The fundamental purpose of a flagship is to show off the very best a marque has to offer. Usually, they take the form of something long, low, big and expensive. In Audi’s case, the flagship role has been filled by the A8 sedan and its variants. But the sedan-as-flagship thing is largely a function of tradition. Times change, and when the market its crazy for CUVs, you need to build a different kind of flagship -- something long, tall, big and expensive. Something, perhaps, like the Q8.
The Q8 doesn’t so much replace Audi’s biggest sedan as it compliments it; it’s the large, shiny object at the top of the brand’s crossover/SUV lineup just as the A8 sits atop the four-ringed heap when it comes to cars.
The Q8 is not, fortunately, Audi’s answer to the BMW X6 or Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe. It’s positioned more as a competitor to the Range Rover Sport or the Porsche Cayenne (with which it shares a platform) than it is to any of those strange German fastbacked frankencrossovers. If you want to think of it in purely Audi terms, it’s a Q5 blown up to Q7 proportions (though it’s three inches shorter and about an inch wider) and packed with all the tech you’ll find on the new A8. Or, maybe, an Allroad wagon stretched vertically.
From within Audi-owning circles its likely to attract those who no longer need the Q7’s third row, and perhaps even a few fools convinced that they need something other than the perfectly proportioned, eminently practical A7.
The Q8 is offered in three trims: premium, premium plus and range-topping prestige. The panoramic sunroof, leather seats (heated up front), automatic three-zone climate control and more are all standard. Stepping up to the higher trims gets you a range of driver aids and, of course, bigger wheels (premium makes do with 20-inch wheels; the two higher trims get 21-inchers). If you want to go really nuts, 22-inch wheels are offered as an option.
All Q8s are equipped with a 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 (not, you’ll note, the supercharged 3.0-liter available on the Q7) producing 335 hp and 369 lb-ft; an eight speed automatic transmission sending power to all four wheels is likewise mandatory.
Further, all Q8s get what’s called the “singleframe” grille, which probably previews the face that will be found on all Audi crossovers in the future. It is, to put it politely, assertive. One thing I can tell you is that it’s visible in the rearview mirror from about a half-mile away. Expect to see it often, as it will be appearing on other Audi SUVs.
There is one other design element that’s worth pointing out, if only because it’s so subtle: The Q8’s D-pillar is an almost perfect replica of the Audi Sport Quattro’s. I won’t try to convince anyone that the Q8 is the successor, direct, spiritual or otherwise, to one of the most legendary cars in Audi’s historical stable, but the stylistic nod to the famed rally machine is at the very least interesting.
The Q8 in which I make my escape from Park City, just ahead of the Sundance Film Festival crowd, is equipped with the midrange Premium Plus package ($4,000). My ride for day two is loaded up with the Prestige, Luxury and adaptive chassis packages; at $9,150, $5,950 and $2,750, they (along with a few other add-ons) contribute to a whopping $88,690 sticker.
Worth it? Depends on what you’re looking for. All Q8s come well-equipped, but the leather-trimmed dashboard (replacing the standard-issue Audi pebbled rubbery plastic deal), alcantara faux-suede headliner, dual-pane window glass for the frameless doors (it cut down road noise, or at least I convinced myself it did), aluminum switchgear and so on made it feel more like a luxury range-topper and less like a bigger Q5. No suite of options will transform the Q8 into a baby Bentayga (the Audi also shares its bones with the big Bentley), but the add-ons, while pricey, don’t come off as excessive if you’re looking to treat yourself a little bit.
The adaptive chassis package with air suspension and all-wheel steering may, at $2,750, be less necessary. A compliant, comfortable ride is the name of the game here; there’s noticeable squat on hard acceleration, and dive under hard braking, but after splitting two sold days of driving between conventional and air-equipped Q8s, ride quality is good on all road surfaces with either suspension installed.
I can’t fault the Q8’s comfort-tuned dynamics, because the Q8 doesn’t bill itself as a track-ready super-SUV; with that competent but undramatic turbocharged 3.0-liter turbo V6 as the only engine option, it never will be. Paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission, the motor does what it needs to do effortlessly, never complaining as the atmosphere thins (I didn’t even have to stop to re-jet the carburetors to make it over a 9,000-ft elevation pass! Vorsprung durch Technik indeed!). But it does it all without any real flair.
Still, there’s potential for Audi to dial things up in the future. Somewhere on the road from Park City to Gateway, Colorado, I find a very photogenic abandoned gas station with a huge, icy gravel lot. With plenty of room to play around I confirm that the Q8’s quattro system is definitely rear-biased (40/60, in fact), in a good way.
The roided-out performance crossover will never take the place of big, low autobahn-dominators like the S8 in my heart. But I can see a hypothetical SQ8 being the kind of vehicle that, in a moment of weakness, I’d find myself accidentally having a whole lot of fun in. What’s the biggest motor you reckon they could cram under the hood?
One area in which the Q8, along with the A8, A6 and A7, excels is in tech integration. There are a lot of bells and whistles to play with here, from the high-resolution 12.3-inch virtual cockpit digital instrument cluster to the haptic feedback-enabled, user-configurable touchscreens (on the main screen you can drag and drop buttons for functions like navigation, radio and media, organizing them just like the home screen of your smartphone) to adaptive cruise control and driving aids.
Importantly, though, it’s all implemented in a streamlined way. The voice command system is a good example: Press the button on the steering wheel, speak your deepest, most dearly held desires (“lower cabin temperature two degrees”) and the car complies. Or don’t use it at all. In any case, it feels far less intrusive than Mercedes-Benz’s always-listening MBUX assistant or the gimmicky gesture-based controls found on BMWs.
The thing about the Audi Q8 is that it could have wound up a really stupid, totally superfluous vehicle -- another grotesque coupe-ified German vanity SUV, another answer in search of question (but apparently not, if sales numbers mean anything, in search of buyers).
But it didn’t. Instead, Audi took everything that fundamentally works about an A7 or an A8, from powertrain to ride quality to onboard tech, and essentially stretched it vertically. It works. It’s not as fast as a Cayenne and it's missing the off-road reputation of anything with a Range Rover badge, but it lacks the price tag of the former and does a far better job serving up cutting edge tech than the latter. Moreover, if you don’t need a third row, you’ll find the Q8 a more comfortable way to transport four adults than the larger Q7 on account of its extra rear legroom.
The time has long passed for all of us to try to figure out why the crossover is now king and to simply accept that it is -- and consequently, there are some darn good ones out there. The Q8 included. While you’re optioning yours you might as well throw down for the Prestige and Luxury packages while you’re at it. This is a flagship, after all.