Or­ange, loud and a bit fake: can the Q8 trump its ri­vals?

De­sign-savvy, road-bi­ased and tech-laden, the posh SUV is now the ul­ti­mate sta­tus sym­bol. New Q8 bat­tles Velar and Touareg for your money

CAR (UK) - - Contents -

Words James Tay­lor | Pho­tog­ra­phy Char­lie Magee

WEL­COME TO A test of three cars that, on the face of it, make ab­so­lutely no sense. The play­ers in this rather odd match: Audi’s new Q8 flag­ship SUV, which takes the emi­nently prac­ti­cal but pricey Q7, re­moves some prac­ti­cal­ity and adds some cost; the Range Rover Velar, the Kar­dashi­anised al­ter­na­tive to Land Rover’s styled-by-func­tion Dis­cov­ery; and the new Touareg, a car with a Volk­swa­gen badge which, as tested, costs more than £70k thanks to Wolfs­burg’s in­vet­er­ate mis­sion creep. What gives? The SUV’s time as a so­cial pariah has long passed. Now the de facto car genre of choice, it’s pro­lif­er­at­ing into sub-classes within classes; to­day one might very likely con­sider buy­ing an SUV not for prac­ti­cal­ity, let alone off-road abil­ity, but in­stead as a ve­hi­cle of leisure and pres­tige, in the same way that peo­ple once bought big coupes and saloons.

So, here stand three sta­tus-sym­bol SUVs, each cost­ing

north of £70k as tested, each with a 3.0-litre V6 diesel en­gine, eight-speed auto gear­box and air sus­pen­sion, and each with a slightly dif­fer­ent opin­ion on what a posh SUV can be: coupe on stilts, style study or com­puter oper­at­ing sys­tem on wheels (can you guess which one’s which?). Usu­ally we dive straight into driv­ing im­pres­sions, but with these three how they cover ground is not nec­es­sar­ily the most im­por­tant fac­tor in their ap­peal; their de­sign and what they of­fer all oc­cu­pants in terms of per­sonal sat­is­fac­tion can be just as de­ci­sive. It might not be an en­thu­si­ast’s or­der of pref­er­ence, but that’s In­sta­grammy, selfie-re­gard­ing, mod­ern life. So these three have a day’s test­ing to con­vince us, and you, that they can make sense, in the place where com­mon bloody sense was in­vented.

I’m in the Audi to get to our York­shire Dales test lo­ca­tion. It’s the new­est car of this trio, and it’s keen to let you know it’s here – and not merely be­cause of its metal­lic Dragon Or­ange paint.

Lower, wider and broader of whee­larch, the Q8 is a Q7 given the Snapchat fil­ter treat­ment, and if you squint you can see sim­i­lar pro­por­tions to Lam­borgh­ini’s new Urus SUV, which shares the same VW Group MLB Evo plat­form (as do the Bent­ley Ben­tayga, Porsche Cayenne, the smaller Audi Q5 – and the VW Touareg next to it on these pages). Its oc­tag­o­nal grille is rent wide across its bull-like nose, cir­cled by a big pic­ture-frame bor­der and book­ended by two hot hatch-style flared nos­trils in the lower bumper.

Only one of those vents is real; the off­side one is a blanked­off fake, and so are the full-width vents along the rear bumper. Even the ob­long ex­haust out­lets are plas­tic mock-ups; the real, metal pipes are ac­tu­ally con­cealed be­hind and slightly be­low them, which feels like a cheap trick for an ex­pen­sive car, but one per­haps in keep­ing with the Q8’s style-led ap­proach.

One en­gine is avail­able from launch with the Q8, the 50 TDI, named ac­cord­ing to Audi’s mod­er­ately con­fus­ing new fil­ing sys­tem. De­spite the name, it’s a 282bhp 3.0-litre V6 diesel; a lower-pow­ered 228bhp 45 TDI and a 55 TSI (335bhp 3.0 V6 petrol) join the range later.

Like­wise, the Touareg is of­fered only with the same V6 diesel for now, with a choice of two power out­puts, 228bhp or 282bhp. The lat­ter’s be­ing tested here.

For a wor­thy op­po­nent to the Q8, look no fur­ther than the Range Rover Velar, if not for driv­ing dy­nam­ics than for sheer panache and sense of oc­ca­sion. Of the three, the Velar has a slight ad­van­tage in power with its twin-turbo V6 of­fer­ing 296bhp, but a de­tail that might prove cru­cial later, and cer­tainly de­notes the heft on dis­play, is that the Range Rover is use­fully lighter than the other two at a still chunky 2029kg.

The only truly trad SUV in this test, the Touareg is here as a sense-check for Audi’s flag­ship flight of fancy. Same plat­form, iden­ti­cal en­gine, but of­fer­ing more space for less cash, it shad­ows the Q8 like a big white Jiminy Cricket on its shoul­der, both its con­science and its judge. Less cash is a rel­a­tive term though; while Touaregs start from be­low £50k, this heavily trin­keted R-Line is worth £72,975. For com­par­i­son, al­though four-pot Ve­lars be­gin in the mid-40s, you’ll need nearly £50k to get into a V6 diesel one and this HSE-spec car hits £73k after op­tions. The Audi starts at around £65k but the heavily op­tioned car tested here costs no less than £85,565.4

A dom­i­neer­ing de­sign in iso­la­tion, parked be­tween the two blinged-out Ger­man cars the Velar ap­pears el­e­gant, classy; un­der­stated. Al­most. Its bluff, up­right front is the most ag­gres­sive el­e­ment of its de­sign, but from there back it’s minimal, smooth-sur­faced sculp­ture, flush pop-out door han­dles and all.

If the Velar is the subtlest car here, the Touareg is em­phat­i­cally not. Ap­proached from the front, it is ap­par­ently com­posed al­most en­tirely of ra­di­a­tor grille, like a giant Mach 3 ra­zor has been plonked onto it. Like the Audi, many of the spa­ces be­tween the chrome are blanked-off plas­tic. Un­like the Audi, it makes no pre­tence at be­ing a coupe.

Most SUVs clad their sills with black body­work to make them ap­pear higher than they re­ally are, but the Q8 (and the Touareg, for that mat­ter) is unashamedly body-coloured from its head to its toes, sug­gest­ing this is an off-roader de­signed to be en­joyed pri­mar­ily on tar­mac. Where the Q8 and Touareg are big slabs of body colour, the Velar makes clever use of colour breaks, us­ing blacked-out sills and D-pil­lars to give the im­pres­sion of a ta­per­ing tail more akin to a sports car than an off-roader.

But what about the sub­stance? Were this test judged on driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence alone, the Q8 would walk it. Not in the first few miles, per­haps; at first ac­quain­tance the Q8 feels a lit­tle re­mote, an­o­dyne. The steer­ing is light, the sin­gle-turbo diesel torquey enough but not par­tic­u­larly charis­matic, grum­bling dis­tantly like The Fast Show’s Row­ley Birkin QC. But as the roads be­gin to nar­row and tan­gle, its strengths be­gin to show. Ac­tive torque vec­tor­ing en­ables you to pick up the throt­tle early, get into a flow and cover ground im­prob­a­bly quickly, and ac­tu­ally en­joy the process a lit­tle too.

Prod­ding the touch­screen-sited Drive Se­lect con­trol for Dy­namic mode shows the Q8 in its best light. The steer­ing feels more ac­cu­rate, and its fast rack be­comes a real strength. So lit­tle lock is re­quired for tight turns you rarely need move your hands from quar­ter-to-three to point and shoot an apex. That’s partly a func­tion of rear-wheel steer­ing (a £1950 op­tion), an MLB

Evo party trick which is at its most agile in Dy­namic mode, and feels cred­itably nat­u­ral in op­er­a­tion.

One piece of plat­form tech con­spic­u­ous by its ab­sence, how­ever, is elec­tronic anti-roll con­trol, fea­tured in plenty of its MLB Evo bud­dies but not avail­able on the Q8 un­til next year. In fair­ness, it doesn’t feel like it needs it. The Q8 cor­ners very flat as it is, and body con­trol is ex­em­plary. So is the ride qual­ity on the Q8’s stan­dard air springs, even with this par­tic­u­lar car’s huge op­tional 22-inch wheels

(the other two cars are on 21s). There is some light sur­face pat­ter there, like low-level back­ground white noise, but it’s im­pres­sively well dis­guised.

The Touareg too fea­tures air sus­pen­sion and rear-wheel steer­ing, a £2370 op­tion com­bined. Its ride height can sit up for ob­sta­cles or hun­ker down for twist­ing roads, and the Touareg’s bumpers cer­tainly feel less at risk than the Q8’s when we have to en­gage in a lit­tle light boul­der­ing to turn around in a rocky pull-in. The rear-steer is again supremely sub­tle in op­er­a­tion, tight­en­ing this big car’s turn­ing cir­cle with­out mak­ing it ob­vi­ous it’s do­ing so.4

If good de­sign is good sto­ry­telling,

the Velar is the full Jack­anory

The Touareg does get the ac­tive anti-roll con­trol the Q8 misses out on, and it helps this big car con­trol its bulk with sur­pris­ing alacrity. It doesn’t make it a match for the Audi as a driver’s car, how­ever; get over-en­thu­si­as­tic in a slower cor­ner and the Touareg can step on its own toes, feel­ing more clumsy minibus than high-tech SUV. But then, it is the tallest car in the test, and one that makes no pre­tence at ‘sporti­ness’. Re­gard­less, it would be nice if the gear­box could try to be a lit­tle keener. Down­shifts take an age; put your foot down out of a round­about and go nowhere fast un­til the trans­mis­sion fi­nally deigns to give you the gear you re­ally need. The Q8 suf­fers from the ex­act same is­sue; nor­mally the last thing you’d do is use the shift pad­dles in a big torquey diesel, but you might find you have to in the Audi and the VW to make ef­fec­tive progress.

The Touareg’s over­rid­ing im­pres­sion, how­ever, is that it doesn’t re­ally need you to drive. Like the Q8, it’s bristling with semi-au­ton­o­mous as­sis­tance tech, that giant grille and wind­screen con­ceal­ing var­i­ous sen­sors and cam­eras, in­clud­ing night vi­sion, which can pick out pedes­tri­ans and an­i­mals in the dark­ness and warn the driver they’re on­com­ing by briefly flash­ing the ac­tive LED head­lights specif­i­cally in their di­rec­tion and dis­play­ing their im­age on the dig­i­tal in­stru­ment panel. And the Touareg can the­o­ret­i­cally stop, pull away and steer it­self in traf­fic jams at up to 37mph.

The Velar sits be­tween the Q8 and the Touareg for driver ap­peal; not as sharp as the Audi but slightly more sat­is­fy­ing than the VW. It too is af­flicted with a slightly dozy gear­box but oth­er­wise it’s a smooth and quite imperious way to travel. Pedalling it quickly is a bit like how I imag­ine pi­lot­ing a power­boat must feel: the prow rises with ac­cel­er­a­tion as the rear sus­pen­sion squats, and dips no­tice­ably un­der brak­ing, dis­cour­ag­ing you from drop­ping an­chor late as you would in a per­for­mance car. The Velar wears all-sea­son tyres, un­like the more sum­mer-ori­en­tated rub­ber fit­ted to the other two cars in this test, which may blunt its han­dling a lit­tle. Al­though the Range Rover’s elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled air sus­pen­sion con­trols its big body’s move­ments tidily, it doesn’t shrink around you in the same way the Q8 does. It might be smaller than a Range Rover Sport, but the Velar al­ways feels like a big car to drive.

Its real strength is in feel­good fac­tor rather than dy­nam­ics. If good de­sign is about good sto­ry­telling, the Velar is the full Jack­anory. The pop-out door han­dles’ theatre is echoed by the ris­ing gear se­lec­tor and tilt­ing touch­screen within, in a cabin cut from the same min­i­mally modernist cloth as the ex­te­rior, with clever use of tex­tures, fab­rics and con­trast­ing ma­te­ri­als. Al­most ev­ery­thing you touch in the top half of the in­te­rior en­cour­ages you to do so; the in­te­rior door han­dles are a par­tic­u­lar high­light, feel­ing like they’ve been milled from a solid bil­let of alu­minium.

Switchgear is minimal, with con­trols split be­tween up­per and lower touch­screens, com­ple­mented by a touch-sen­si­tive vol­ume con­trol on the steer­ing wheel. It’s not per­fect; the up­per touch­screen in par­tic­u­lar is frus­trat­ingly un­in­tu­itive and laggy, and there’s no An­droid Auto or Ap­ple CarPlay, which seems4

cu­ri­ous in such an oth­er­wise techy, modernist kind of car.

The Audi also fea­tures an up­per and lower touch­screen set-up. The key dif­fer­ence is in its hap­tic feed­back; the Q8’s screens re­quire a proper prod, al­most like push­ing a but­ton (re­mem­ber them?). In some ways it’s safer – for a def­i­nite in­put, you get a def­i­nite re­sponse, which is surely a good thing when you’re also try­ing to con­cen­trate on driv­ing two-and-a-bit tonnes of very wide car. On the flip­side, it de­mands you lower your eyes from the road for too long to find your tar­get on the screen’s smooth sur­face, par­tic­u­larly on the lower screen, which is a mass of same-font, same-colour (white) red her­rings.

It’s also a mag­net for fin­ger­prints, so you feel the nig­gling need to give it a good clean ev­ery time you look at it. The same pi­ano-black fin­ish is ex­tended across the dash­board and cen­tre con­sole, in­clud­ing the cupholder cover, which rat­tled a lit­tle in this par­tic­u­lar car, and con­trasted with alu­minium, suede and leather. The in­con­gru­ous flat-bot­tomed wheel that looks like it has been bor­rowed from a su­per­car is a £375 op­tion.

Where the Q8’s ap­peal is in brassy style and agile han­dling, the Touareg’s USP is high-tech in­fo­tain­ment, and the VW’s in­te­rior packs a big­ger wow fac­tor than the Audi’s. This car’s topof-the-range R-Line trim fea­tures what VW dubs the In­no­vi­sion Cock­pit. Sounds like a cross be­tween a Ste­vie Won­der al­bum and a Sci­ence Mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion, but in re­al­ity it’s a giant dig­i­tal dis­play, smush­ing to­gether the 12-inch dig­i­tal in­stru­ment dis­play be­hind the wheel with a huge 15-inch touch­screen cen­tredash to create one un­bro­ken dig­i­tal vista. There’s prac­ti­cally no phys­i­cal switchgear other than on the steer­ing wheel, and a roller vol­ume con­trol down near the cuphold­ers.

At first glance it makes both Q8 and Velar look a bit old-hat. If you’re a tech mag­pie this is the car for you. The menus and dis­plays are con­fig­urable and you can pull, push and flip short­cuts by pinch­ing and swip­ing your fin­ger­tips on the screen – or in the air, us­ing ges­ture con­trol for cer­tain com­mands such as skip­ping mu­sic tracks, which only worked when I didn’t want it to. Un­like the Q8, the Touareg’s sys­tem does at least keep your line of sight nice and high, but I’m still to be con­vinced it’s not a dis­trac­tion. The wealth of in­for­ma­tion on dis­play is dizzy­ing, and it takes time to con­fig­ure to your lik­ing and get the best from it. A par­tic­u­lar party trick is the abil­ity to dis­play giant Google Earth 3D map graph­ics on both screens, which can be­come di­vert­ingly fas­ci­nat­ing: ‘What’s that big build­ing on the left be­hind the trees? I never knew that was there…’ Good job the Touareg can pretty much drive it­self. The tall, un-sporty shape means in­te­rior space is quite epi­cally vast.

De­spite the VW body’s size there’s no seven-seat op­tion, which means end­less legroom for five and com­fort­ably the big­gest boot (al­though this car’s £1260 panoramic sun­roof op­tion does eat a fair bit of head­room). The lower-roofed but lengthy Q8 and Velar are still plenty prac­ti­cal though and they don’t ex­actly lack for in­te­rior and lug­gage space.

The Touareg is supremely re­fined and bristling with wow­fac­tor tech. But it’s big money for a car with a VW badge, and we’ve seen how that’s ended be­fore. The Audi Q8 is the best car to drive, and an of­fice straw poll sug­gests its ex­te­rior de­sign is a hit. But parked next to the Velar it ap­pears fussy and over­wrought. There’s sub­stance to the Velar’s la­conic, hand­some style, and its sheer feel­good fac­tor wins out. Not par­tic­u­larly en­joy­able to drive quickly but won­der­ful for re­laxed progress, it’s a car in which to in­dulge your­self and en­joy ev­ery mo­ment.

Range RoverVelarAudi Q8

Q8 and Touareg share much of their run­ning gear, but Audi de­sign­ers got to en­joy them­selves

The Audi driver’s hav­ing the most fun, the Velar driver feels most re­laxed, VW driver too dis­tracted by screens to no­tice

There’s an aw­ful lot of glossy pi­ano-black trim in the Q8. Pre­pare to do a lot of dust­ing ifyou don’t like in­ger­prints. ‘MMI touch re­sponse’ in­ter­faceis de­signed with hap­tic feed­back – you need to pressirmly to se­lect a con­trol, and the screen me­chan­i­callypulses when you do so. ‘Touch Pro Duo’ is JLR’s name for its two 10-inch touch­screens combo, al­most do­ing away with phys­i­cal switchgear. Shame the topscreen’s so laggy. ‘Pre­mium tex­tile’ seats in­ished with wool blend and suede­cloth, the lat­ter a soft, non-wo­ven ma­te­rial par­tially made from re­cy­cled bot­tle-tops.‘Vir­tual Cock­pit’ digi-di­als sys­tem now a fa­mil­iar Audi thing. Su­per-size map graph­ics still a great party piece, if less use­ful than mid­dle screen in re­al­ity. Ro­tary gear se­lec­tor rises out of the trans­mis­sion tun­nel on start-up, while the up­per touch­screen tilts for­ward. Noth­ing wrong with a touch of theatre.nd

But­tons? What are they? 15-inch Dis­cover Pre­mium screen does away with switchgear. Lowlier mod­els get smaller Dis­cover Pro screen – and some but­tons. Nurse, the screens! Top-lineTouareg’s In­no­vi­sion Cock­pit com­bines digi-di­als be­hind the wheel with giant mid-dash touch­screen. Op­tional RLine Savona leather front seats cost £1050, ad­just 14 ways and are …it­ted with ac­tive cli­mate con­trol and var­i­ous mas­sage pro­grammes.

Sheep out­num­ber peo­ple in the Dales;or they did un­til the Touareg’s grille scared them away The But­ter­tubs Pass, as fea­tured in the 2014 Tour de France. Now used by cars cy­clists would hate

Clever colour breaks make Velar look more lithe FType than bulky SUVBig mouth, bright or­ange, predilec­tion for fak­ery; can the Q8 trump the VWand Velar?

Velar looks small here, but it’s a big car. De­sign vis­ually slims its frame like a well-cut suit

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