Audi SQ8 Vs. Q8: Is the SQ8’s Powertrain Better Than the Q8’s?

Audi SQ8 Vs. Q8: Is the SQ8’s Powertrain Better Than the Q8’s?

02/15/2021

We like power as much as anyone, but we were particularly interested in driving the Audi SQ8 because we had issues with the Q8 when it made its debut as a 2019 model. The SQ8, which is the middle sibling between the Q8 and max-performance RS Q8, has just the upgrades that might fix the problem — though it comes at considerable cost.

Related: 2019 Audi Q8 Review: A Big SUV With a Big Catch

Our complaint regarded the Q8’s balky powertrain, which employs a turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 rated at 335 horsepower and 369 pounds-feet of torque teamed with a standard eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive. This setup had way too much accelerator lag in our Q8 Prestige test vehicle, regardless of the driving mode. Delays from a standing start were the worst, exacerbated by a hesitant automatic engine stop-start system.

The SQ8, by contrast, has a 4.0-liter turbocharged V-8 rated a stout 500 hp and 568 pounds-feet of torque. The transmission has slightly different gearing, and the difference in power out on the road proves a substantial and thrilling one, accompanied by a musical exhaust note that remains plenty audible even when set to its driver-configurable “quiet” mode. According to Audi specs, the SQ8 does 0-60 mph in 4.3 seconds versus the Q8’s 5.6 seconds, but the torque curve feels even more generous all the time.

So, how about that delay problem? It’s better — not gone, but definitely better than the Q8 we tested and definitely livable be it from a standing start or once in motion. In its manual-shift mode, the transmission would stair-step through multiple gear changes rather than jumping two or more gears in one swoop, as the quickest automatics do, but it stair-stepped pretty fast.

Why Does This Even Happen?

Accelerator lag is shockingly common nowadays — and more so than in the past. Many components can add delay, from electronic throttle control and turbochargers to “smart” transmissions that hunt for gears. Add automatic engine stop-start and it can seem even worse, or actually be worse if not well executed. It doesn’t help that everything a computer-controlled powertrain does to minimize pollution, maximize efficiency and ensure its longevity seems to blunt its reaction to your right foot.

This phenomenon wasn’t common during the era of carburetors, normally aspirated engines and dumb transmissions, but they were dirtier, less efficient and prone to accelerated wear. Ironically, if you want instantaneous accelerator response today, you might try an electric vehicle.

How Much More Does the SQ8 Cost?

Just because accelerator lag is more common doesn’t mean we’re letting the Q8 off the hook, because it was notably bad. We’re pleased that the SQ8 mitigates the problem, but it comes at  a steep price: A base 2021 SQ8 costs $20,900 more than the base 2021 Q8 and $11,250 more than a current Q8 Prestige (plus the difference in fuel costs for an engine that gets an EPA-estimated 15/21/17 mpg city/highway/combined versus 18/23/20 mpg for the Q8). That’s a lot, but it adds more than just the upgraded powertrain.

The SQ8 also has an S-tuned air-spring suspension at all four wheels, supplementing the Q8’s standard adaptive shock absorbers. It also has all-wheel steering, an option on the Q8, and its front brake discs are 1 inch wider in diameter (15.8 versus 14.8 inches) and its base alloy wheel is an inch larger (21 versus 20 inches). Other standard features include auto-dimming side mirrors, four-zone climate control, a heated steering wheel, 360-degree camera system, the lesser of two optional Bang & Olufsen audio systems (but not the base unbranded stereo), Audi Side Assist, Audi Pre-Sense Rear with rear cross-traffic alert and vehicle exit warning, and perforated, ventilated, diamond-stitched Valcona S sport seats.

Naturally, there’s a comprehensive cosmetic treatment, as well, inside and out, with elements like a leather dashboard and aluminum trim, and liberal festooning of the letter “S.”

I’d like to comment on the SQ8’s base suspension, but our test vehicle also included the $5,900 Sport Package option, which adds active roll stabilization and a sport rear differential — standard items in the RS Q8 — along with red brake calipers. With this hardware, the SQ8 had great reflexes overall and fascinating body responses when pushed hard: With the drive mode set to Dynamic, I charged into a sweeping turn and the body stayed exceptionally flat. The SQ8 understeered, but it felt as if the rear end squatted, giving it a stable feel when powering through and out of the turn. Alas, with the exception of the 21-inch wheels, this was a heavy dose of RS Q8 hardware on a 2020 SQ8 with an as-tested price of $107,490 (with destination).

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So, yes, on one level, the SQ8 mitigates our main complaint about the Q8. But for this price, any shopper should also check out the competition, such as the BMW X6 M50i, Porsche Cayenne GTS and Maserati Levante S GranLusso. If you aren’t hung up on brand image, give the new Genesis GV80 3.5T Advanced Plus a look, as well.

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