The 2021 Audi RS Q8 holds the Nürburgring lap record for an SUV. It’s even quicker than the Lamborghini Urus around the Green Hell, which is shocking when you realize the two share a common platform. The even bigger surprise comes when you drive the RS Q8 on the street and realize it’s just as livable and comfortable as a regular Q8 doing day-to-day tasks. That’s not the case with many other high-performance, “track-capable” SUVs, yet somehow, Audi is still running rings around them on the ‘ring.
This makes the RS Q8 the smartest high-performance, coupe-ified crossover to get because it’s still actually good at doing crossover things. Instead of compromising in areas like ride comfort, transmission smoothness or off-road capability in favor of the singular pursuit of sportiness, the Audi embraces its roots. And remember, it still manages to set fast lap times!
While 0-60 mph times and lateral grip make for some good fun, being able to sop up frost heaves and ensuring a jerky shift doesn’t spill your chai latte are also important attributes. After all, what good is your carbon fiber trim and red stitched leather if it’s covered in coffee stains? People drive these cars to work, the grocery store and to drop their kids off at private school (one can only assume). Being a joy to drive in those dull situations and on your favorite backroads doesn’t feel like too much to expect from a car approaching $140,000.
And boy is it a riot on a good road. The RS Q8 behaves more like a bully and bruiser than a precision instrument. Its 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 makes 591 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque, which is good for a 3.7-second 0-60 mph sprint. Launch control is a theatrical experience. Release the brake, and the front rises up as though you just went from zero to full throttle on a boat. It rises enough to raise concerned thoughts like, hmm, I really can’t see much of the road in front of me at all, each time you launch.
It then catapults and blitzes down the road, feeling like a boisterous handful the whole time. Those big 295-section-width tires find the odd imperfection on the worst undulating roads when you start pushing. It doesn’t tramline like a Shelby GT350 or other big-tire sports car, but a small correction here and there is necessary when you mat it on a road especially full of dips and rises. You won’t notice any such disturbances if the roads you’re on are surfaced/leveled properly, but that isn’t always the case when you head out to less traveled areas. In the vast majority of circumstances, you’ll lay the hammer down, Quattro all-wheel-drive will skillfully sort out torque, and you’ll effortlessly by whisked away without any extra tugs on the wheel.
That initial heave upwards to the sky is out of character for how the RS Q8 comports itself in corners. Audi uses its trick active roll stabilization system (also found in other VW Group products, including the Bentley Bentayga and Lamborghini Urus) to keep lateral body movements to a minimum. Combined with the RS-tuned adaptive air suspension, the RS Q8 does its best impression of a sports car with a low center of gravity. In fact, it feels like there’s even loss roll and slop through corners than the RS 6 Avant. The wagon doesn’t get the same active roll stabilization system, which is very likely the RS Q8’s difference maker.
One feature the RS 6 Avant and RS Q8 do have in common is all-wheel steering. Similar to the wagon, the RS Q8 turns in with lightning-quick reflexes in low-speed corners. There’s an acclimation period to this car’s steering, too, as the eager and mega-quick initial turn in effectively hides this car’s porky 5,490-pound curb weight. On the other hand, you’ll feel that weight when accelerating and stomping on the brakes.
Speaking of, our tester had the optional carbon ceramic brake package ($9,000) on it that fits the RS Q8 with brakes tied for the largest of any production car in the world. The front rotors measure 17.3 inches in diameter, and you get 10-piston calipers to grab onto them. In comparison, the little one-piston calipers for the rear brakes are just comical to look at. No matter the appearances, they work extremely well, exhibiting zero fade, and feature a nicely-tuned pedal. It isn’t too grabby when you’re simply plodding along, but the pedal feel is firm and natural when you’re hustling.
The eight-speed ZF-sourced transmission is smart enough to find itself in the right gear when left to its own devices. Powering out of corners is handled by Audi’s competent Quattro Sport rear differential that can shuffle torque between the two rear wheels as needed. Up to 85% of that torque can be transferred rearward, meaning that yes, this giant SUV will go sideways if you coax it to. Is it as happy and as eager doing this as the BMW X6 M Competition? No, but it’s a minor difference. With handling prowess in general being close between the RS Q8 and its harsher-riding competition, the Audi is starting to look like a big winner.
Do any amount of driving on poor roads with the RS Q8, and you’ll truly begin to wonder how it handles so well. The ride is so cushy and supple that you’d swear you’re in the regular Q8, not the RS model. Our tester had the standard 22-inch wheels, not the optional 23-inch high-design wheels (that arguably look better). The giant wheels are necessary to house those massive brakes in this case, and Audi’s air suspension is suspending enough to be completely rid of any impact harshness from the resulting skinny sidewalls. There’s no better car in this weird, mini class to mosey around town in. An argument can be made for Mercedes’ driver assistance systems making highway drives better, but Audi’s lane-centering tech isn’t vastly behind what the GLE is capable of.
Personally, I prefer looking at the RS Q8 versus its hunchback and whale-like competitors, too. Audi figured out how to coupe-ify an SUV and keep it from looking like a bloated mess. It’s all in the transition between the sharply angled rear glass and the extra-tall rear bumper/liftgate that results in the body shape. The RS Q8’s rear looks much more like a traditional SUV, which to these eyes, is more attractive. Audi simply hasn’t fully committed to that coupe silhouette, instead opting to only dip a toe into the coupe SUV pool. It’s better for it.
There’s no scrimping inside, as is befitting a six-figure luxury crossover. You won’t gain or lose much in utility versus the other coupe-ified crossovers (its cargo space falls right in the middle between the X6 and GLE Coupe). If you’re a fan of modern design and tech-forward everything, this range-topping Audi is the answer with its touch-haptic dual screens, and sheer, glossy flat surfaces. It’s not a homey place to be in, but it sure does dazzle.
For better and for worse, it’s also very quiet. The acoustic glass and otherwise excellent sound deadening deafen outside noises, and unfortunately, it tones the exhaust down, too. You’ll still hear the optional sport exhaust if the windows are down or have the revs up, but this car doesn’t shout its presence to the world at every corner like a snarling AMG does. It will lightly burble and crackle on the overrun, but the noises are hardly loud enough to turn heads. A Urus is the machine you want if neck-craning and public attention are on your list of wants.
That the RS Q8 is able to be black-tie-and-ball-gown serious and also hold the Nürburgring SUV lap record is what makes it great. It’s the first performance crossover I’ve driven that fully lives up its original purpose as a useful and easygoing crossover. Being compromised in some way is simply expected with vehicles like it, but with the RS Q8, there’s no compromise to be found.