Expert Reviews

2021 Audi RS Q8 First Drive Review

Don’t look now, but there’s a sibling rivalry brewing at Volkswagen Group, and it all centres around sport utilities that emphasize the “sport.” More to the point, we’re talking about ones with 4.0-litre twin-turbo engines and whiplash-inducing acceleration.

The latest is the 2021 Audi RS Q8, and it might just provide the perfect balance between comfort performance. Just don’t tell the folks at Lamborghini or Porsche.

A Reintroduction of Epic Proportions

Given the parallel courses at least two of VW Group’s premium brands have taken in recent years, perhaps it was only a matter of time before their paths intersected.

While Porsche has been busy branching out to new territory – two SUVs, a sedan, and a wagon all bear Porsche badges these days – Audi has been getting back to its roots. Specifically, those of the RennSport variety, as in the RS badge that’s graced the grilles of its fair share of Audi models over the years.

Those initials have been as sacred as they’ve been scarce in this part of the world over the past 25 years, with very few models sold here since the performance brand’s inception in 1994.

The spreading of those RS roots in the North American market has led Audi to a big year that’s seen a new RS 7 sedan introduced alongside an RS 6 wagon for the first time on this side of the Atlantic. But neither is quite as important as the 2021 RS Q8.

Leader of the Pack

While both the RS 6 and RS 7 are important pillars of the Audi Sport brand, it’s the RS Q8 that’s leading the charge. The reason for this is two-fold: First, whether talking about its sedans or sport utility vehicles, “8” has long represented the top of the Audi heap. The second reason is that SUVs sell these days in enormous volume. Basically, a big and burly performance sport utility was a no-brainer for the brand.

Described as the “spearhead” of the Audi Sport lineup, the RS Q8 bears a heavy burden. Its mission goes beyond simply delivering the outstanding performance that’s expected of an RS model; for this one, the goal was to deliver divine comfort, too. Suffice to say that mission was accomplished.

With the only suspension offered being of the adaptable air variety, the RS Q8 feels every bit the crown jewel of a luxury SUV lineup. With the suspension set to Comfort mode, the ride can be downright supple, rolling over surfaces with nary a shake, rattle, or roll. Adding to that comfort are the sublime seats, which come heated and ventilated up front, as well as featuring multi-function massage. Passengers relegated to the rear make do with heated seats but no other frills.

Of course, the air suspension can be dialled the opposite direction, providing a much firmer feel in the Dynamic setting. Even then, it’s never harsh, with good rebound rates at all four corners keeping the burly SUV from coming unsettled.

Helping the ride quality adapt on the fly to just about anything the road throws its way is a 48-volt mild hybrid system that uses electrons to modulate the front and rear sway bars while also reducing fuel consumption somewhat. No, it can’t run on electricity alone quite like the Porsche Cayenne Turbo S E-Hybrid, but it does boast a drafting mode that shuts down the gas engine at speeds up to 160 km/h, and Audi promises it saves fuel.

Serious Performance Prowess

It’s safe to assume prospective RS Q8 buyers are less interested in the 48-volt electrical system as they are what it’s paired to. Here, you’ll find a twin-turbocharged 4.0L V8 engine – the same one that powers the Porsche Cayenne Turbo and the Lamborghini Urus.

Output from that engine in the Audi is 600 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque, the latter of which kicks in at just 2,200 rpm. Turbo lag is negligible and depends upon which gear the eight-speed automatic transmission finds itself in or which drive mode the selector is set to (or both). The Lamborghini squeezes more out of the motor – 650 hp and 627 lb-ft of torque – and responds differently to throttle and steering inputs, but the Audi certainly isn’t lacking any ferocity.

Audi claims 100 km/h can be reached in just 3.8 seconds on its way to a top speed of as high as 305 km/h, depending on options.

There should be no doubting either number based upon how the hefty SUV hustles around, tapping into a seemingly endless supply of speed when requested. While not exactly eager – the RS Q8 is just as comfortable cruising at highway speeds as it is surprising a sports car or two – it’s always ready, willing and able to delight both driver and passenger with an introduction to the deepest recesses of the sport seats, throwing occupants back under heavy acceleration.

It should be noted that this is also the same engine found in the aforementioned RS 6 and RS 7 models, but the way it moves the mass of the RS Q8 is nothing short of impressive. Linear throttle response is joined by snappy shifts and a snarling exhaust note to make this an entertaining companion when the mood strikes.

Jack of All Trades

Much of what you get in the RS Q8 in terms of mechanicals – engine, transmission, suspension, four-wheel steering, and all-wheel drive – is a carbon-copy of what’s offered in the more expensive Lamborghini Urus. But the way these two super-sport utilities deliver are divergent to be sure. After all, the Lamborghini is, well, a Lamborghini. It’s as much about the show as it is the go, with theatrics that match its price tag. If it’s attention you’re after, then it’s attention you’ll get in the Urus.

The RS Q8 will turn its fair share of heads, but it’s also capable of an understated presence that’s probably preferred in a daily driver. Sure, you’re paying for a certain presence in an SUV like this – expect a price tag in the neighbourhood of $140,000–$160,000 when it goes on sale next year – and the RS Q8 delivers that statement through both style and substance.

Standard wheels measure 22 inches at all four corners, while 23-inch alloys, the largest Audi’s ever fitted to one of its vehicles, can be added for a premium. So too can carbon-ceramic brakes – that’s how to unlock that otherworldly 305 km/h top speed – and a handful of interior and exterior trim choices. But none of them match the in-your-face attitude of the Urus, opting instead for something that’s a bit more mature while still appearing appropriately chiseled.

Compared to the standard slope-backed Q8 on which it’s based, the RS version gets two big air inlets on the front bumper, a unique grille, and other special styling bits that help it stand out. But none of it’s over the top.

The same can be said of the cabin, with Audi Sport successful in its mission of blending comfort and performance in an attractive package. The sport seats and their embossed RS logos are unmistakable, and they go nicely with the flat-bottom steering wheel. But everything else screams cruising in comfort, including the twin touchscreens for infotainment and climate controls.

Chances are this thing is going to be hauling a family and its stuff around town, and so Audi Sport decided to forego the sporting focus in favour of a cabin that delivers a bit of that alongside a healthy dose of opulence. Aside from perhaps a few too many gloss black interior panels (read: fingerprint magnets), the space isn’t doing the same impersonation of a fighter jet cockpit as the Lamborghini, and that has major appeal.

Usability is the Name of the Game

Get comfortable in the driver’s seat and be you’re met with controls that are easy to navigate and deploy when called upon. Need to warm your buns? The button is placed in as logical a spot as any, beneath the climate controls and next to the ventilation function. While options like the massaging seats are only accessed through the main infotainment screen, that’s not difficult to navigate either and keeps everything easily accessible with a few taps of a finger.

Time to tweak the suspension setting? It’s done via capacitive touch buttons just in front of the shift lever. Using the RS modes is even easier, with a simple stretch of the right thumb finding the requisite button on the steering wheel. Two RS modes are accessed via said button and can be customized to the driver’s preference. Want to dial up the driveline performance and exhaust note but keep the suspension compliant? No problem; simply save those settings in the RS1 or RS2 spots and the custom mode is there when you need it.

It all speaks to the tremendous usability Audi Sport has integrated into the RS Q8. While no less focussed on its ability as a road-going rocket ship than other RS models past and present, this one doesn’t feel as singularly focussed as, say, the outgoing TT RS, or even some of its competitors (think BMW X6 M Performance).

Big Footprint, Small Drive

More than any other feature, it’s probably the four-wheel steering that best showcases the RS Q8’s dual-purpose nature and its ability to feel so accommodating. Directing the rear wheels opposite to those up front at speeds below 60 km/h and in the same direction above that velocity, the former for optimal maneuverability and the latter for maximum responsiveness, the system manages to make the massive SUV shrink, feeling more like a Q5 than a Q8.

Combined with the progressive programming of the steering system itself, which makes it feel lighter at lower speeds while getting heavier as the speedometer climbs, the RS Q8 is downright easy to drive. Sure, you’ll notice the extra heft it hauls around, but the big SUV is as painless to pilot as it is a pleasure whether around town, on the highway, or through winding mountain roads.

The Canary Islands – and specifically the largest of the eight, Tenerife – proved the perfect place to showcase the RS Q8’s Incredible Shrinking Sport Utility trick, with the narrow stretches of twisting roadway ideally suited for the four-wheel steering system. While an oncoming bus may seem like an anxiety-inducing affair when piloting such a brooding SUV, the RS Q8’s swift maneuverability is quick to inspire confidence while keeping it in its lane of travel.

With a propensity for those buses to cross into the oncoming lane on switchbacks up and down the island’s mountain roads, and some seriously deep ditches to contend with on the other side of the vehicle, the RS Q8 never flinched. Simply roll the steering wheel in the direction you want and it quickly and easily keeps the full-size SUV out of harm’s way. Ditto the optional carbon ceramic brakes, scrubbing speed quickly when called upon.

Serious Sibling Rivalry

There’s no denying Audi Sport’s flagship is heavy, but it doesn’t attempt to hide its mass. Every bit of the curb weight is felt from the driver’s seat, but it’s more bullet train than freight train, with an athleticism that leaves little doubt that the RS Q8 is ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.

This is where the VW Group genes shine through brightest – and where the sibling rivalry comes to a head. With most mechanical underpinnings shared with the Lamborghini Urus, differentiation is achieved through details. Specifically, it’s the software tuning that sets the two apart, with unique programming applied to everything from the all-wheel drive system to the steering, suspension, engine and transmission.

However, it’s more likely the RS Q8 will be cross-shopped against the Porsche Cayenne Turbo Coupe for their similarity in price, and there again they manage to feel different despite their shared DNA.

The platform, engine, and transmission are also shared here, though the Porsche puts out less horsepower and torque (541 hp; 567 lb-ft). Both do their jobs well, delivering sports car levels of performance in larger-than-life packages that defy what an SUV should be able to do. But one thing’s for sure: The Audi RS Q8 has a rare ability to deliver that impressive performance in a supremely supple package.

The trend towards so-called sport utility coupes isn’t going away anytime soon, and they aren’t without compromise – cargo room being the biggest. Another compromise when it comes to the Audi is its availability: It’s not set to go on sale until next summer as a 2021 model. However, if you’ve got your heart set on an SUV with a sleek design and performance chops to match, the RS Q8 could very well be worth the wait.