Audi RS Q8 First Drive: Horses for Courses

by GABRIELA NADINE

This seemed like one of those stories I would crank out on the plane back from Tenerife, where Audi was launching its new RS Q8 high-performance SUV: Audi shares the MLB platform with the extant Lamborghini Urus, slaps on some blocky sheet metal and adds a Bauhaus-meets-Apple interior to differentiate, and boom, enter the Audi-ized Lambo. Platform engineering job done.

Problem: The 2021 Audi RS Q8 drives nothing like a Lamborghini Urus, which was a strong contender in our 2019 Best Driver’s Car. In fact, I would defy you to find anything about the Audi’s driving manners, engine note, shift patterns, steering and braking, interior layout, and obviously its design and styling that would conjure thoughts of its Italian affiliate.

Does it drive better than an Urus? I guess that depends on the type of driver you are, and the depth of your pocketbook, as the Lambo is upward of $100k more than Ingolstadt’s edition.

Oh, sure, the Audi R&D team confesses that during development of the RS Q8, they Skyped and Zoomed and Slacked with their Lamborghini compatriots. You have to, when you are sharing a platform and borrowing parts. But in the annals of VW Group platform sharing, this might be a best example yet of product differentiation.

In fact, the RS Q8 seems to have more familiarity with Audi’s RS 6 wagon than the Urus. It’s same sausage, different shapes in this corner of the Audi delicatessen.

“We wanted the RS Q8 to have the outstanding performance of a supercar plus everyday usability,” said Michael Barma, Audi technical project manager. “Sure, there’s some overlap (with Lamborghini), but we went in a different direction.”

The powertrain and suspension are uniquely RS spec. Some things you have to keep hidden from your Italian cousins, after all. Besides, Audi isn’t out to beat Lamborghini, after all. It wants to throttle the BMW X6M and Mercedes-AMG GLE 63.

Can the Audi match the Urus’ 3.0-second 0-to-60? Likely not, even with the optional Pirelli P Zeros coming next summer. Audi suggests a 3.8-second dash to 62 mph (100 kph) is routine, so in upcoming MotorTrend testing you could expect perhaps a 3.5-second rip to 60. Does that mean that RS Q8 is slower than the Lambo? Uh, no.

A few months back , the Audi Sport unit ran the RS Q8 to a 7:42.253 SUV-record lap of the Nürburgring Nordschleife with racer/tester Frank Stippler at the wheel. Consider this SUV as fast as a Ferrari 458 or Porsche 997.

(A side note: While Germans aren’t known for bragging, Stippler stated he could have shaved another four or five seconds off his time if not for intermittent ground fog and patchy wet spots on the German track from earlier rain. Stippler also had dashed from a qualifying session at Hockenheim to put in his fast lap at Nürburgring, so he was a bit…distracted. So, before anyone’s SUV takes a shot at the record, your target should be more in the 7:38 range, or else Audi will be back to reclaim the title.)

And all this with an engine that is (relatively speaking) down on power compared to the Lambo. While the Urus’ 4.0-liter V-8 makes 641 hp, the Audi two twin-scroll turbocharger version makes a more modest 590 hp. Not that any ordinary American driver will notice.

Of course, it depends on what kind of racetrack you are testing at. Barma notes that the Urus will perform better on a flatter, more F1-style track, whereas the RS Q8 performs better on rolling, climbing tracks.

What about Jonny Lieberman’s assertion that the RS 6 is a better driver than the RS Q8?

“The RS 6 is sportier, with a more performance base, and a lower center of gravity,” Barma admits, noting the RS 6 carries 200 kilograms (440 pounds) less weight. Guess that’s one point for the wagon, until you need to haul a lot of stuff. I mean, there are practical concerns when buying a racetrack-ready SUV, and the RS Q8 has 30.5 cubic feet of hatch storage, and 60.7 cubes if the second-row seats are down. Track talk aside, usability is key too.

Audi and Lamborghini also took far different directions in design. Think R8 vs Huracan, but with SUVs, said Audi project manager Markus Eberle. The Urus is a brutal, lithe wedge—a raised supercar—whereas the RS Q8 carries a blockier linebacker stance that indicates this was always meant to come from a donor SUV.

Part of that muscularity comes from carrying 10 mm (0.4 in) more width at the front wheels and 5mm (0.2 in) at the back compared to a standard Q8. Some folks wanted the RS Q8 to go wider still, but Barma notes the base Q8 is already pretty hefty. Those added mere millimeters of width means he gets nervous driving in the left lane of an Autobahn construction zone.

In the arms race of creating the most massive grille possible, the RS Q8 not only has a gaping maw but also features massive air intakes. It makes an intimidating impression in the rear-view mirror, but until you see the honeycomb detailing, it just looks like a giant black hole at the front of the car.

The other arms race—wheel size—continues apace. Remember the good ol’ days when folks thought 20-inch wheels were extreme? Well, the base tire here is a Hankook 22-incher, which, with a 295/40 profile, are the largest tires ever to be factory-installed on an Audi production model.

And yet, there’s also a choice of optional 23-inchers from Hankook or Continental that then comes with carbon ceramic brakes instead of the base steel binders (the CCBs also save 75 pounds of total unsprung mass). Getting the 23s and the Dynamic Package Plus will allow for unleashing the governed top speed from 155 mph up to 190 mph. On top of that, there will be optional Pirelli P Zero 23-inchers meant for dry-pavement days. “Just regular P Zeroes. Not Corsas. Not Trofeos,” Barma said.

But as part of Volkswagen Group still recovering from Dieselgate, Audi needs to impart some green messaging, even to this insane performance SUV. So, it installed a 48-volt mild-hybrid system that can recoup 12 kW in the trunk battery pack. What’s more, the V-8 engine comes with cylinder deactivation and can even coast, powerless, at speeds from 30 up to 100 mph. Overall, in the combined cycle, Audi estimates 19.4 mpg for this track-ready beast. Impressive.

Getting that power to the pavement is an eight-speed Tiptronic torque-converter automatic mated to the all-wheel drive system that normally splits power 40/60 front-to-rear, but can swing it anywhere between 70/30 and 20/80. “Any more than that, with this sort of power, could damage the driveshaft,” Stippler said. Hence, 100 percent rear-drive is not possible.

Now to the chassis. All RS Q8s come with an adaptive air suspension with higher damping forces than what is offered with the steel springs, and up to 3.5 inches of ride-height variability for the day you get a wild hair to take the beast off-pavement.

It also offers standard four-wheel steering, with the rear wheels offering an astounding 5 degrees of variation off the rear axle. An electromechanical roll bar (part of the Dynamics package) provides active roll stabilization, which you’ll feel as soon as you take your first corner at speed: There’s no lurch of weight transfer, no body lean. You’re just carving the radius, the chassis hugging the tarmac flat (good thing for bolstered seats). If not for the RS Q8’s hefty 5,300 pounds of weight as a reminder, you would find yourself forgetting that you are driving a crossover.

Unsure how you feel when leaving your driveway? There are eight driving mode programs—comfort, automatic, dynamic, allroad, off-road, efficiency, as well as two programmable “RS” settings activated from a steering wheel button (the fiercer setting can negate the ESC Sport mode).

Wait? There are allroad and off-road settings? Yes, while they have the same ride height (lifted by 40mm (1.6 in), and can be manually lifted higher), they carry different throttle characteristics, and the off-road mapping adds downhill-speed-assist and optimizes stability, traction, and braking for poor surfaces.


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