ROAD TEST: Audi SQ8 TDI quattro Tiptronic

Racing car technology such as lightweight carbon fibre or LED and laser lights developed in endurance racing eventually filters down to production cars. Of course, we have seen carmakers fit preposterous motorsport-spec powertrains into road cars, too. One such example was Audi’s V12 twinturbodiesel Q7 from 2008, an SUV that well and truly tore up the rulebook. Bored out by an additional 500 cm3 to a massive 6,0 litres, when Audi wasn’t busy shoehorning the same V12 into the first-generation R8 to create the ludicrous R8 V12 TDI Concept, the oil burner from its triple Le Mans-winning R10 TDI racecar found an unlikely home in Ingolstadt’s flagship SUV.

Audi’s aim with the R10 TDI was to showcase the commercial potential of turbodiesel technology and, specifically, the longevity and efficiency of the motor, and there was no better place to prove it than the brutality of endurance racing at Le Mans.

Thirteen years later, sporting 373 kW and 1 000 N.m no less, the Q7 V12 TDI in question remains the world’s most powerful turbodiesel production car. Let us run through the numbers: zero to 100 km/h in 5,50 seconds, top speed electronically limited to 250 km/h, and a kerb weight of 2 635 kg. Extraordinary it may have been but rational it was not.

Fast forward to today – a wildly different time with diesel more or less consigned to the history books and electric vehicles the new paradigm – and there’s another high-performance Audi diesel SUV on the market: the SQ8. In many ways, it is the spiritual successor to the V12 TDI.

On paper, the SQ8 turns up with a sophisticated Volkswagen Group-sourced 4,0-litre V8 twinturbodiesel churning out 310 kW and 900 N.m. Sure, it’s not as powerful as the old V12, but as far as power density goes, those figures illustrate just how far the technology has advanced in the intervening years.

For most, a diesel-powered Audi performance SUV takes some getting used to. However, as the CAR team spent more time with the SQ8, it became apparent just how far Audi has moved the goalposts. In terms of a performance hierarchy, the SQ8 sits below the deeply impressive flagship RS Q8 we tested in last month’s issue; and it outpaces the 45 TDI model tested in October 2020, which has less power and torque than its V8 diesel brethren.

We’ve become accustomed to the Q8’s exterior design after a slew of Audi test units, but it still garners plenty of attention from other road users thanks to its imposing single-frame grille. Closer inspection of the rear revealed two of the tailpipes to be fake despite the four chrome-tipped exhaust outlets. A strange decision by Audi and the CAR team wondered if that didn’t risk cheapening the package.

Recently, Audi has leaned towards tech-heavy interiors in upper-echelon models such as the A6, A7, Q7 and Q8. Again, the middle section is furnished with two large touchscreens, measuring 10,1 and 8,6 inches respectively. There is haptic feedback as you navigate the top infotainment screen and the climate-control screen, and the response can be tardy when you want to execute a button touch.

At a base price of R1 848 500, the SQ8 is equipped with the top infotainment system MMI Navigation Plus as standard. The carmaker maintains it exploits the full potential of Audi Connect such as the Car2X services, which consist of standard safety and service features in the event of damage, breakdown or minor accidents.

Ahead of the driver is the standard Virtual Cockpit Plus with S-specific views controlled via the multifunction steering wheel. To highlight its sporty overtones, several different screens motifs can be activated, including a performance look. In this mode, the instrument display shifts the focus to the rev counter and provides the power output and torque as percentages.

The interior is typical Audi fare: solidly constructed, neatly laid out and brimming with gadgets. Notable options fitted to our test unit included adaptive cruise control (R21 630) with speed limiter, efficiency assist, swerve assist and turn assist. At R35 920, you can ignore the night vision assistant unless you’re going to do a lot of driving in the dark. Apart from that, the standard HD Matrix LED headlights with dynamic light design do a fantastic job of illuminating the road ahead.
On the safety front, the SQ8 is fitted with the pre-sense safety tech suite and our test unit was fitted with pre-sense front (R6 150) that detects a vehicle ahead and applies the brakes automatically to avoid a collision.

The CAR testers unanimously declared the creamy smoothness of the turbodiesel as the highlight. It is refined, punchy and, while low-down torque makes setting off a cinch, we did notice some turbo lag when depressing the throttle with gusto in the middle of the rev range. Against the clock, it laid down an impressive zero to 100 km/h sprint time of 5,24 seconds. From 1 250 r/min, peak torque is channelled to the quattro all-wheel-drive system with aplomb. The eight-speed automatic gearbox we’ve enjoyed in several other models goes about its business with effortless precision. The engine and gearbox sing from the same hymn sheet during overtaking. One or two clicks on the paddle shifters to grab a lower gear and the 2 046 kg SUV simply glides towards the horizon imperiously.

Underpinning the cosseting ride is the three-chamber air suspension that syncs well with the car’s character, particularly in the Comfort setting. Other driving modes include Dynamic, Efficiency, Allroad, Off-road, and Individual. Riding on optional 22-inch wheels with 285/40 Continental Sport Contact 6 rubber provides a large contact patch and aids its plush ride as a daily driver. Fitted with all-wheel steering, the SQ8 feels much more agile than it looks. It’s no Cheslin Kolbe, but it left us with the same sort of disbelief as a Lions player when the Springbok star glides past them.

This diesel performer is all about reaching a destination effortlessly. There is plenty of body roll in the corners owing to its tall ride height, and the steering feedback can be a little dull around centre, but focusing on those aspects is missing the point of the SQ8 entirely.

A fuel figure of 11,60 L/100 km was significantly more than the claimed 8,30 L/100 km, but if you factor in the SQ8’s weight, engine size and colossal output, we suppose it’s not overly heavy on the good stuff. Cylinder deactivation is fitted and assists in reducing that figure slightly.

Test summary

Overall, the highlight of the SQ8 package is its silken V8 twin-turbodiesel. It is the consummate daily driver that’s great for a rare spirited driving when the occasion demands it. In typical Audi fashion, perceived build quality and fit and finish are superb, and refinement is high with incredibly low levels of NVH. As a supremely comfortable SUV with loads of torque, its breadth of talents is only amplified by the fact that it is R500 000 cheaper than the RS Q8. As carmakers surge towards electrification, cars like the SQ8 will no doubt fade into the past, and what a bittersweet notion that is.

Price: R1 848 500
0-100 km/h: 5,28 seconds
Top speed: 250 km/h
Power: 310 kW
Torque: 900 N.m
CAR fuel index: 10,00 L/100 km
CO2: 217 g/km

Test Summary

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CAR magazine