive dampers. The air suspensions are self-levelling, lowering for easier access and elevating for extra ground clearance when needed.
On arrival, the hotel shuttle cars rattle over rough clay, potholed roads. On the same roads the next day, the Q8 illustrates the difference a high-end air suspension package can provide.
The design team has excelled with interior space, given the Q8's four-door coupe profile. There's plenty of headroom even in the rear, which is partly due to the stylish double-glazed and frameless side windows. Without the intrusion of the frames, the design team extended the roof panel to the edges of the car.
The Q8 range will arrive in Australia next year, all with eight-speed automatic and quattro all-wheel drive. Prices have yet to be announced.
First to arrive will be the 50 TDI powered by the 3.0-litre V6 as tested (210kW/600Nm), followed by the 45 TDI with a thriftier version of the same engine (170kW/500Nm), then the petrol V6 turbo 55 TFSI (250kW/500Nm).
AUDI Q8 50 TDI
PRICE $170,000 (est)
ENGINE 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel, 210kW/ 600Nm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed auto; AWD
THIRST 6.3L/100km (est)
0-100KM/H 6.3 seconds
TOP SPEED 245km/h