When we photographed Caterham versus Morgan last week, people greeted us with something like elation. Children were ushered from picnic blankets to drink in our merry little convoy. Families waved. We waved. The sun shone. It was terrific. The week before, we shot this twin test. No one waved. Children were ushered to safety lest they be hoovered from the ground into a moving cliff face of grilles. Only two young lads cast their eyes covetously over the twin peaks of RS Q8 and X7 M50i. And they were clearly furnished with the foreknowledge of car enthusiasts. Everyone else shook their heads.
They were right to. Neither BMW nor Audi is pursuing widespread acceptance with either model. The M50i is aimed squarely at a corner of the market where high-powered Range Rovers reign supreme - after all there isn't much around with three rows of seats and 530hp. It's an old-school SUV in a new (albeit ostentatious) BMW suit. The RS Q8 is even further out there in the niche nether regions, vaguely doing battle with silly-grade versions of the Porsche Cayenne - but really not far adrift from the Lamborghini Urus which shares many of its vital components.
Putting them together in the same West Sussex car park invites divisive comment. 'Vulgar' made it onto the first forum page of the RS Q8 first drive; 'BMW makes the worst looking of the all the SUVs' was a widely held view when the M50i version of the X7 was announced. And that's the polite versions. But judging cars purely on their looks is hardly fair - we've herded them together to drive, not to gawp at. We'll leave that to the people trying to enjoy their lunch.
Of course there's a problem right off the bat. And it afflicts both Audi and BMW. And it feels like telling you KFC is quite unhealthy. But they're both bloody enormous, unsettlingly so on the spindly B roads around Goodwood. You remember the Krusty-endorsed Canyonero from The Simpsons? They border on the comedic; if not quite 12 yards long and two lanes wide, then closer to that than is ideal in both cases. Same again for the combined kerbweight; we're a five-tonne, two-car Panzer convoy that makes the industry's proclaimed efficiency drive look like an advert for McFlurry toothpaste.
The Audi is squat and butch, feeling almost square on the road (including 295-section tyres at each corner) and ready to bludgeon its way through Saudi sand dune; the BMW seems wider again, and with seats far enough apart to feel like business class in a jumbo jet. It seems as long as a 747, too, and the captain of one would likely recognise the distance to the ground. Compact, slender and graceful are not words to associate with these two. How people deal with them in an urban environment, with width restrictors, narrow gaps in traffic and tight parking spaces is anyone's guess.
Yet despite all that, and despite any ideological grievances, the hotly contested design and the £113k as-tested asking price, the BMW X7 M50i is a superb place from which to cover miles. Because while the outside might have you conjuring up unfavourable comparisons to cartoon SUVs, inside you won't care one jot. High it might be, but the driving position is comfortable and commanding, befitting of both the surroundings and the optional BMW Individual Merino leather, which is as soft and waxy as you might hope for a £5k option. The cabin is bathed in light from those enormous windows and sunroofs. It's a nice place to be - like a high-rise 7 Series. Or a dictator's palace.
It is also vast. And for a cabin, that's a good thing. This car was specced with six seats instead of the standard seven, with a middle-row of captain's chairs and, more importantly, proper space for half a dozen adults. Honestly, a human over six foot can sit in the third row, and they won't hate it - there's a sunroof, USB ports and vents back there for them, after all. Everyone will have to pack pretty light, though it's hard to think of a vehicle better suited to taking you and five other people somewhere a long way away. Sometimes, there really ain't no replacement for... well, an enormous cabin and amazing seats.
Moreover, the driver will be keen for any kind of European jaunt in an X7 because it's a really nice car to be at the controls of. Seriously. It's easy to make assumptions looking at the silhouette, the kerbweight and the concessions made to passengers, but the reality refutes those preconceptions; on the right road (i.e. a large one) the X7 is a rewarding, capable steer.
Look to what Mike Duff said recently about the Alpina'd version of this car: "The Alpina handles life on track impressively well for something so tall and heavy. Turn-in is keen, doubtless helped by the rear steering, with the XB7 continuing to find apexes even as speeds increase... it can be made to understeer, but the all-wheel drive system fights push hard and the electric anti-roll and air springs keep it flat under heavy cornering loads." And while this regular M50i inevitably doesn't live up to an Alpina's limits, there is still the agility instilled by optional four-wheel steer, the composure of the air suspension and the spooky dynamic calm of the (also optional) electronic anti-roll bars; it would be a lie to say the "rear-wheel emphasis" of the xDrive could be detected much, but the fact it never bundles into understeer or feels as ponderous as 2.5 tonnes makes it laudable.
Indeed, the X7 feel like a car furiously benchmarked against a Range Rover - there is the same dynamic acceptance that agility or delicacy are not on the menu, so the engineers have striven instead to make the car seem wieldy and accomplished - not organically rewarding per se, yet remarkably cohesive despite that and pleasing because of it.
That a technologically seamless chassis has been paired with such an obliging, agreeable V8 (as well as that lovely interior) makes it pretty hard to find fault with the X7 given where our expectation are for large SUVs. Whatever subjective burden that grille introduces to one side of the scales, objectively speaking 530hp and 553lb ft make it more than fast enough, the refinement is imperious, the handling commendable and the sense of occasion lavish. For a giant, BMW-built SUV it's as good as you might hope. Probably a bit better, truth be told.
And the Q8? Well, for all the X7's finer points, driving the Audi back to back feels like swapping the Canyonero for an RS3. Actually, that's not entirely fair, because the Q8 feels better than an RS3. Take it from someone whose favourite Audi-made cars are the Sport Quattro, B7 RS4, the R8 V8 manual and the R8 V10 manual - the RS Q8 is quite an achievement. Like the BMW, it'll never be credited with delivering the most authentic, absorbing driving experience, but the ability - enhanced by some choice options, granted - is undeniable.
An RS Q8 without a £25k options spend still comes with the mild-hybrid 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8. And that's a gem, its quality highlighted in the face of a well-endowed rival. While the performance is inevitably a notch above the X7's - thanks to seniority in power, torque and kerbweight - it's the indefatigable nature of the V8 that leaves a lasting impression. Because there's so much torque at so few revs and so much power seemingly everywhere, there's never a point the RS Q8 doesn't feel obscenely, wantonly rapid. Even if the gearbox maybe doesn't always seem as quick witted. Again, something that looks like this and can do this fast won't make you popular, but it's a hell of a thing to experience.
Part of that experience is the result of a familiar Audi spec sheet: RS adaptive air suspension plus, quattro with centre Torsen diff, torque vectoring, sport differential and a gazillion Drive Select modes. And there are some familiar elements to the drive, too, with a brake pedal that can be a bit snatchy and steering that's never ideally weighted. What's less typical, though, is the ability of this 2.3-tonne Audi to devour a road, keeping its enormous 23-inch wheels in contact with the tarmac and driver's bum in contact with the seat. Even in Dynamic mode, the Q8 somehow retains enough compliance to complement the spectacular work of the four-wheel steer, clever anti-roll bars, torque vectoring and so on. No entry speed is too optimistic, or throttle application too early, or mid-corner bump too disturbing; the Q8 just deals with everything, never deviating, while still remaining tolerable for those on the inside. Somehow it's more impressive on home turf than it was on the international launch, which just never, ever happens. An RS6 would probably do everything that this RS Q8 does - likely better given the weight advantage - but for a car of this size and weight and height to emulate it is bewildering.
Step back even further and it's the Q8's bandwidth which reveals it to be a step on from most Audi-badged fast SUVs. It's both more cosseting than we're used to in Comfort and Auto modes as well as more capable in Dynamic and whatever individual 'RS' modes are configured. Perhaps it doesn't ever truly captivate you in any mode - like an RS6 might - but it has each facet gratifyingly well covered. (We didn't test the off-road settings of either on tarmac or away from it, in case you were wondering, because it didn't seem strictly relevant.)
The quickest Q8 almost creates a rod for its own back; its far-reaching aptitude coming back round on you like some weird feedback loop. Why would you need an off-roader which won't ever go off-road, or a performance car twice the weight of a hot hatch, or a luxury car that perches you so high, or something with an option for power-close doors or sunblinds or 440mm ceramic brakes, or that requires the hybrid tech to offset everything else? Think about these things too hard and the RS seems like conflict of opinion wrapped inside a flawed compromise - behind another big grille.
And yet you drive it and don't hate it. Ultimately, it's impossible not to be impressed with either car and what's been expensively and expertly achieved: you have an Audi SUV on 23-inch wheels that manages to be both comfortable and fairly fun to drive alongside a BMW the size of a container ship that's as plush as anything else in its maker's stable and a tangibly close relative in handling dynamics. The X7 feels set up by the same sort of people who've done cars like the 5 and 3 Series. Which is a mighty feat. The RS is more joined-up than the Urus.
Of course for some these cars could drive like exotica, be as frugal as a supermini, not cost the earth (in any sense) and still they wouldn't appeal. That's totally valid, and we include ourselves as paid up members of the camp which would be much happier in an RS6 or Alpina B5. But that's personal preference; from a standpoint of outright ability, neither the RS Q8 not the X7 M50i can be dismissed out of hand. For slightly different reasons, they are simply too objectively good at what they set out to do. No matter that it sometimes feels like being asked to get a cruise liner down a canal or attracts the white heat of passerby contempt. Neither aspect ever bothered the owners of V8-powered Range Rovers. And that's precisely the audience Audi and BMW are interested in.
SPECIFICATION | BMW X7 M50i
Engine: 4,395cc, twin-turbocharged V8
Transmission: 8-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 530@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 553@1,800rpm
0-62mph: 4.7 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
MPG: 21.9 (WLTP)
Price: £89,000 (£113,030 as tested, comprised of BMW Individual full leather trim 'Merino' Ivory White/Night Blue for £4,995, Visibility package (aka BMW Laserlights) for £1,350, Technology Package (Driving Assistant Professional, Head up Display, BMW Drive Recorder) for £2,890, Premium Package (Cupholder Temperate, Seat ventilation, front, Heat comfort package, front, Ambient Air, Automatic air-con with 5-zone control, Massage function, front) for £2,750, 22-inch BMW Individual 'Y-spoke 758' wheels for £1,945, Integral Active Steering for £1,195, Executive Drive Pro (the active electronic anti-roll stabilisers) for £2,450, Sky Lounge panoramic glass sunroof for £760, Sun protection glass for £420, 'CraftedClarity' for interior elements for £575, Travel & Comfort System for £265, Piano Black interior trim for £560, six-seater interior configuration for £595, Bowers & Wilkins Diamond surround sound system for £3,280)
SPECIFICATION | AUDI RS Q8
Engine: 3,996cc, twin-turbo V8
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 600@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 590@2,200-4,400rpm
0-62mph: 3.8 secs
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 2,315kg (without driver)
Price: £103,790 (price as standard; price as tested £131,285 comprised of Power door closure for £675, Head-up display for £1,450, RS dynamic pack plus (electromechanical active roll stabilisation, quattro sport differential, RS ceramic brakes) for £9,550, Titanium black exterior styling package for £1,610, Tour pack without emergency assist for £1,950, 360-degree camera for £300, City assist pack for £1,375, RS Alcantara styling package, red for £1,995, Audi music interface in rear for £175, RS sport exhaust system with black tips for £1,450, Removable net partition for £100, Panoramic glass sunroof for £1,750, Sun blinds for rear and side windows for £600, Black Audi rings for the front and rear for £300, Matte carbon twill inlays for £600, 23-inch '5-Y-spoke rotor' Audi sport alloys for £2,350, Reversible mats for £115.00 and Bang&Olufsen premium sound system for £1,150
Image credit | Harry Rudd
1 / 19