2020 Audi SQ8 First Drive | What’s new, photos, specs

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Audi introduced the SQ8 as a performance crossover to slot between the Q8 and the top-performing RS Q8. Extra power in a car is great, but sometimes it can feel wasted in a less-agile crossover.

On the other hand, the E-Tron crossover offers space and luxury that do nothing to slow its pulse-quickening performance. Just maybe the SQ8 could impress, too. After all, it runs a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 rated at 500 hp and 568 lb-ft of torque. Compared to the Q8, the SQ8 adds two cylinders, an extra liter of displacement, plus an additional 165 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque. It also gets a sport-tuned suspension and a good amount of standard equipment that makes it feel luxurious and sporty at the same time, as Audi does when at its best.

The SQ8 looks the part of the performance crossover, riding on 21-inch wheels (or optional 22-inchers). There are subtle exterior touches that set it apart from the Q8, like the “Aluminum-optic” gray grille surround and mirror covers, a unique front bumper with splitter, a rear diffuser, quad exhaust tips and SQ8 badging. We immediately liked the look of ours in Daytona Gray pearl paint, a $595 option. Inside, it’s a little on the flashy side of Audi. We’re not always a fan of carbon fiber, but in the SQ8, this optional trim finish just works. The weave itself is beautiful, and it served as a nice, edgy contrast to the lively red leather upholstery and gray microfiber trim in our tester.

The center stack is home to two digital touchscreens with helpful haptic feedback. The upper one is your infotainment unit, with the usual radio and media interfaces, navigation and a variety of vehicle functions. The lower screen has climate controls and seat functions. The resolution is crisp, the controls responsive and the app tiles configurable. There’s wireless Apple CarPlay and wired Android Auto, but Audi’s MMI is good enough that we preferred just to use that — plus it doesn’t mess up the full interior aesthetic with a third-party interface, if we’re being picky. Tucked away under the central console armrest is a wireless phone charger, which keeps it safe from distracted hands and secure during those pedal-to-the-floor moments on highway entrance ramps and wide-open rural roads. The best part is, when you get out of the car later and inevitably forget your phone, a barely robotic human voice reminds you that it’s still in the car before you can close your door.

The front seats are aggressively bolstered, which bothered us for half a minute. Push yourself in a little deeper with a couple sprints toward 60, and you find that the seat molds around you in a comforting embrace, snuggling you tight behind the leather steering wheel. Over the course of the drive, we came to appreciate the way the SQ8 does everything it can to minimize the driver’s body and head motion. It’s roomy inside, and a 6-foot-tall passenger has a good amount of legroom behind a same-sized driver. The rear controls for HVAC give a sense of care to the rear occupants. A surprise was the inclusion of ashtrays in the rear armrests, reminding us of the cars we rode in as kids.

Visibility felt slightly compromised, with a high beltline, tall hood and aggressively raked A-pillars. A little tweak to the seating position and a few miles of gathering familiarity made a world of difference. We still couldn’t get the best read on our car’s corners, but they don’t stick out too far whether or not you can see them. For parking, the multiple camera views, including top-down, make that a moot point.

The SQ8’s specs are impressive, and the twin-turbo V8 is good for a 0-60 hustle in a snappy 4.3 seconds. If you can find a track to stretch its legs, a 155-mile-per-hour top speed is at your disposal. In this case, the numbers translate to reality. The feeling you get driving this Audi matches the expectation those performance figures conjure, and acceleration runs deliver quick jolts of adrenaline with a beefy soundtrack to back it up. 

To truly have some fun with the SQ8, though, find some good corners. Equipped with the Sport package, the SQ8 is surprisingly adept at tracing its way through them with lots of speed and grip. For $5,900, the package adds a sport differential, active roll stabilization and red brake calipers. The sport differential is controlled by what Audi Chassis Engineer Christian Schimmel refers to as a “central chassis brain,” which helps various functions work together in fractions of a second to adjust things like torque vectoring and active damping. While brake torque vectoring helps the SQ8 rotate through a corner, the sport diff can supply an extra 10% more torque to the outside wheels. The active roll stabilization, meanwhile, helps to keep the car flat. The result is an exceptionally neutral corner-carving crossover that’s happier than one would expect to dance from one curve to the next.

Adding to the overall betterment of the SQ8’s handling is standard all-wheel steering. The rear wheels can dial in up to five degrees of steering to help tighten the turning radius at lower speeds, or make for smoother lane changes at higher velocities with two degrees of steering angle. Combined with a feel through the wheel that is both weighty (and you can adjust that heft in the menus) and communicative, the SQ8 is a cooperative companion when driven hard.

Like any good performance Audi, the SQ8 rewards you for taking things into your own hands. The eight-speed automatic transmission sorts things out smoothly on its own, but start fiddling with the paddles, and it comes to life, popping off crisp shifts. We only wish that we had bigger paddles to work with. A manual mode this good deserves something that’s more prominent and graspable, ideally in a metal finish.

The SQ8’s standard adaptive suspension makes for a smooth ride in Comfort mode over cratered pavement, despite riding on such enormous wheels. Sport gives you a good feel of the surface through the seat of your pants without too much else to noise up the experience or cause discomfort. We switched between Sport and Comfort the most, which offer definitive experiences, rather than hedging with an automatic setting or the Individual mode. Allroad mode raises the ride height a bit and made for forgiving and fast runs down some beautiful country lanes. As much as a highway on-ramp or sign for an upcoming curve on a paved road made us literally grin to ourselves, we kept seeking out side roads, leading us farther into the rurality that bustles green between cities like Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Plymouth and Northville on the outskirts of metro Detroit. 

On the township roads that cross the 6, 7 and 8 Miles that make up the aged grid west of the city, the SQ8 is surprisingly entertaining and surefooted. Stability control is dialed in perfectly, thanks to that excellent torque vectoring. You can hear a little bit of electronic fidgeting going on in the mechanicals around you, but nothing so intrusive as to cause alarm. We were eventually confident enough to flat-foot through gravel curves without the vehicle giving up even a tidbit of lateral traction. If the neutrality on pavement was impressive, the lack of understeer on soft roads was a testament to great engineering. This Audi was a pure genius at taking a fluid, and even intentionally sloppy, cornering situation and baking it into a solid, unerring vector. With loose roads giving way beneath the tires, the SQ8 was just a little slower than normal — but just as steady — on its rip up the speedometer.

There’s also an Offroad (all one word in Audi parlance) mode that we didn’t have the opportunity to put to the test, but that further increases the ride height for maximum angles of approach and departure.

Our day with the SQ8 felt too brief, mostly for selfish reasons after having come to truly appreciate this impressively versatile vehicle. We didn’t quite expect to love it, or to be able to have as much fun as we did driving it hard. But the SQ8 starts rewarding you right away, from first sight of its muscular proportions to that first grasp of the steering wheel through eager acceleration runs. The real treat is the unexpected — like the crossover’s cornering prowess and its utter composure when the roads get squishy. We’ll definitely be asking for an SQ8 again once the leaves have fallen and the snow starts to fly.

Related Video: