Audi entered the electrified market with the e-tron in 2018, an SUV that was remarkable for being unremarkable. Perhaps it was an effort to appease EV skeptics, but the e-tron not only looked nearly identical to its gas-burning stablemates, it drove like a mild-mannered Clark Kent to its spicier Superman competitors. Especially in retrospect, Audi’s freshman effort was an innocuous offering that seemed laser-targeted at precisely the middle of the road.
The Ingolstadt brand has since expanded into more exciting EVs like the e-tron GT and RS e-tron GT. But its first bona fide battery-powered performance SUV is the new SQ8 e-tron. Unlike earlier single- and dual-motor Q8 models, the SQ8 packs three motors—one up front and two in back. Also unlike the 402 hp Q8 e-tron, the electrified SQ8 ups the output by 94 hp and brings 228 more ft lbs of torque, for a total of 496 hp and 718 ft lbs of torque. Handling improvements are gained through a number of mechanical tweaks we’ll get to shortly. There’s also a larger battery with revised chemistry that enables it to recharge from 10 percent to 80 percent in as little as 31 minutes.
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Both the SQ8 and its slightly sleeker SQ8 Sportback variant bring minimal visual vamping, with subtle fender flares, larger front-grille apertures, red brake calipers, and a slightly wider stance. Interior upgrades include a sport steering wheel, carbon trim inlays, Valcona leather sport seats, and extended leather that reaches across the dashboard and door arm rests.
I climbed behind the wheel of a SQ8 Sportback—dressed in Soniera Red Metallic—on a sunny afternoon in Santa Monica, Calif. Though the model looks subtly more shapely and sculptural than the standard electrified Q8, my tester’s fiery hue amped up its curb appeal quite a bit. The feeling within the cabin is techy and sophisticated, with the slick multiple-touchscreen configuration we’ve come to expect from the marque.
Pull away from a standstill, and the SQ8 e-tron’s dual-pane glass and well-insulated cabin lend it a tony, isolated feeling that’s a cut above the more workaday impressions of the original e-tron. Audi says it’s as quiet, or quieter, than its A8 flagship, and we believe it. Drive modes are selectable with typical Audi familiarity, and the responsiveness in more aggressive settings emphasizes that my nearly six-figure specimen punches—and delivers— well above its previous weight.
It doesn’t take long to creep past traffic along Malibu’s clogged stretch of Pacific Coast Highway and slide into sinuous veins like Old Topanga Canyon Road and Stunt Road, gnarly twisties that put the most focused sports cars to the test. There’s been quite a bit of massaging to the SQ8’s suspension and steering, including 100 percent stiffer front control-arm bushings and a quicker steering ratio. The effect is palpable on routes like these, where the sportier Audi feels more connected to the tarmac, more nimble in corners, and capable of remaining stable and secure at far higher entry speeds than before.
The SQ8 drives smaller and feels more agile thanks in part to the three-motor setup, which uses torque vectoring to help the multi-ton sport ute turn in more abruptly and react better to sudden changes in direction. This e-tron is capable of accelerating from zero to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds. It’s not the violent, neck-snapping experience you’ll get from top-line Lucids or Teslas, but it’s fast enough to get out of its own way and squirt toward the horizon on command.
Fans of one-pedal driving will be let down by Audi’s deliberate avoidance of this feature. Tap the left paddle and regen levels increase, but if you so much as tap the brake, the function is canceled. We understand that electrified models from Audi and Porsche resist one-pedal driving based on some long-established notion of the sanctity of the brake pedal. But we hope that, in the future, these stubborn carmakers at least offer the option to fluidly control speed by using the accelerator pedal alone. There’s also the small matter of modest range, with the SQ8 rated at 253 miles with the smaller 20-inch wheels, a penalty of up to 47 miles compared to the standard Q8 e-tron.
While the SQ8 e-tron may not have the shock and awe, or razor sharpness, of some of its highly tuned competitors, it balances its amplified personality with a sense of refinement and maturity that could only come from a legacy carmaker with a long tradition of building premium luxury vehicles. It may not come close to the original implementation of the e-tron name— the fearsome endurance race cars which earned three back-to-back victories at Le Mans between 2012 and 2014—but this luxed-up sport ute is a big step in the right direction.
Click here for more photos of the 2024 Audi SQ8 e-tron Sportback.
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