Audi SQ8 2024 review – too restrained for its own good?
Audi’s new SQ8 delivers the goods on paper, but is it a convincing rival to Porsche’s Cayenne S?
It's hard to tear your eyes away from a Sakhir Gold (read: pale brown) Audi SQ8. The customers that will order this colour will, we suspect, want as many eyeballs as possible on their brand new, £93,925 performance SUV. In this respect, the facelifted SQ8 – with its new nose, spangly new headlights and 22-inch wheels – absolutely hits the mark. What matters just as much, though, is whether there’s substance beyond the beige.
The updated SQ8 doesn’t break new ground. It still has the same swept-back body shape as before, the same 4-litre twin-turbo V8 engine and the same MLB Evo underpinnings. Sitting one rung below the 592bhp RSQ8 (soon to gain its own facelift), the SQ8 competes with the BMW X6 M60i, Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 and Porsche’s Cayenne S.
Scan the spec sheet and you might wonder whether you’re dealing with the full-fat RS model. The SQ8 gets a full suite of chassis electronics including rear-axle steering and S-tuned air suspension, with active roll control and a torque vectoring rear diff standard on top-spec Vorsprung models. The V8 generates 500bhp and 567lb ft of torque, and this 2240kg SUV digs in to reach 62mph in 4.1sec – the same as a BMW M2.
Does it feel that fast in reality? Almost, but not quite. It seems strange to say, but the V8 doesn’t have the nuclear gut punch you might expect from those figures, and the turbos take a moment to inhale before delivering full force. Aside from a contrived flare of revs and exhaust crackle on startup, there aren't any aural fireworks to accompany the performance either. The powertrain errs on the side of restraint, but its torque delivery is still effortless and satisfying to tap into.
You get the sense that the SQ8 is an SUV first and a performance car second, and it doesn't try to mash the two concepts together like BMW's X6 M or the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio. In Comfort mode the steering is light and easy, the brakes are progressive and rear-wheel steering makes it easy to duck and dive through town. It's less shouty and more subdued than most fast SUVs, but that's not to say there aren't compromises.
Rivals like Jaguar’s F-Pace SVR manage to be plush and sumptuous but rowdy when the mood takes you, but the SQ8 doesn't pull quite the same trick. No matter what mode you choose for the adaptive dampers, there's always an underlying brittleness to the ride and the steering can be nudged off course over ruts and heavily cambered roads. Everything feels slightly busier than it ought to, which isn't helped by the occasionally lumpy low-speed manners from the eight-speed torque converter auto.
Dig deeper and the SQ8 can’t shake the sense that it's an enormously heavy car. In Comfort mode there’s a floaty sensation that amplifies the sense of mass, and those body movements are magnified as you put more energy into your driving. The Balanced damper setting does a better job of controlling this without taking the ride to pieces, but it doesn’t transform the SQ8 into an enthusiastic dance partner.
On the slippery winter roads of our test the handling was one-dimensional – carry speed into a corner and the nose pushes wide lazily, and there isn’t much you can do to bring it back. Even if you over-slow the car for a tighter exit there’s none of the throttle-adjustability you might find in an equivalent BMW M product, the SQ8 putting its power down effectively but refusing to indulge the driver (our example came without the optional torque-vectoring rear diff). The steering, itself devoid of feel, tugs at your hands under full power over poor surfaces too.
The SQ8 makes it pretty clear when you’ve ventured beyond its comfort zone, and you’re unlikely to do so very often. Better to back off, flick up and down the swift auto ’box and enjoy what you can of that V8. At these lower speeds you’ll notice that the rear-axle steering provides a keener initial turn-in response than you’d expect, and the SQ8 feels much more cohesive.
It’s also built to an extremely high standard inside – everything from the stitching to the trim and switchgear exude the crisp, quality feel we’ve come to know from Audi. Arguably it’s a little too crisp to the point of being clinical; the design is all straight lines, flat surfaces and shiny black trims, where something like the Range Rover Sport feels more luxurious. The infotainment system is feature-rich but doesn’t offer the most intuitive menu layout, although the climate controls are at least a permanent fixture on the lower haptic-touch display. A few more physical buttons would be welcome nonetheless, not least because what switchgear there is feels wonderfully tactile to use.
Audi has undoubtedly left something in the tank for the soon-to-be-launched facelifted RSQ8, but it’s a shame it hasn’t given the SQ8 a strong enough personality of its own. BMW manages this with its M-lite models, but as it stands, the SQ8 is neither a particularly entertaining fast SUV nor as polished as the new Porsche Cayenne. In other words, it's in no-man’s land.