As wildfires rage, hurricanes brew, and a virus continues to wreak havoc on the world, a temporary escape can come courtesy of a big, gas-powered V-8. The 2021 Audi SQ8 (starting at $89,200) fits that bill in a luxurious package with enough moxie to make self-quarantine anything but boring.
In Santa Monica, Calif., the updated SQ8 is at home cruising wheel-to-wheel with Mercedes-Benz G-Wagens and GLS 580s, Range Rovers and Bentley Bentaygas, drawing wistful looks from fellow Audi drivers in their smaller Q5s and Q3s. The giveaways of the SQ8’s more powerful and capable underpinnings—aside from its growling exhaust note—include gleaming aluminum trim around the front grille, side rocker panels and side mirror housings. Front and rear bumpers are unique to this model, with an integrated front splitter and a rear diffuser inlay that’s flanked by quad exhaust pipes. Wheels are 21-inch alloys designed specifically for the S model, equipped, in this case, with summer tires and the sport package’s red-painted brake calipers.
The SQ8 is the Goldilocks of the Q8 lineup, with a 500 hp, 4.0-liter turbocharged V-8 that sits between the standard V-6-powered model and the 600 hp, Nürburgring-record-setting RS Q8. “It’s two worlds you have to bring into one car—luxury and the sportiness of an S model,” says Christian Schimmel, Audi’s head of chassis performance. Dialed into Dynamic mode, we merge onto Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) toward Malibu with a near-instantaneous power injection and much of that 568 ft lbs of torque coming in fairly early. In the most aggressive drive setting, shifts come at higher revs from the eight-speed Tiptronic transmission as we whoosh by Priuses and keep pace with the McLarens and Lamborghinis ahead. Along the way, road signs directing the public to wear face masks and once-vibrant businesses now shuttered are stark reminders that we’re still very much in the midst of a pandemic.
A right turn onto Latigo Canyon Road and we elbow-bump the highway goodbye and head toward the switchbacks of the Santa Monica Mountains. These roads could wring the best out of an R8 V10 Spyder, let alone a 5,300-plus-pound SUV. We’re nearly alone as we make the climb, save for a few bicyclists and a utility van going the other way. The SQ8’s brakes—15.8 inches in the front and 13.8 inches in the rear—get pounded repeatedly going into hairpins, and the suspension is put to the test on off-camber turns and rough patches littered with gravel. A number of systems help to keep the big SUV in its place: In addition to Quattro all-wheel drive, the SQ8 gets standard adaptive air suspension fitted with stiffened dampers and springs, as well as rear-wheel steering that helps the car turn in better on tight and decreasing-radius corners.
With the sport package, a sport rear differential actively distributes torque between the rear wheels and sends power where it’s needed, providing even crisper turn-in, while active roll stabilization flattens out the car in the corners. The result is a tighter and more comfortable ride compared with most SUVs, although we wouldn’t claim the SQ8 could carve a canyon like a sports car. Even Schimmel knows a vehicle this size can’t defy science: “At the end of the day, even that car has limitations due to physics,” he says.
The SQ8 is not a family hauler, but a luxury sport cruiser for those who want plenty of room for luggage and golf clubs, with a back seat big enough that adults won’t feel like they’re relegated to the automotive equivalent of the kids’ table. Cargo space is less compared with a more upright SUV, measuring a still-respectable 60 cubic feet. The cabin of our test car is dressed in Arras red leather with grey stitching and glimmering Carbon Vector inlays, which give the interior a textural depth beyond wood or metal. Seats are heated and ventilated, but we miss the massage function found only with the luxury package, which would add $4,000 to our SQ8’s $107,490 sticker price. At that point, you’re nearly into RS Q8 territory.
Audi’s “virtual cockpit” includes a head-up display, dual central screens, navigation, and smartphone integration with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. New to Audi’s MMI interface is an integrated toll module, which allows owners to link their FastTrak or other toll accounts directly with the vehicle’s onboard system, eliminating the need for a separate transponder.
The journey back is via Decker Canyon Road, which, coincidentally, is the same route traversed by Schimmel and his fellow engineers while testing the SQ8 in its development phase (along with the usual stints on the Nürburgring and elsewhere). Soon, our exercise in pulling lateral gs winds down as we make our way back to PCH, the browns and golds of arid hillsides giving way to blue vistas of the Pacific. Looking south toward Santa Monica Bay, jets ascend out of LAX above the pier’s iconic Ferris wheel, and for a few moments, as the afternoon sun glistens on the water and the ocean breeze flows in through the open roof, life feels almost normal again.