Audi SQ8 long-term test: our final verdict

Published: 23 November 2020

► CAR lives with an Audi SQ8
► It’s a brash, fast, diesel coupe SUV
► At least it’s not a BMW X6…

Anyone else prefer the way their car looks with a roof box or bike rack fitted? After months of struggling with my SQ8’s exterior design, I suddenly got the hots for it when it came back from Audi with its original 22-inch wheels and summer rubber fitted, and Audi’s three-bike carrier attached to the optional roof rails.

The bike rack is easily the best I’ve used: simple and secure and with adjustment precise enough to trust with costly carbon bikes that really don’t like to be squeezed. But it also changed the car’s proportions, bolstering the slightly apologetic hatchback profile of the glasshouse and making it a better match for the more muscular lower body, especially that massive nose.

It might also have eased my philosophical problems with this car. I’ve struggled to understand why you’d choose this over a more practical Q7 or a quicker RS6. But with the rack fitted (taking the pressure off the compromised boot) I could see the SQ8 fitting into that ‘active lifestyle’ so beloved of the marketeers: maybe firing four people down the autobahn with its peerless pace and composure, before bouncing down some dirt track to their destination, where they’d unclip their mountain bikes and head up an Alp. Neither a standard Q7/Q8 nor an RS6 would handle both as well, and I really should be working in advertising.

Audi SQ8 bike rack

I borrowed a Q7 plug-in hybrid while the SQ8 was away, and while its electric running felt a lot more socially acceptable than driving Europe’s most powerful passenger diesel, it also felt tall and wobbly by comparison. With the active anti-roll and rear-steer, Audi’s engineers have done an astonishing job in getting this 2.3-tonne SUV’s dynamics so close to those of the RS6. With its 48v electrical architecture, the SQ8 is a very mild hybrid, but it uses those volts to power the active anti-roll, among other things. You can sense where its priorities lie. Still, a fairly consistent 28.0mpg over the test was impressive given its weight and power, and will bother those who buy one not one bit.

If I had £108,000 to spend on a car, I don’t think it would go on one of these – not that Audi is aiming to sell many of these deliberately polarising cars. Whatever I have next might be of a more conventional, comprehensible ‘type’, and of greater credibility with car nerds. But it plainly won’t be able to match that titan of an engine, nor the massive standard spec that comes with this Vorsprung version of the SQ8, nor the cabin materials and quality that comfortably saw off the Bentley that shared my drive for two months. ‘Bargain’ was not among the verdicts I thought I’d deliver on this car.

By Ben Oliver

Logbook: Audi SQ8

Price £104,240 (£106,640 as tested) 
Performance 3956cc twin-turbo V8, 429bhp, 4.8sec 0-62mph, 155mph 
Efficiency 36.2mpg (official), 28.0mpg (tested), 240g/km CO2 
Energy cost 21.4p per mile 
Miles this month 1710
Total miles 7124


Month 6 living with an Audi SQ8: Murray’s nemesis

I’ve been interviewing Gordon Murray for 15 years now, and never once managed to arrive at his gaff in something he’d approve of. The worst was my lardy, secondhand, W12-engined first-generation Bentley Continental GT, which had to be parked around the corner lest he cancel our appointment.

The Audi SQ8 is definitely not a Gordon Murray kind of car. I didn’t actually park it out of sight, but neither did I feel comfortable taking the space next to the Light Lord’s svelte blue Alpine A110. I was at his new factory at Dunsfold for a preview of the T.50: not a bad way to emerge from four months of trying to be a motoring journalist without seeing or driving anything new. It was the first trip in a long time that required sat-nav, and I was reminded how much I like the ability to scrawl the address with your fingertip: a system so intuitive it can even figure out my five-year-old’s handwriting.

The SQ8 has been criminally underused, though. The 21-inch winter tyres will soon (finally!) be swapped for the original 22-inch rubber, and we’ll make a long, three-up summer road trip with luggage. I’d love to see you do that in your fancy, £2.3m T.50 hypercar, Gordon. What’s that you say? Oh…

By Ben Oliver

Logbook: Audi SQ8

Price £104,240 (£106,640 as tested) 
Performance 3956cc twin-turbo V8, 429bhp, 4.8sec 0-62mph, 155mph 
Efficiency 36.2mpg (official), 28.0mpg (tested), 240g/km CO2 
Energy cost 21.4p per mile 
Miles this month 17
Total miles 6222


Month 6 living with an Audi SQ8: the shape of luxury in 2020

SQ8 interior

What is it with me, Bentleys and the end of the world? The last time things melted down this spectacularly, in the financial crisis of 2008, my long-term test car was a used Continental GT. Driving that car at that time made me feel like a Depression-era Woolf Barnato cruising blithely past the queues for soup kitchens in his 4.5 litre. It felt even less appropriate when my meagre life savings disappeared (temporarily, thankfully) down an Icelandic geyser. I could barely afford the fuel, and searched Yahoo for countries within driving distance but without extradition treaties to which I could abscond with the car and what remained of its residual value.

This time I had the keys to a new, third-generation Bentley Flying Spur when the crisis struck. It was delivered to my place on the day lockdown was announced. The next day an email arrived from Bentley asking if I’d look after its £168,300 car indefinitely. It was here for two months.

So naturally I’ve been asked to write a comparison between the Bentley and my long-term Audi SQ8. But the Audi didn’t get a lot of use while the Bentley was here. When you’re scouring Soviet-era supermarket shelves for flour and yeast and having your hair cut with dog clippers, you’ll make the most of whatever glamour is available, so if there was a journey to be made it was made by Bentley.

The poor SQ8 was reduced to fulfilling only the ‘U’ element of its SUV designation, occasionally hauling the bicycles, tents and barbecues required to keep kids entertained. A friend suggested that we take both cars out one night, and with their sliding sunroofs and blinding main beams go lamping for rabbits. But living on a farm with hundreds of rapidly fattening lambs, meat was the one thing we weren’t short of. Would have made an unusual twin test, though.

SQ8 LTT bentley side

But when lockdown eased and Bentley’s men came in their biohazard suits to repossess the Flying Spur, I didn’t mourn its loss. The Audi is so crushingly omni-capable and so flawlessly made that even the loss of a Bentley doesn’t leave you feeling hard done by. It’s also a lot more appropriate for a scruffy father of two who lives on a farm. It certainly felt better bolted-together than the Bentley, whose cabin electronics would shut down momentarily after a pothole, and whose retractable winged-B strictly obeyed the government advice to stay inside. And although I was grateful for the Spur’s grace and space and waft, its cabin didn’t feel like something that no other car maker could do, as Bentleys once did. Too much chromed and bendy plastic, not enough knurled and polished aluminium.

Yes, criticisms like that seem irrelevant at times like this, but there wasn’t much else to think about. Along with banana bread, clapping, bog-roll shortages, Boris and Joe bloody Wicks, the fact that we had a 207mph Bentley parked outside and could barely use it will be how the kids and I remember these strangest of days.

By Ben Oliver

Logbook: Audi SQ8

Price £104,240 (£106,640 as tested) 
Performance 3956cc twin-turbo V8, 429bhp, 4.8sec 0-62mph, 155mph 
Efficiency 36.2mpg (official), 27.0mpg (tested), 240g/km CO2 
Energy cost 22.0p per mile 
Miles this month 147
Total miles 5212


Month 5 living with an Audi SQ8: its own calendar

Sq8 ltt tyres

As a fan of the ‘steel wheel everything’ Instagram account, I was secretly delighted when they nicked a photo of the Volvo V90 I ran a couple of years back and Photoshopped on a set of steel rims. While I disapprove of anyone abusing this magazine’s copyright material, it looked sensational.

I thought a set of winter tyres on steel rims might look cool/funny on this SQ8. Sadly the biggest I could find were 20s, and when the SQ8 comes as standard on 22s, they would have looked lost. Even the standard Audi winter option 21s I went for look slightly apologetic: only in the weird world of the performance SUV can a 21-inch rim be considered too small.

Why am I talking about winter tyres in summer? As I write, they’re just about to come off, not having seen a flake of snow. If you have a car that requires rare and gargantuan rubber, it’s worth ordering winters now if you plan to run them, but also thinking about the cost. You’re likely to have to downsize, so consider too how much of your car’s visual appeal depends on keeping the locomotive wheels it came on.

By Ben Oliver

Logbook: Audi SQ8

Price £104,240 (£106,640 as tested) 
Performance 3956cc twin-turbo V8, 429bhp, 4.8sec 0-62mph, 155mph 
Efficiency 36.2mpg (official), 27.0mpg (tested), 240g/km CO2 
Energy cost 22.0p per mile 
Miles this month 98
Total miles 5065


Month 4 living with an Audi SQ8: Bentley oars in

SQ8 LTT bentley

Recent events conspired to leave a new Bentley Flying Spur stuck at my house for weeks, alongside my Audi SQ8. With a total value of £274,940, they represented a significant chunk of the VW Group’s balance sheet.

Comparisons had to be static rather than dynamic, sadly, but I prefer the Audi’s cabin. You wouldn’t expect a six-figure car like the Audi to be trounced by its ritzier stablemate, but I think it outpoints the Bentley. There are simply fewer panel fits and switches to quibble with, whereas the Bentley looks more ornate but disappoints when you extend one of its organ-stop blower controls, and find that it’s plastic.

By Ben Oliver

Logbook: Audi SQ8

Price £104,240 (£106,640 as tested) 
Performance 3956cc twin-turbo V8, 429bhp, 4.8sec 0-62mph, 155mph 
Efficiency 36.2mpg (official), 27.3mpg (tested), 240g/km CO2 
Energy cost 22.0p per mile 
Miles this month 808
Total miles 4967


Month 3 living with an Audi SQ8: you drive our car

SQ8 you drive lead

Audi has never made an SQ8 before, and its big, premium, SUV-coupe rivals are rare and offer little to match the Audi’s monstrous twin-turbo, 429bhp diesel V8. So assembling a panel of readers with direct prior experience of such cars to test my long-term SQ8 would have been tricky.

Most buyers will be converts from another breed of car anyway: maybe fast-estate owners finally going SUV, or SUV owners going properly fast. So of my test crew, two have a motoring history that has the SQ8 surrounded and makes them likely converts. And one is a wild card: a four-wheel-drive aficionado whom the SQ8 will be doing very well indeed to convince.

Meet the readers

John Potts
Long-term thumping-great V8 owner and fond of a premium SUV too, John has been finding his current Mustang a handful in the wet and has been making eyes at Ben’s SQ8

Luke Salvage
With a motoring history that includes a string of Range Rovers and a Bentley Continental, Luke ought to be a prime SQ8 prospect. Sorely tempted by an SVR; can this diesel finally win him over to super-SUVs?

Jon Holmes
A leading Land Rover restorer, Jon is more used to 70-year-old off-roaders with an 80-inch wheelbase and bodywork no higher than your hip. Can the SQ8’s mighty torque uproot his cynicism?

The test

So, the judges. One, appropriately, is retired senior lawyer John Potts. Despite his elegant courtroom manners and to the despair of his wife and children he has long favoured loud American V8 sports cars: Chevy Corvettes, Camaros and now a new Ford Mustang. But he has also run big SUVs before: most recently a Mercedes GL350. Might he consider uniting his love of V8s and premium SUVs with an SQ8? He’s a neighbour, and admits eyeing up my car and wondering if it’s right for him. He’s also thinking about a GLS 63. Audi should consider him a hot prospect, but he’s the first to rule himself out.

Audi SQ8 you drive our cars

‘I’ve always been partial to Audis since I drove one of the first Quattros to arrive here 40 years ago,’ John says, ‘and I do like the idea of something that’s fast but which I don’t have to stoop to get into. But looking inside your car properly for the first time, the bootspace and the sloping roofline just kill it for me. If my wife bought one moderately sized piece of furniture which needed transporting with the seats down, we’d be stuck. And what’s the point of an SUV that can’t do that?’

Next is Luke Salvage, a property developer and building contractor, and another neighbour. Luke claims not to be a Land Rover anorak but his driveway makes him look like one, with a very early 80-inch Series 1, a Series II and a last-of-line Heritage Defender.

His daily drivers have mostly been V6 Solihull diesels, with a long line of new Range Rovers and Discoverys. But he could be tempted away from both diesels and Land Rover’s keen finance deals: he got close to buying a Range Rover Sport SVR, had a Bentley Continental, and his favourite car was a Merc G-Wagen.

I know I can sway him: last summer he drove my Discovery 5 long-term test car while I was getting my kids dusty in his Series 1, and he chopped in his white Discovery 4 for the new model soon after.
And Luke seems more positive than John… at first. ‘The interior is fantastic, and I like the honesty of an Audi,’ he says as he drives the SQ8. ‘You know that most of the engineering has been done in-house, rather than Bentley and even Porsche nicking Audi’s bits for their SUVs.’

But the engine isn’t the selling point I’d hoped it would be. ‘That extra power is impressive but it’s hard to justify. A three-litre diesel is a great all-rounder. I’ve been tempted by more powerful SUVs in the past but driving this now, I remember why I couldn’t bring myself to commit to one.

‘And I can’t get over how much it is! Over a hundred grand? I thought it was a Q5 when I first saw you driving it. It just doesn’t have the wow factor that people spending that sort of money want. You’d be upstaged by some lad in a 25-grand, 80,000-mile, 2013 Range Rover.

‘Maybe it’s the body shape. It’s stuck somewhere in between a coupe and a SUV, and it needs to be either-or. I think I’d find a standard Q7 a lot more appealing.’

Oh dear. Both of Audi’s actual prospects have rejected my SQ8. Audi would doubtless counter, fairly, that the SQ8 is meant to be a polarising car, and that it might only have to convert one prospect in a hundred for it to meet its ‘exclusive’ sales targets. But Audi might be surprised to find that the SQ8’s biggest fan on our panel is a man more used to driving cars that don’t have heaters, let alone speakers that pipe the sound of the engine into the cabin.

Despite his irritating youth (he’s only 29) Jon Holmes is already one of the country’s leading Land Rover restorers. He sourced many of the base Series 1s for Land Rover’s Reborn in-house restoration programme, and his services are sought out by those who really know their stuff.

Audi SQ8 side pan

He is probably not an SQ8 prospect, but he does know a thing or two about off-roaders, drives a Toyota Land Cruiser V8 daily and likes a powerful diesel, having just sold a viper-green, 5.5-litre Unimog.

‘It has a proper engine in it,’ says Jon, chuckling softly as he floors the SQ8 for the first time, clearly enjoying it in a way the other two did not.

‘It’s mad quick. The torque numbers are insane. I’m not even trying and I’m already speeding. I do take Luke’s point about the image, but I think there’s a lot of people who’d like a car this fast that just blends in.’
And the SQ8’s off-road ability, irrelevant though it may be? I’d expected talented mud-plugger Jon to be scathing. ‘It would be just as good as a Range Rover for what you’d actually need it to do. These systems are really clever on slippery surfaces like wet grassy car parks. And if it did get stuck, imagine how high it would throw the mud.’

By Ben Oliver

Logbook: Audi SQ8

Price £104,240 (£106,640 as tested) 
Performance 3956cc twin-turbo V8, 429bhp, 4.8sec 0-62mph, 155mph 
Efficiency 36.2mpg (official), 27.0mpg (tested), 240g/km CO2 
Energy cost 22.0p per mile 
Miles this month 789
Total miles 4159


Month 2 living with an Audi SQ8: when it comes to the crunch

I’ve just had the weirdest accident in the SQ8. I won’t share the details (yet) lest I cause the insurers any anxiety, but I doubt I’ll ever experience anything odder than the slightly hallucinogenic quality of the behaviour and appearance of the other driver. I can tell you about the car’s behaviour and appearance, though.

If it wasn’t for the SQ8’s extraordinary braking, grip and stability helping me to get out of the way, a front-end kiss and light panel damage might have been a lot worse. All that stuff about feeling secure people come out with when they buy a tall SUV is justified, as is the idea that a high-performance car with a surfeit of braking and grip is more likely to avoid an accident than an ordinary one.

By Ben Oliver

Logbook: Audi SQ8

Price £104,240 (£106,640 as tested) 
Performance 3956cc twin-turbo V8, 429bhp, 4.8sec 0-62mph, 155mph 
Efficiency 36.2mpg (official), 27.3mpg (tested), 240g/km CO2 
Energy cost 22.7p per mile 
Miles this month 407
Total miles 3370


Month 1 living with an Audi SQ8: hello and welcome

Audi SQ8 hello

Ben Pulman, the HAL 9000 of CAR’s long-term test fleet, informs me that this is the first SUV-coupe we’ve ever run. I wonder what you’ll make of it. Old-school car enthusiasts aren’t keen on SUVs, tend to dislike performance SUVs even more, and find marketing-led SUV-coupe mash-ups to be troubling, to say the least. My new Audi SQ8 is all three.

For a brief, glorious moment the SQ8 was Audi’s flagship SUV, before the covers were whipped from the petrol-powered, 592bhp, Urus-lite RS Q8. I don’t feel like my new wheels and I have been upstaged, however. I still have Europe’s most powerful diesel engine at my disposal: a 4.0-litre twin-turbo which makes 429bhp, 664lb ft and a lovely, subtle (though electronically enhanced) V8 gurgle.

There’s a slight concession to conscience in the form of a 48-volt mild hybrid system which doesn’t drive the wheels directly, but allows the SQ8 to coast above 35mph and powers the active anti-roll system, improving efficiency by around five per cent to a claimed 36.2mpg average on the old NEDC figures.

Audi SQ8 interior

It’s hard to believe an Audi SUV with an on-the-road price of £104,240 – before options – isn’t the top of its range, but we live in strange times. The base SQ8 costs £81,740. My Vorsprung version is the only other trim level and attempts to justify the gigantic leap in price by including pretty much Audi’s entire suite of comfort, infotainment and safety features, including the active anti-roll and rear-steer systems which can’t be added to the base car.

Of the few options it’s possible to fit to a Vorsprung, mine gets the £475 rear side airbag and £325 upgraded tyre pressure monitoring system, both of which feel like they ought be standard. And £750 for anything other than solid paint is just cheeky. I remember metallic paint being an exotic option on the Nissan Bluebird my mum ordered new in 1987: on a £100k premium SUV in 2020 it feels like a stealth tax. The £450 for red brake calipers and £400 for roof rails are more matters of preference: I’d choose the rails, to give me the option of compensating for the SQ8’s lesser boot volume with a roof box.

I collected the SQ8 from CAR HQ, where it was busy polarising the staff. Most seemed to love the way it drove but disliked the looks. James Taylor, in whose dynamic assessments you can usually have utter faith, disagreed, liking the looks but saying the SQ8 felt like it was permanently driving over a cattle grid. After my first 1000 or so miles, I have to say I’m siding with the majority. Dynamically, the SQ8 feels as crushingly omni-capable as you’d hope. I’m just not sure I get on with the design. It looks like what it is: a full-size SUV below the glasshouse, and a hatchback above it. This gives it odd proportions, the heavy, bulbous nose seeming unrelated to a rear upper-deck which looks like it’s been pinched from a car two classes below.

Audi SQ8 LTT front quarter

At least it’s not as offensive as an X6. A friend squinted slightly at mine, asked ‘What actually is it? Is it the same kind of car as that BMW that everyone hates?’ and then reassured me she didn’t think it looked anywhere near as awful. I agree: in Orca Black the SQ8 is fairly subtle for a 2.3-tonne performance SUV. It’s a pity a car which flies under the radar has its nose disfigured by two actual radars, which protrude very obviously through the grille.

Polarising cars such as the SQ8 make the best long-term tests. And if it’s a type of car we’ve not lived with before, even better. I’d probably feel broadly the same way about an A6 Avant at the beginning and end of a long-term test. With the SQ8, I’ve no idea if its performance and quality will outweigh the fuel bills, compromised practicality, and the hours lost staring at it and scratching my head. But I look forward to finding out.

By Ben Oliver

Logbook: Audi SQ8

Price £104,240 (£106,640 as tested) 
Performance 3956cc twin-turbo V8, 429bhp, 4.8sec 0-62mph, 155mph 
Efficiency 36.2mpg (official), 26.2mpg (tested), 240g/km CO2 
Energy cost 22.7p per mile 
Miles this month 1301
Total miles 2963

By Ben Oliver

Contributing editor, watch connoisseur, purveyor of fine features

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