It’s always a joy discovering stretches of bituminous spaghetti in the most remote places. The B-159 just north of San Pedro de Atacama, in Chile’s Antofagasta region, is one such road, the relatively straight and flowing sections of which are broken occasionally and briefly by a rollercoaster wiggle through trickier terrain.
Something like an Audi Ur-Quattro would be perfect here, particularly given access to unpaved roads nearby and the settling snow farther up in the mountains. An animated and amusingly sweary Audi designer is trying to draw comparisons between the brick-like icon and Audi’s new Q8 SUV, but doing so having called the rally star “f**king ugly” perhaps isn’t the kind of comparison the attendant PRs were hoping for.
Nor do the few shared styling cues (sharply ridged wings, the C-pillar graphic, a black plastic band between the tail lights) exude quite the same sense of purpose on the Q8 as they do on Audi’s old stager, but at least with its wider body, lower roofline, more prominent grille and chunky 21-inch wheels, the Q8 is more distinctive than the Q7 on which it’s based. It even looks appropriate slewing along a gravel track and sloshing through streams, its air suspension in its highest ‘Off Road’ position.
Ah, air suspension. We’ve had mixed results with it on Audis recently. An A8 rides well enough, albeit less syrupy-smoothly than an S-class, but the A6 and A7 shudder along harshly and without a sparkling chassis as compensation. The Q8 chassis won’t have you leaping out of bed early for a drive either, but as tested this 50 TDI S-line absorbs the Atacama’s rumblier sections far better than other recent air-sprung Audis.
‘As tested’? At this stage it’s unclear whether Australian-spec Q8s will be denied this conventional air set-up, perhaps getting Sport air suspension as standard that may result in that unwanted jiggle. Given the Q8’s body control seems fine on Chile’s road when in Dynamic mode, it’d be a shame if we won’t get to enjoy true comfort in Comfort.
At least Dynamic all-wheel steering (optional on the S-line) works better here than it does on the lighter Audi sedans. The reduction in steering feel is easier to trade for the increased agility and tighter turning circle, while Dynamic mode adds back some of the missing steering weight. It also sharpens throttle response, which is useful, and drops a couple of gears in the eight-speed Tiptronic automatic ’box, which is irritating, but the 3.0-litre, mild hybrid-assisted turbo-diesel V6 and torque-shuffling centre differential work well together. The former is smooth, quiet and punchy, the latter helps you drive through unpaved corners with just a hint of attitude.
And, naturally, all the stuff Audi usually gets right is right here, too: refinement is class-leading, as is cabin quality and space, and the dual-screen MMI Touch Response console and Virtual Cockpit display remains one of the better infotainment set-ups on the market.
The Q8 is an impressive car overall then, but we’d still take an Ur-Quattro for a run through the Andes. Antony Ingram (@evoAntony)