First Drive: 2019 Q8 sets pace for Audi’s SUV lineup

January 30, 2019 by Jaclyn Trop, @jaclyntrop

The full-size Audi Q8 has arrived as the flagship SUV atop the German automaker’s growing truck lineup.

Starting at $67,400, the five-passenger Q8 is smaller and more expensive than its big brother, the three-row Q7. It also illustrates a growing, industrywide demand for expensive, more compact full-size SUVs.

“With seating for five instead of seven, the focus is on luxury, comfort and convenience more than family travel,” said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Markit. “Audi is exploring the top end of the appetite for utility vehicles after filling out the smaller segments.”

While Audi markets the Q7 as a family-oriented SUV for buyers who need seven seats, the Q8 rates as a fitter and more luxurious ride meant to compete with the Range Rover Sport, Mercedes-Benz GLE, BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne.

‘A sporty, strong car’

“The whole idea is a sporty, strong car with a lot of presence on the road,” said Anthony Foulk, product manager for the Q8, during a recent test drive from Park City, Utah, to Telluride, Colo.

The SUV runs on a 335-horsepower, 3.0-liter V6 engine and Audi’s 48-volt, mild hybrid battery technology (Photo: Audi)

Setting the direction for Audi’s SUV portfolio, the Q8 showcases the brand’s “future premium” philosophy prizing utility and convenience. For instance, the Audi Connect system, which bundles the vehicle’s digital and real-time services, can scan your calendar to alert you to an upcoming doctor’s appointment, use smart navigation to map the most efficient route, and help find a parking spot upon arrival.

The focus on technology will eventually trickle down to Audi’s other SUVs, which currently account for 57 percent of the brand’s sales, up 6 percent from 2017. Industrywide, SUVs represent 60 percent of premium new-vehicle sales in the U.S., an increase of 41 percent since 2013.

Brand updates

Hoping to capitalize on the shift in consumer demand, Audi invested heavily in updating and expanding its SUV lineup, with the forthcoming e-Tron, its first fully electric vehicle, and midyear update to its Q3 compact SUV. The brand’s best-seller, the Q5 midsize SUV, and second-best-selling vehicle, the Q7, each received redesigns over the past two years.

Reaching dealer showrooms in November, the Q8 shares a wheelbase with the Q7 but measures 3 inches shorter, 1 inch lower and 1 inch wider. The additional width translates into more legroom in the backseat, meant for two passengers “sitting in luxury,” although it can accommodate three.

The SUV runs on a 335-horsepower, 3.0-liter V6 engine and Audi’s 48-volt, mild hybrid battery technology. The standard eight-speed automatic transmission and quattro all-wheel drive provide a smooth, capable ride even on bumpy and muddy off-road jaunts. Its four drive modes – comfort, auto, dynamic and individual – customize the vehicle’s dynamics, while an optional adaptive air suspension system adjusts its ride height for more ground clearance.

Athletic profile

Compact and muscular, the Q8 displays a more streamlined and elegant stance than the Q7. A bolder single-frame grille featuring half a dozen vertical chrome struts and LED headlights suggest a commanding presence. Despite its athletic profile and sports coupe-like styling, “it doesn’t have a sloping roofline that compromises utility,” Foulk said.

Two screens in the 2019 Q8 provide navigation and infotainment functions and the ability to recognize handwriting. (Photo: Audi)

Inside the Q8, Audi’s latest MMI touch-response system runs on a pair of high-resolution screens and features a handwriting-recognition function that proved effective when searching for waypoints along the test drive. The center stack’s 10.1-inch upper display governs navigation and infotainment functions, while the 8.6-inch lower display controls climate and handwriting input.

Two dozen sensors help the SUV collect and process data to provide a full suite of safety features including adaptive cruise control and cross-traffic assist. Audi’s new vehicle-warning assist function delays the door handle release by one or two seconds when it detects oncoming obstacles.

The Q8 is unlikely to poach customers from the Q7, but Audi will benefit from interest in the new SUV regardless, according to Brinley.

“There is potential for some cannibalization, but the fact that the Q8 holds fewer people and is more expensive will create some natural separation between the two,” she said. “However, as the Q8 takes a higher price point, seeing a few customers move from Q7 to Q8 may also mean a more profitable sale.”

Fastest-growing segment

Premium midsize crossovers like the Q5 rate among the fastest-growing new-vehicle segments in the U.S., with sales expected to increase an average of 1.6 percent annually through 2024, according to IHS Markit.

Meanwhile, full-size premium crossovers, which are more expensive than midsize models, are rising in popularity, with sales projected to grow an average of 8.9 percent over the same period as automakers launch new entrants.

“The premium brands filled out the smaller sizes of utility vehicles first, so the field is not as crowded in the full-size segment – yet, at least,” Brinley said.

Editor’s note: To facilitate this report, attended an event at which Audi hosted travel and lodging.

Read Next: First Drive: Audi’s E-Tron Crossover Will Threaten Gas Rivals

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