Audi Sport’s RSQ8 is its biggest and heaviest model yet, but the brand is on form recently so could this actually be an entertaining SUV?

It was an inevitability, wasn’t it? Audi’s Q8 (cunningly known as the Audi ‘Kuwait’ in some circles) dived into the often maligned, yet incomprehensibly popular coupe-SUV niche with Audi’s first go at a full-sized RS SUV. Audi’s only previous RS SUV model, the RSQ3, was somehow near-acceptable thanks to the compact footprint and the fact it is better to drive than the equivalent RS3 Sportback, yet the RSQ8 is something altogether more serious.

The numbers are substantial. Audi’s RSQ8 weighs over 2300kg, has nearly 450kW and, at 23 inches, the biggest set of wheels ever fitted to a production Audi model. It also uses a remarkable amount of fuel, has an outstandingly large grille and includes pretty much every element of Audi’s technical armoury, from a rear-wheel steering system to active anti-roll bars and more.

But before we write off the RSQ8 as being little more than an overloaded meat lover’s pizza, Audi Sport, the company responsible for developing this herman monster of an SUV, has some impressive form in the recent RS6 and RS7. So the question that needs to be answered is whether this car can go beyond mere numbers and deliver a thrilling driving experience lacking in almost all super-SUVs of its type.

Performance and 0-100 time

Is it ridiculous to say that a near-450kW SUV doesn’t feel ‘that’ fast? So it might weigh the same as Christ the Redeemer (nearly), but like taking off in an aeroplane the sheer mass moving around you seems to dull the senses, making the 3.8sec 0-100kmh time feel a little less impressive than the number might suggest. The active air suspension helps keep acceleration squat to a minimum, further numbing that accelerative effect.

Even so, the RSQ8 doesn’t feel like it’s in any need of more grunt, as the twin-turbocharged V8 petrol engine dumps its full 800Nm of torque to the four wheels consistently between 2200 and 4500rpm. As a result the performance feels easy, but catch the powertrain off guard and it can take a while for the engine to properly wake up and produce the punch.

Helping the V8 along is a mild-hybrid system, although unlike in the lesser SQ8 TDi and other diesel mild-hybrid applications the system doesn’t electrically spool turbochargers or torque-fill, rather acting as an efficiency booster, extending the start-stop capability and facilitating engine-off coasting when cruising.

Engine and Gearbox

The RSQ8 is powered by the Volkswagen Group’s 4-litre twin-turbocharged V8 unit found in everything from the RS6, Porsche Cayenne Turbo and Bentley Continental GT to the Audi S8 and Lamborghini Urus. This widespread application might soften its desirability, but not so its efficacy – this is one seriously effective and rounded engine.

Like the similarly powerful V8s currently built by AMG and BMW’s M division, the RSQ8’s two turbos are situated in a hot-V layout, sitting between the cylinder banks and fed off a dramatically shorter cast manifold that runs in the reverse direction to a traditional V8 engine layout. As BMW and AMG realised, this method not only improves response, but also aids packaging between different models, although as its name might suggest this layout runs very hot, so to help cope with this Audi has fitted two air-to-air charge coolers in each of the outer front air intakes.

> New Audi RS7 review – big 4-door surprises with agility and pace

Ride and Handling

The engine is extremely linear and refined, no doubt helped by the RSQ8’s well insulated chassis, and when pootling around at low speeds or on motorways, feels no more dramatic to lesser models. A few prods of the touchscreen though and the whole powertrain wakes up as the V8 makes itself heard through both natural and synthetic means. On cars fitted with the optional sports exhaust, this also unlocks some extra decibels from the rear, although that innate refinement is so impressive as to pretty much block it out.

Get the powertrain into the right mode and the engine’s response is deeply impressive, revving cleanly and urgently at pretty much any rev. Speed builds with serious intent, although as we mentioned before, the isolation of the cabin and the sheer mass around you makes it feel less thrilling than you would expect. When at its most aggressive the powertrain starts to lose the smooth edge and gains a slight serration to the noise and power delivery, with a sharp off-throttle response mimicked by a transmission that just keeps getting better and better.

It’s ostensibly no different to the transmissions that have been seen in RS Audis before, but the calibration is far more aggressive than in other applications, punching through gears with a snap almost comparable to that of a good dual-clutch. Downshifts perhaps lack an ultimate crispness, but it’s more responsive than both units found in equivalent BMW, Mercedes and Land Rover products, while matching them in low-speed scenarios. Audi, like many of its VW Group relatives, gives the driver the ability to decouple the transmission from the powertrain mode, leaving it to you whether you want the standard transmission mapping, a sports mode or full manual control. There’s also a fourth mode on the transmission that delivers the most aggressive and hilariously noisy up and downshifts.

If there is a downside to the powertrain it’s that if you drive the RSQ8 with a clumsy nature it won’t cover it up. Sharp or unnatural inputs of the throttle leave the software confused, often taking time to electronically ‘join the dots’ as the transmission, all-wheel-drive system, turbochargers and suspension all race to link up. The result is that sudden overtakes or spur-of-the-moment pins of the throttle often take quite a while to deliver full potency, and when they do it can come as quite a shock as 441kW all comes at once.

Set off in the RSQ8’s more benign modes and you’ll be hard-pressed to tell this is Audi’s most aggressive and powerful SUV yet. The engine is near-silent, and even at low speeds the 23-inch wheel and tyre package gently glides over the admittedly smooth road surface at our launch location in Tenerife. Audi Sport has worked hard in adding a layer of sophistication to the low-speed ride quality in its recent models, and it’s no different in the RSQ8. The light steering, soft throttle response and general ease of use only exaggerate this feeling, but prod some buttons (virtual or physical) and the RSQ8’s trick of transforming itself from family cruiser into something more violent comes to the fore.

> Lamborghini Urus review – is this the first super-SUV?

The innocuous RS button on the steering wheel jumps through the RSQ8’s multiple driver modes to a BMW M-style ‘ideal’ combination of driver settings. Now, the RSQ8 drops its standard air springs, adds weight to the steering, sharpens up the throttle and opens the V8’s exhaust flaps. But the RSQ8 is such a hardware-heavy car that the changes continue, as the rear-wheel steering, active anti-roll bars and even the air conditioning all optimise for ‘speedy driving’, as the German engineers so comically put it.

The result? It does feel quantifiably more responsive and, for lack of a better word, ‘sporty’ than you might expect of a 2.3-ton SUV. Grip the satisfyingly firm and thin steering wheel and you drive the RSQ8 fully aware of its mass, carefully guiding it through a bend without wanting to get out of step with the road surface. The steering is completely dead, but then you’d expect as much when it’s directing 45kg worth of wheel and tyre (per corner!). You turn in, wait for weight to settle, then get onto the throttle and carefully feed it in knowing there’s 441kW that will be chomping through the prop shafts ready to send the RSQ8’s nose straight ahead of you. And yet it just hooks up and goes.

Keep pushing harder into corners, start leaning on the 440mm (optional) carbon-ceramic brakes, turn in with more aggression, get greedy with the throttle; the RSQ8 just laps it all up. There are of course physical hardware elements like the rear-wheel steering and torque vectoring rear differential facilitating this, but you still never quite believe that a car of this size and weight is able to carry such speed through bends. Begin take liberties with the RSQ8 and it still doesn’t relent, goading you to sharpen your inputs to see what it’ll do. And? Well, nothing really. It still doesn’t complain, doesn’t exhibit the hateful chassis wobble that sometimes afflicts other overpowered SUVs, it barely even chirps a tyre as you purposely apply too much throttle coming out of a hairpin. It just lays all that power down on the road inch by inch. It’s remarkable.

The issue is, I wouldn’t exactly call it fun. Bemusing, maybe. But enjoyable? No. The irony is that the RSQ8 is barely (or not at all) any more practical than the new RS6 Avant, which itself isn’t a lightweight considering it tops two tons, but feels every bit 300kg lighter and is genuinely entertaining. Compared to its SUV rivals, the RSQ8 is more capable than most, although the Porsche Cayenne Turbo still feels a little sharper, even if it lacks the Audi’s firepower. Jordan Katsianis