When I first arrived in Northern Chile to drive the new 2019 Audi Q8, it was hard for me to draw any similarities between the town of San Pedro de Atacama and the SUV. Located in the heart of the Atacama Desert—one of the driest places on Earth—San Pedro de Atacama sits 7,900 feet above sea level and is home to roughly 3,000 people. There are no paved roads, most of the houses are made of adobe, and dozens of dogs make the street their home. But once I drove a Q8 , the connection became clear. The singularity of the landscape—from the Licancabur volcano dressed in a thin layer of snow to the eye-catching rock formations of the Moon Valley—clicks with the capabilities of Audi’s newest SUV.
Most people who visit the Altiplano come here to explore its geography and culture. The blue sky contrasting with the copper color of the rocks, mixed with the rich Incan history and the colorful textiles sewed by local artisans give this region a character that’s not found in any other corner of the world. The Atacama Desert is known for its extreme climates; during our drive, temperatures ranged from 23 to 73 degrees, and we drove on snow, pavement, and dirt roads at elevations of over 14,000 feet.
Once it launches in the U.S. in the fourth quarter of this year, the 2019 Audi Q8 will be propelled by a 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6. The engine produces 335 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, and—for the first time in an Audi SUV—it’s mated to a mild-hybrid technology that integrates a lithium-ion battery and a belt alternator starter into a 48-volt electrical system. During braking, this system—essentially the same one as in the A8 sedan—can recover up to 12 kW of energy. The only transmission available is an eight-speed automatic that sends power to all four wheels via Audi’s Quattro system. A mechanical center differential sends 60 percent of the torque to the rear wheels and the other 40 percent to the front. Depending on the driving conditions, the center diff can send up to 85 percent of the torque to the rear wheels or up to 70 percent to the front.
This recipe, along with the adaptive air suspension and four-wheel steering, stood out on Atacama’s twisty dirt roads. The Q8 feels quite stable on tight corners, and the well-balanced steering provides good road feedback. The peppy engine doesn’t disappoint at high altitudes and got us moving quickly. The Q8 didn’t seem to suffer as much as I did from the high altitudes, and the air suspension did a great job keeping the vibrations to a minimum inside the cabin. Depending on the driving mode , the air suspension can adjust the ride height by as much as 3.5 inches; Offroad mode offers the highest ground clearance—10.0 inches.
Although most owners will drive their Q8 on paved roads, Audi prepped a short off-road section that consisted mostly of gravel. I used this opportunity to try the hill descent control, which controls acceleration and braking, leaving the driver to focus on the steering. Another nice feature: The Q8 displays the inclination and roll angles on the infotainment screen. During our time on the off-road track, we saw roll angles of up to 21 degrees.
The Q8 is Audi’s version of a premium four-door coupe-like SUV. Even though it looks more like a lifted hatchback, the Q8 is a looker on the road. The SUV’s 22-inch rims—the biggest standard rims on an Audi model—along with the muscular wheel arches, give the Q8 a lean look. From the back, the taillights connect via a black panel that’s easy to distinguish from afar. “We wanted to create a completely new car that would stand out from our Audi range,” said lead exterior designer Sascha Heyde. Adding to that, the new octagonal front grille with its vertical chrome struts gives the Q8 a more aggressive look in contrast with other Q models.
The Q8 rides on the MLB platform shared with the Q7, but Audi’s flagship SUV is shorter, lower, and wider. There’s great visibility from the driver’s seat—even to the back, where the rear windshield drops dramatically to create the coupelike look Audi was aiming for. The cabin is remarkably quiet thanks to a double-layer windshield and acoustic windows, and all of the occupants will enjoy the Q8’s spaciousness. This 6-foot journalist had plenty of legroom in the second row when the driver’s seat was set to my driving position, and there’s plenty of headroom and shoulder room. Another plus, the second row folds in a 40/20/40 configuration and slides both forward and backward, increasing the space for legroom or cargo room. Two adults can ride comfortably in the back, with a third passenger in the middle straddling a notable drivetrain hump. One thing we hope to see in the future is more USB ports, as there are only two in the center console; backseat passengers get two 12V ports.
Regardless of how many people ride in the second row, every occupant will enjoy the technology and the cabin’s clean design. Step into the sleek interior, and you’ll notice the simple, elegant lines. What appear to be black panels on the center console light up when the Q8 powers on—they’re actually two touchscreens. Just like in the new A6, A7, and A8, the lower screen displays the HVAC controls and can also be used as a writing surface for the navigation system. When you touch an icon on either display, you’ll feel a smooth vibration, confirming that you’ve actually touched a button, which is useful when you’re driving. Once it gets dark, the slim ambient lighting illumination along the door panels, center console, and dash are a treat for every occupant.
Instead of saying a command while using Audi’s new voice control, you can simply talk as if you were having a conversation. For example, if the temperature is too cold, you simply press the voice control button on the steering wheel and say, “It’s getting chilly.” The system will ask you what temperature you want the A/C at, and once you respond, will change it for you. The system can also suggest restaurants when you say, “I’m hungry,” and works like this for other commands, as well. I tried it with a few different commands and, even with my strong Spanish accent, the system worked flawlessly.
While the Atacama Desert might be known for its breathtaking landscapes and difficult terrains, the Audi Q8 proved to be the right chariot to take on the adventure. With its superior ground clearance, useful technology, and decent power, Audi’s flagship SUV is a sporty model that enjoys being outdoors. And with a look that’s different from the rest of Audi’s lineup and its competition, it offers buyers a new alternative that’s attractive and dynamic.