Audi SQ8 e-tron review

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Audi's SQ8 e-tron sets the standard for handling when it comes to large EVs. Jonathan Crouch takes a look.

Ten Second Review

For ultimate EV performance, it's no longer sufficient for a brand to merely give its electric vehicle a drive motor on the front axle to add to the one at the back. As Audi's two SQ8 e-tron models show, ideally you'd want three motors. The result is more power, more grip and better handling: it's all good.

Background

You probably won't have heard of Audi's e-tron S, a large luxury high performance version of the brand's e-tron electric model. The S version arrived in 2020 with a bit of tech the EV sector hadn't previously seen. Offered in SUV and sleeker Sportback firms, the e-tron S was the market's first EVs to use three electric drive motors, one on the front axle and two at the rear. The result, predictably, was explosive performance.

Even more significantly, having two motors on the rear axle allowed Audi to further reinvent the EV version of its quattro four wheel drive system, drive at speed able to switch not only from front to rear but between each of the back wheels. So grip and traction were never in doubt. Audi reckoned this system set a fresh standard for the way a big EV could handle and they weren't wrong. But customer take-up was slow. So the Ingolstadt brand has revitalised this model and given it a new name, the SQ8 e-tron.

Driving Experience

It's been over forty years since Audi redefined performance driving with its quattro all wheel drive system. With this SQ8 e-tron model, you could argue that the brand has redefined it once again - for a very different era, this being (currently) the EV market's only electric vehicle to use three drive motors. The larger electric motor that on a conventional Q8 e-tron sits at the rear has here been moved to the front, freeing up space for twin smaller motors to sit on the back axle, allowing torque vectoring and fully variable torque distribution between the rear wheels for what should be considerably enhanced cornering agility.

The difference here is that you get real confidence through tighter, twistier turns, thanks to the electronic torque vectoring system's ability to individually control the amount of drive fed to each individual rear wheel with pinpoint accuracy, based on the grip and load active on either side of the car as you drive through each corner.

It's sort of like a mechanical limited slip differential, except that here, there's nothing but software linking the two rear motors - and they respond up to 25% quicker. While all this is going on, wheel selective torque control on the front axle uses the discs and pads to gently brake the inside front wheel as you turn, further helping to rotate the car into the turn as the rear tyres edge towards their limit. The only disappointment, as with the more ordinary Q8 e-tron models, lies with the relative lack of steering feel, a familiar Audi issue, though the variable-ratio 'Progressive' rack is certainly accurate. If only though, it gave you the same confidence as the drive system, what a car this would be.

Extra motive power in this SQ8 e-tron model means a higher output of course - up to 435PS with 808Nm of torque; or, with the 'S' mode engaged for overtaking, 503PS, with a thumping 973Nm of torque. Enough to simply hurl this Audi at the horizon; 62mph from rest is recorded at 4.5s, but it feels quicker than that because the pulling power is so instant, tailing off only as you edge close to the 130mph maximum.

Design and Build

You might not think the styling changes made here over the old e-tron S to be that dramatic but they've been enough to usefully benefit the aerodynamics, which with the SUV body style have improved from 0.28 to 0.26Cd. That has less to do with the cosmetic updates and more to do with the new underbody spoilers you can't see, mounted under the MLB Evo platform to direct air away from the wheels. The smarter grille also has electronically-controlled cooling ducts and is set within a reprofiled bumper. The LED headlamps gain new functions (an orientation light for country roads and a lane light complete with a direction indicator). The tail lamps have been revised too, above another restyled bumper.

You'll find less that's new inside - but less needed doing there. Audi insists it's different though, primarily in its eco-friendliness. Carpets (like the sound deadening material) are made from recycled fibres, the seatbelt buckles are moulded from reused automotive plastic waste and where microfibre upholstery features, it's sourced from recycled plastic bottles. All of it supporting Audi's claim that this is a completely carbon neutral vehicle. Otherwise, it's as you were with the old e-tron S: this SQ8 e-tron model is set apart by Valcona leather-rimmed Super sport seats with diamond stitching and SQ8 embossing.

As in an ordinary Q8 e-tron, you get a 10.1-inch centre screen and an 8.6-inch lower climate control panel, plus the usual 12.3-inch 'Digital cockpit' instrument display. What else? Well like the Q5 and the Q7, the back seat is comfortable for two but not really for three. With the SUV body style, there's a decently-sized 660-litre boot - that's 45-litres bigger than the alternative Sportback body shape. And as with that car, you get an extra little carriage compartment at the front where the engine would normally be, though it's mostly taken up by the charging leads. You could put a laptop or a small bag there though.

Market and Model

The SQ8 e-tron model commands a premium of around £12,000 over a comparable two-motor 'Black Edition'-equipped Q8 55 e-tron variant in the standard range. At the time of launch, that meant a starting price for the SQ8 e-tron with the conventional SUV body shape of around £97,500; you'll need £2,500 more for the sleeker Sportback body style. Either way, that gets you standard 'Black Edition' trim; you'll need £117,000 with either body shape for plusher 'Vorsprung'-spec.

As for rivals to this SQ8 e-tron, well there aren't any other three-motor EV models in the segment, but there are plenty you might be tempted by - cars like Porsche's Taycan Sport Turismo and the top version of BMW's iX model, the xDrive50, which offers more driving range.

So the competition's tough; which means that this car needs to be well equipped. And of course it is. Tock off Matrix LED headlamps, 21-inch wheels with a special design, Super sports seats with diamond stitching and a 4-corner air suspension with electronic shock absorption control system. A raft of safety equipment also features as standard, including a rear view camera, lane departure warning, camera traffic sign recognition, Audi's 'pre-sense front and basic' safety systems and a parking set-up with 360 sensors. Matrix LED headlamps are standard across the line-up with Digital Matrix LEDs reserved for top-spec 'Vorsprung' versions.

Cost of Ownership

Like its two German premium brand rivals, Audi still hasn't switched to an 800-volt electrical infrastructure for its EVs, the lower-tech 400-volt system continuing here. The driving range figures (269 miles for the SUV and 276 miles for the Sportback body shape) are enhanced not only by the now-larger 114kWh battery size but also by a 20% increase in battery density and a revised stacking process within the battery structure, with altered electrode placement. The new more efficient electric rear motor and the car's now more slippery aerodynamics also help of course. But the usual EV downsides remain. Electric cars are going to be able to go considerably further once someone designs a battery that doesn't weigh them down like a brick.

You'll want to know about this model's new charging system. With that new 114kWh battery we mentioned (106kWh of which is usable), charging performance rises to 170kW. At a public fast charger powering at up to 170kW DC, your SQ8 e-ton should charge from 10-80% in around half an hour. For a home wallbox or a public AC charger, the SQ8 e-tron charges with 11 kW AC from empty to 100% in 11 hours, 30 minutes. If that's not enough, Audi offers an optional AC charging upgrade of up to 22kW, which reduces that time to six hours. The insurance grouping is 50E.

Summary

So what's the bottom line here? Well having a twin motor system on the rear axle and a single motor up-front doesn't just deliver huge performance and impressive traction. It also significantly enhances the fine level of control that can be used to thread this SQ8 e-tron model through a series of corners at speed. Delivering a level of agility you simply wouldn't expect from anything this big and heavy.

It's difficult to think of another large EV model line more in need of this kind of dynamic enhancement than the standard Audi Q8 e-tron and Q8 e-tron Sportback range, which in their more straightforward forms can feel a little flat-footed compared to rivals. The SQ8 e-tron models though, are very different. Don't choose the ordinary version without trying this one. It's as simple as that.

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