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CAPE TOWN – Think what you will of the contradiction in terms that is the coupé-crossover, but buyers adore their combination of style and decent dose of practicality. BMW and Mercedes-Benz do a roaring trade in lowered versions of their stock SUVs (nearly half a million X6s have been sold worlwide, for example) and Porsche will soon join the fray with the Cayenne Coupé. Like the latter, then, it’s curious it has taken Audi this long to develop a model to tackle the X6 and GLE Coupé but, as we found on the local launch of the new Q8, it might just have unleashed the best vehicle in its class.

So, what is the Q8?

Based on the VW Group’s MLB-Evo platform underpinning the Cayenne, Volkswagen Touareg and a number of other SUV models in the stable, the Q8 is wider but shorter and lower than the closely related Q7. With a wheelbase spanning almost three metres, Audi says the vehicle is nearly as practical as the Q7 yet more dynamic to drive and certainly more striking to look at.

In South Africa, we’ll initially get the 55 TFSI, which sports a 3,0-litre V6 turbopetrol under the bonnet (essentially the powertrain from a number of S models) coupled with an eight-speed torque-converter automatic. The V6 offers 250 kW and 500 N.m from 1 370-4 500 r/min. The 0-100 km/h sprint takes a claimed 5,9 seconds and the top speed is limited to 250 km/h. In July, Audi SA will add a 45 TDI variant priced at R1 439 000, with the inevitable SQ8 and RS Q8 following later (find out more about the Q8 range here).

It looks fantastic, doesn't it?

That depends on your perspective, of course, but the design is certainly striking in this pictured car's Dragon Orange. In more subdued hues, the lines are pleasingly restrained, especially if the S line Black Package has been selected, which gives the grille surround, exterior mirror caps and roof rails a lick of black paint and adds 22-inch alloy wheels. I'm not sure "pleasingly restrained" is what the target market's after, though, but those with more conservative tastes may be drawn to the new crossover.

The interior's design, however, should win fans across the board. Fit and finish are exemplary, and the finishes are wonderfully tactile. 

Introducing Audi's newest version of MMI infotainment, the Q8 sports dual touchscreens on the centre console and facia controlling all major functions. The 10,1-inch upper screen operates in a familiar way to access the audio and sat-nav options, while the 8,6-inch lower module deals with the climate control and convenience options. Both are beautifully designed and the virtual controls are large enough not to distract too much while driving, but I'm not convinced the haptic feedback tech works as well as it should; while it's welcome that the screens respond as you use them, some prods require a firm touch to change a function. Ultimately, voice and gesture controls remain the best solution for future applications but, until the technology is seamless, it's a pity manufacturers are shunning physical controls that ultimately are safer to use.

That, though, is my only notable criticism of the cabin. Space all-round is truly excellent – rear legroom is especially plentiful – and despite frameless door glass, refinement is top-notch. The boot, too, is big, and standard specification more generous than we've seen from Audi SA (instead of a long list of optional extras, the local arm has chosen to equip the Q8 well and then offer a number of easily decipherable packages). 

Does the drive match the design?

Yes, and then some. That V6 engine is creamy, responsive and nicely vocal in the upper revs ranges. It's part of a mild-hybrid drivetrain, which sees a 48 V main electrical system using a belt alternator starter which can recover up to 12 kW under braking and feed that into a lithium-ion battery. That, in turn, allows the Q8 to coast without the V6 operating. The result is a claimed fuel consumption reduction of 0,7 L/100 km. Our test unit consumed an average of 10,2 L/100 km, which is excellent considering we weren't exactly focused on conserving unleaded.

As I mentioned, the Q8 shares its underpinnings with the Q7, but gains a bespoke tune for the standard adaptive suspension, as well as the two optional (comfort and sport) air-suspension options. Our vehicle had air in its springs and rode a route peppered with scars particularly comfortably. There's a smidge too much suspension thud, but that's noticeable only because the rest of the vehicle's so refined.

I'm not a big fan of progressive steering setups, where the steering ratio becomes more direct the further the wheel is turned, as they can often seem quite artificial, but the setup in the Q8 feels more natural than most. Should its buyer want to enhance mid-corner stability even further, all-wheel steering is an option.

A classleader, then?

Well, the Q8 is currently in a class of ... one. Yes, BMW still sells the current-generation X6 but it's best to wait for the new one. The upcoming second-generation Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupé is still a while off and we'll give a verdict on the Cayenne Coupé when we drive it in a few months.

I don't think Audi should worry too much about those rivals stealing the Q8's thunder, though. It's a thoroughly developed product that combines an upmarket design, a beautiful interior (that's nearly as practical as the Q7's) and expertly judged dynamics to impressive effect. Sure, it costs quite a lot more than the larger Q7, but then its standard specification is more generous. It may have taken Ingolstadt an extra model cycle to launch a lower, sportier version of the Q7, but the Q8 has undoubtedly been worth the wait.

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