First drive review: 2020 Audi SQ8 stands out by fitting in

Six-figure performance crossovers like the 2020 Audi SQ8 don’t compromise. These crossbreeds promise the generous cargo room of an SUV with sports car handling and near-supercar acceleration. The SQ8 adds luxury car touches such as massaging seats and connected car technology that works better than Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. 

New for 2020 and delayed by the pandemic like the rest of humanity, the SQ8 is the understated performance crossover, unlike the Lamborghini Urus or Dodge Durango SRT Hellcat. Subtlety can be attractive. The SQ8 boasts a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 but it doesn’t thunder through the neighborhood; the fast roofline shoots the breeze without an ungainly coupe-like cut that trims rear head room; and the design lacks the hood scoops, racing stripes, and giant air intakes worn by other performance crossovers announcing their intention to the world. 

Lurking within that sophisticated if not sedate style is a blistering beast that looks just as at home taking the kids to church as it does praying to God while hitting 60 mph in 4.3 seconds. Herein lies the challenge. The performance crossover premise holds that it’s more reasonable to shell out an extra $25,000 on one vehicle than to buy both an SUV and a sport sedan.

The SQ8 costs about $90,000 to the Q8’s $78,000, and my tester finished at more than $107,000. Damping that price-performance trade off was reality. My week-long loan was bookended by snowstorms totaling more than 20 inches and strung out between sub-zero temps that made me envy Han Solo’s carbonite tomb because he didn’t have to deal with wind chill.

2020 Audi SQ8

2020 Audi SQ8

While these were suboptimal conditions to test the grip of 21-inch wheels on all-season tires (22-inch summer performance tires are a no-cost option) spun by up to 568 lb-ft of torque, I drove it in conditions many driver’s face when reality slaps the sunny face of idealism. 

The SQ8 comes with all-wheel drive that sends 60% of torque to the rear wheels. My tester had the optional $5,900 Sport package that includes an active anti-roll bar powered by a 48-volt battery—a system I didn’t really get to test. It also had a torque-vectoring rear differential I ended up testing for a different kind of grip than intended. 

One night, when new snow covered a sheet of ice on my suburban side streets, I goosed the throttle for a little kick on a curve. The stability control system braked the inside wheel and shuttled torque to the outside wheel, and the rear differential kicked in to prevent me from reliving my teen years. In the snow, the SQ8 was too stable, too good, and instilled confidence when I picked up the kids later as the snow deepened. The standard rear-axle steering also enabled more precision at low speeds for parking by effectively shortening the wheelbase. 

That’s not to say there wasn’t a chance for fun. Small paddle shifters helped modulate highway maneuvers, but the effortless 8-speed automatic did it fine by itself. On straight shot on-ramps in Dynamic mode, when the standard adaptive air suspension lowered, the SQ8 reared back on lift off like a rear-drive sports car, in part because of the 40/60 rear-axle bias of the all-wheel-drive system. 

The twin-turbo V-8 shrugged off the SQ8’s portly 5,324-pound weight as smoothly as our heroes escaping Jabba the Hut. When I found a patch of dry pavement and goosed it, the polite, composed 500-hp V-8 unbuttoned into a howl that overwhelmed the senses until I glanced at the speed on the head-up display.  

That display is part of the $5,500 Prestige trim package that includes driver-assistance features such as adaptive cruise control that can restart from a stop in traffic, but also maintains a reasonable distance at highway cruising. The system is simple to use and shares the load on longer trips with enough hands-free driving to let the driver stretch the arms. 

Comfort was never an issue in the SQ8, whereas some performance crossovers can ride stiff enough to reconsider long trips. In Comfort mode, the air suspension helped soak up road seams and relaxed the steering feedback. Mostly, the comfort came from front seats shod in quilted red leather. The tester had massaging front seats with controls concealed in a dial on the seat base. The massaging function could also be adjusted through the 8.6-inch center touchscreen that sits below the 10.1-inch touchscreen for media and navigation, but it was quicker to reach down and twist. 

The lower 8.6-inch touchscreen replaces traditional climate control bars but I’m not convinced it’s better. Haptic feedback provided button-like confirmation, and it was simple to adjust air direction from the sleek band of vents that headline the dashboard, but all that reflective gloss black got smudged and dials will always be quicker to blast the heat. 

Consider those nits picked, however, because Audi’s infotainment is the best on the market. Audi’s MMI navigation system is one of the few native systems I prefer over Apple CarPlay, with its crystal-clear Google Earth 3D display that can be carried over to the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster. With roller dials and a view button on the steering wheel, it’s easy to use, and easier to configure what you want to see based on how you’re driving; watching the horsepower and torque power bars light up never gets old.

Despite all that performance and technology, I could fit my daughter’s goalie hockey bag in the cargo area without needing to put down the 60/40-split rear seats. No compromise.

The SQ8 doesn’t squeeze in a third row like the Audi Q7 and it doesn’t arc the roof to pretend to be a coupe. The integrated rear roof spoiler starts over the rear wheel, so the rear window sits at a 45-degree angle, but the lower half is roomy enough to hold 30.5 cubic feet of stinky gear or 60.7 cubic feet with the seats folded down. That’s about nine cubic feet less than the longer Q7.

If you want more performance in your crossover, there’s no question the SQ8 is worth the $20,000 upcharge. The question is how much performance you want because Audi has an even more extreme choice. The RS Q8 ratchets that V-8 to 591 hp, and cuts the 0-60 mph time to 3.7 seconds, but it adds another  $25,000 to the price of the SQ8. 

Given the variable nature of how we live and drive, the 2020 SQ8 delivers that no compromise combination of performance and utility without barking for attention.

Audi provided Motor Authority a week in the 2020 SQ8 to bring you this firsthand report. 

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