Audi comes into the super-fast SUV marketplace by shoehorning the 4.0-litre biturbo V8 from the RS 7 Sportback into the nose of its flagship Q8, creating a high-riding five-seat 4x4 that can get to the far side of 300km/h if it so wishes. But can it show the dynamic promise that other, recent RS Audis have, or is it just a big, powerful battering ram of a performance machine?
In the metal
If we were to say that the new Audi RS Q8 is, in our opinion, the best-looking coupe-SUV of them all, that's not intended to be faintly derogatory to Audi's new halo model, in some way obliquely hinting that it's the least ugly of a particularly divisive breed. Although there would be plenty who would attest such a thing. However, the more we are exposed to the design of the Audi Q8, the more we like it, and, in the muscular form of the RS variant, it has reached its zenith. It has the typical current, scowling face of any hot Audi, complete with a socking great honeycomb grille in Gloss Black, air intakes that look like they could inhale a small village and three vents just beneath the bonnet's leading edge, as well as a wider frame - 10mm at the front, 5mm at the back, although it's not the actual wings that are flared but a set of body-coloured wheel arch spats doing the visual fattening. At the back is a diffuser, trademark Audi RS oval twin-pipes for the exhaust system and a spoiler atop the boot that is claimed to actually provide downforce on the rear axle at speed. But now we need to talk about unsprung weight.
This is the part of any car that is not supported by the suspension, which typically means the wheels, brakes and anything attached to them (like carrier hubs and so on). Without going into the whys and wherefores and possible counter-arguments to our following, grossly over-simplified statement, the less unsprung mass you have then the better the road-holding and handling of a vehicle; it's why lightweight alloy wheels are so covetous among the performance-car elite. So, allow us to stun you by telling you the RS Q8 comes on colossal 22-inch wheels as standard, but has the option for a truly goliath set of 23s if you so wish. The rumour going around on the launch was that each - EACH - 23-inch wheel and 295/35 tyre weighs 45kg on its own; good grief, that's preposterous! Furthermore, to stop a car with the sort of corrupting power of the RS Q8, the brakes are almost as ginormous: 420mm front discs are gripped by ten-piston, yes, ten-piston callipers, while the rear discs are 370mm items. And that's the standard spec, because RS ceramic brakes are an option, which are stepped up to 440mm rotors at the nose. Opt for these stoppers and the unsprung weight is reduced by a considerable 34kg (8.5kg a corner), somewhat mitigating the 23s, but hinting at the fact there's a lot of mass at every corner of a massive car: the RS Q8 tips the scales at 2,315kg without so much as a driver onboard.
Anyway, we'll come onto how the weight affects the driving, or otherwise, shortly. Inside, it's the usual top-notch quality cabin of an Audi Q8, enhanced with RS baubles and glitter (well, we are approaching Christmas). You get a flattened-off steering wheel, RS Super Sports seats in Valcona leather, RS-specific displays in two of the three digital screens of the MMI Touch system, loads of RS logos and an RS Mode button on the steering wheel. You can optionally choose to have bits of Alcantara and carbon fibre added to the surfaces as well, to further up the ambience. Not that you need to much; the interior is a belter.
Beyond the big brakes, wide tyres and aero-inducing rear spoiler, Audi gives the RS Q8 a fearsome drivetrain and chassis setup to allow it to go like holy stink and corner with an agility that belies its bulk. At its disposal is a 4.0-litre, twin-turbocharged V8 petrol engine developing 600hp and 800Nm, robust outputs that, in the case of the former, easily eclipses the next model down the Q8 tree (the 435hp turbodiesel SQ8), although the SQ8 has more torque with a peak of 900Nm. Nevertheless, the RS is the performance top dog: channelling all that power through an eight-speed automatic gearbox to all four wheels, the 0-100km/h time is comfortably below four seconds and, if you fit the dynamic option pack, the top speed is a limited 305km/h. That makes it one of the very fastest SUVs on Earth.
So that's the speed taken care of. In terms of handling, the RS Q8 is a mild hybrid electric vehicle (MHEV) with a 48-volt supplementary electrical system, which is said to save up to 0.8 litres/100km through its coasting and kinetic energy recuperation abilities, but whose main purpose is to power the active anti-roll bar (ARB) system of the Audi, as well as its four-wheel-steering system. Those ARBs can disconnect themselves to improve the ride quality, because the RS Q8 sits on air suspension with a 90mm range of body-height adjustability, so hopefully the SUV has the refinement and comfort thing licked, but a final string to the Q8's handling bow is a quattro Sport differential with a nominal 40:60 front-rear bias, with up to 70 per cent of torque able to flow to the front of the SUV and a maximum 85 per cent going to the back.
The outcome of all of this is a performance coupe-SUV that deserves to stand comparison with the best in the business. First up, the RS Q8 is monumentally fast, bludgeoning its way to 160km/h and more with a comical ease that's most at odds with your knowledge of its kerb weight. It also sounds fabulous, the Active Sound exhaust system having an actuator (so cue 'ugh, it's augmented' from sniffy types) to bolster its voice, but the overall symphony is pleasingly natural in tone and properly V8 in its roar. The steering is excellent too, surprisingly light in weighting for such a large machine but not numb or inconsistent; it's not replete with feel, of course, but it's another of those likeable Audi S/RS set-ups that is restoring our faith in Audi Sport's steering engineers.
That facet of the SUV, plus the absolutely ridiculous carbon brakes (which were fitted to our 23-inch-wheel-shod test car), allows you to set the RS Q8 for corners with near-impunity, whereupon you'll find the Audi will dissect the three stages of any bend (turn-in, apex and exit) with a talent that's quite extraordinary. Body roll on the air-sprung, active-anti-roll suspension is non-existent, to the degree that you can be a passenger in a very hard-driven RS Q8 and you won't be moving about in your bucket seat very much at all. Understeer is also only encountered with the most brutal and deliberately provocative of inputs. Meanwhile, if you manage to get on the power sharpish out of a corner then you can get the mighty SUV to slide; it's only a tiny bit, mind, all quickly gathered by the electronics and the quattro differential, but there's a scintilla of oversteer to be had.
Hook it all together and the RS Q8 is remorseless at covering all sorts of ground, and covering it at a ferocious pace to boot. It's also more involving than a monstrous SUV of this size has any right to be, albeit we would say you are constantly aware of the Audi's physical dimensions (its width, in particular) on narrower, intricate roads and the brakes have a bit of a slack zone at the top of their travel, this being a direct result of their regenerative duties. But the handling is marvellous for a car of this class. As is the refinement. While there's a firm, taut edge to the ride quality - even in Comfort mode, which never quite lets you forget the big wheels at all four corners of the car - generally the suspension is incredibly forgiving and the noise suppression is ridiculously absolute, so when you just need the RS Q8 to cruise quietly, it will do it with no shortage of polished aplomb.
This all sounds very positive, doesn't it? And we have to say that, for its intended target market - that of diehard Audi RS fans - the RS Q8 could not have been executed any better than it has been. Looks mean, goes dementedly fast, should be dependable and indecently quick in poorer weather, has the luxurious and technologically advanced cabin and handles with more composure than something this gigantic has even the slightest right to. But if you're expecting us to say that driving it is a revelatory experience, one that transcends what you're hoping for... then, sadly, that's not the case. It's deeply impressive, the RS Q8, and no small amount of fun to charge it along the right roads, but it's not out-and-out thrilling. And you can't help wondering why, if you're a fan of mega-power super-practical Audis anyway, you wouldn't just buy the new RS 6 Avant with this engine in the first place. Unless you've got dodgy hips and you can't climb down into and up out of a car.
What you get for your money
Although Audi Ireland hasn't confirmed the price of the RS Q8 as yet, or even if it will come here, from the price list for the rest of the Q8 range and how much the 600hp SUV costs elsewhere in Europe, we can extrapolate a bit and give the RS a mark here - especially as we know fine well that our VRT laws will not be kind on the windscreen sticker of a vehicle that emits a simply outrageous 277g/km of CO2. Therefore, we cannot possibly imagine the RS Q8 will be the right side of €150,000 if it makes it to these shores, and it's more than likely that it will rather be pushing on for €200,000 instead. Factor in high-spec Carbon Black and Vorsprung versions, and there's every chance these will be beyond €200k. There is, however, a most generous standard spec on the RS Q8, including a ten-speaker Audi Sound system with a six-channel, 180-watt amp, DAB, Audi Smartphone Interface, Audi Phone Box with wireless charging, Amazon Alexa Integration, Audi Music Interface and a shedload of active safety systems, which perhaps - along with its searing performance and rock-steady handling - somewhat mitigates the expected expense of the imposing Audi.
The Audi RS Q8 is another one of those technical marvels, a masterpiece of weight management and easily accessible speed that thoroughly wows you with its ability to handle and accelerate like something so much smaller and lighter. And, give it all due credit, it never actually feels a heavy vehicle when you're out on the roads in it. For those who really key into the Audi go-fast ethos, it is close to perfect. For those looking for a bit more involvement and reward, it's bound to leave you feeling a bit cool. For those who just want another choice in the shockingly quick SUV world, then the superb RS Q8 is well worthy of serious consideration - if you've got the money to buy and run it, of course.