2020 Audi RS Q8 First Drive Review: An SUV that surprises

The 2020 Audi RS Q8 is the new flagship in the German carmaker's growing portfolio, and only the second Q-model to receive the RS badge. It's a badge that sets some seriously high standards, too: we've not long driven the magnificent RS7 Sportback and RS6 Avant, and each sets a tall bar for their bigger sibling to meet. If the RS Q8 is to hold its own, it needs to be a super-SUV.

The good news is, yes, it really is. The wheel arches are flared by up to 0.4-inches to give the vehicle a more aggressive and meaner stance – the same exact words I used to describe the menacing appearance of both the RS7 Sportback and RS6 Avant. The front receives the RS treatment too, with an RS-specific radiator and RS honeycomb grille. Are you starting to visualize the family resemblance yet?

In the RS7 Sportback and RS6 Avant, the larger and wider grille gives the impression of wanting to swallow you whole. In the RS Q8, though, I couldn't escape the feeling that it wanted to bite and shred its prey to pieces, before eventually gulping it all down. At least that's what came to mind when I saw one rapidly approach in the rear view mirror.

If you think the Lamborghini Urus looks bloody gruesome, the RS Q8 is only a notch tamer. That's a good thing, since the RS Q8 is competing with the Urus in the super SUV category. Ironically, the two cars are actually fairly closely related. You could almost wonder whether the RS Q3 Sportback – which we sadly won't be getting stateside – was the unholy result of Lamborghini mating the Urus with the Audi RS Q8.

The RS Q8's story starts with the twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 engine with a mild-hybrid assist; also the same heart found throbbing relentlessly under the hood of Audi's RS6 Avant and RS7 Sportback. It's good for 594 horsepower and an impressive 590 pound-feet of torque from as low as 2,200 rpm all the way to 4,500 rpm. The performance numbers are bewildering, to say the least: 0 to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds, while the RS Q8 relentlessly pushes to 124 mph in 13.7 seconds. And remember, we're talking about a large SUV that's only an inch shorter than the seven-seat Audi Q7

Putting things into perspective, the 2020 Shelby GT500 – which is much lighter and powered by a monster engine outputting 760 horsepower and 625 lb-ft of torque – is only a couple of seconds faster. Top speed as standard is 155 mph, but can be increased to 190 mph if you tick the dynamic package plus option.

In the States, the electromechanical active roll stabilization feature comes standard, which virtually eliminates body roll when attacking a corner at speed. Essentially a combination of clever electronics and mechanical bits acting between the two halves of the stabilizer on both front and rear axles, when you're speeding along a flat highway the two-halves are decoupled to offer better ride comfort, and to allow the suspension more freedom to move about. Take a hot corner though, then power out of the apex, and the stabilizers go into action to reduce body roll. It's one of the key ingredients to Audi's secret sauce for making the RS Q8's handling so superb on tight and twisty roads, all while enjoying natural sunlight peeking through a glorious panoramic sunroof, which also comes standard.

We tested out the RS Q8 in the Canary Island and Tenerife, Spain, where the roads are unforgivingly tight with little to no shoulders in the event you understeer. A slight mistake could net a costly repair. I'd be lying if I told you the big Audi slotted perfectly between the lanes at high speed – make no mistake that it's still very much a large SUV. The adaptive air suspension and all-wheel steering are every bit as helpful as you'd hope in those challenging drive conditions.

Towards the end of the day, I had the opportunity to play chase-the-rabbit down the mountain with Frank Stippler: a championship racer as well as Audi's factory test driver, and the man behind crushing the all-time record for the fastest lap time at the Nurburgring in its class with the RS Q8.

All things being equal, I kept up with Frank as best I could, right up until the point that I couldn't because I ran out of talent. Such are the shortcomings of us mere mortals. I walked away feeling pretty good, though, because with Frank leading the way I had the opportunity to follow his lines and, in return, I got to push harder than I normally might have.

The Euro-spec RS Q8 and the Nurburgring record-breaking vehicle each sport the same 48-volt mild hybrid system, which is again the same system found in the RS6 Avant and RS7 Sportback. Instead of being a hybrid system dedicated to boosting horsepower and torque output, like Mercedes-Benz's EQ Boost, Audi's 48-volt MHEV is engineered to extract every ounce of efficiency from the angry, turbocharged V8 motor. You'll find a belt alternator starter motor nestled between the V of the motor and connected to the crankshaft; step on the gas, and the system recovers up to 12 kW of power and feeds the electrons to a small lithium-ion battery pack. This allows the SUV to "coast" without wasting a drop of gas between 35 to 100 mph for up to 40 seconds as you lift your foot off the pedal.

The coasting feature won't be implemented on the US-spec RS Q8, but the system will be used in its start-stop feature. Combined with the V8 engine's cylinder on-demand system, the RS Q8 can save up to 0.8-liters of fuel for 62 miles of driving on average.

The engine is connected to an eight-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission driving all four wheels via a permanent Quattro AWD system with a mechanical center differential. In normal mode, the system feeds 40:60 of torque split to the front and rear wheels. In the event of slippage, the AWD system can divert up to 70-percent of torque to the front and up to 85-percent to the rear wheels.

The RS Q8 is also available with all-wheel steering to further enhance handling and stability. I don't mean to sound like a broken record but the new Audi RS Q8 feels very similar to an RS6 Avant or even the RS7 Sportback when pushed hard – without diverting from the fact that I'm behind the wheel of a hulking SUV. The fact that it behaves so similarly to those smaller cars is testament to Audi Sport's engineers.

Since the Q8 is still an SUV to the core, though, everything just feels bigger and roomier compared to the RS6 Avant, which is already a fairly practical and spacious vehicle to begin with. Audi opted to make adaptive air suspension with RS-specific dampers standard on all RS Q8, and using the Audi drive select system, the ride height can be raised or lowered at your behest. With standard 22-inch wheels (the biggest ever fitted to a production Audi vehicle) or optional 23-inch rollers, the RS Q8 is best utilized over asphalt, particularly the long and swooping kind. As a side note, if you're going to opt for the 23-inch wheels, you might as well check the box for the ceramic brakes, black optic, and carbon optic exterior packages.

And even if the RS Q8's natural habitat is on twisty tarmac, there's an off-road driving mode to prepare the RS Q8 for some rougher terrain. With the body fully-raised by 2.0-inches and with impressive approach and departure angles (21.6 degrees front and 26.2 degrees rear), the RS Q8 can tackle inhospitable terrain without feeling entirely like a fish out of water. Honestly, it's sacrilege to expose the RS Q8's wider flanks and sporty demeanor over gravel-riddled trails, but it's nice to know it has the potential to complete the job as an SUV should. The roads we traversed were for the most part smooth while a few sections were slightly rougher which truly put the 23-inch wheels to the test. They look bad to the bone and – I think – are worth a little sacrifice in ride quality if you live in NY or LA, where potholes and unkempt roads have no purpose other than to cause jolting pain.

Back onto smoother terrain, the 2020 Audi RS Q8 is like a caged animal unleashed. As I said before, it has the same direct and blazing-fast acceleration as the RS7 but with more room. I never thought the day would come when SUVs would drive as well as a proper sports sedan or coupe, yet here I am. Still, it's not the ferocious performance that really astonishes, it's how the RS Q8 manages to feel like a normal Q8 when driving sedately. With all its high-strung potential and clever chassis engineering, the RS Q8 can be as docile as a dolphin. Of course, you won't mistake the RS Q8's interior for that of a stock Q8, what with all the RS badges, RS sports seats, and RS mode buttons on the steering wheel, but the interior remains incredibly luxurious despite the sporting infusion.

The seats have massage and ventilation to make your drive more pleasant each day, and you can further customize things with individual RS design packages if you like red or gray stitching and premium Alcantara. And, despite having the athletic prowess of a trained athlete, the 118.0-inch wheelbase ensures plenty of room for both front and rear occupants. The standard rear bench can slide fore and aft by at least 4-inches to either provide more legroom or extend the cargo area, the latter of which expands from 21.4 cubic feet to 62.0 cubic feet by folding the rear seats down. It even comes with an electronic tailgate to automatically open the rear door when carrying shopping bags or sporting equipment.

As I boarded my flight out of Spain, I pondered on the events leading to this fateful week. If I had the money to splurge on a fast Audi for the holidays, I reckon it's easier to select a gift for the wife and kids than punishing my brain on what Audi RS model to choose. Honestly, the heart yearns for the RS7 Sportback because, at the end of the day, my old-school instincts send a wave of pleasure in relishing a four-door, Nurburgring-conquering machine with a sloping roofline. That's my happy place.

Audi, though, screwed the pooch by giving me an abundant amount of seat time in the RS6 Avant, a station wagon like no other. And now, my decision is compounded by the majestic and frankly naughty presence of the RS Q8 SUV. Thinking about these things hurt my brain and it isn't my idea of preparing for the holidays, but I like to look at it from a different perspective.

The 2020 Audi RS Q8 should be considered separately from the RS6 Avant and RS7 Sportback. Besides, if you were shopping for the RS Q8, it only means you really want an SUV and not a normal car, and I also assume you already have a fleet of supercars in your garage. For that, the RS Q8 is a winner, and I say this despite the undeniable presence of the Lamborghini Urus. Because, well, if I'm gunning for a Lamborghini, I might as well go for the Aventador.