In a year cluttered with so many unexpected and frankly tragic developments, Audi’s decision to ditch its cutting edge oil burner for petrol V8 power in the SQ7 and SQ8 hasn’t exactly made front page news. But it’s significant, not least because the change illustrates just how far the blowback from the 2015 emissions scandal has been. NOx limits are tighter than ever, and diesel demand looks like it’s staying down for good, so Audi has seen fit to replace its exemplary 48v mild hybrid diesel motor with a pure combustion eight-cylinder, less than a year after the facelift arrived. The petrol motor is thirstier and produces more CO2, and offsets more power with less torque. In one fell swoop, the SQ7 and SQ8 have arguably been angled at a different type of customer.
Evidence for that comes with the shuffled priority list, which trades the diesel’s strongest traits – 664lb ft of torque from 1,000rpm and mid-thirties real-world economy – for the standard appeal of a petrol-fired V8. It’ll probably depend on your location as to whether you view the changes as good or bad; chances are if you’re from America or the Middle East, it’ll be more welcome than if you’re living in Britain. Then again, there’s no denying the allure of anything in this day and age projecting the brutish vocals of a proper petrol eight, no matter where you lay your head.
The performance of Audi’s twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8 is indisputable. It produces 507hp at 5,500rpm and 568lb ft of torque at 2,000 to 4,000rpm, enabling a 0-62mph sprint of 4.1 seconds and the 50-75mph dash in 3.8sec in both of the eight-speed Tiptronic, quattro all-wheel drive models. Both can tow 750kg of unbraked trailer, as before. The SQ7 is the lighter of the two thanks to its slightly smaller wheels – it gets 21- and 22-inch options, with the SQ8 adding an inch at both ends – and slightly different chassis settings (more on that shortly). Although at 2,200kg to the SQ8’s 2,270kg, neither can be described as anything less than hefty.
Compared with the old diesels, the new cars are 95kg lighter thanks to the powertrain switch, while gaining all-wheel steering as standard on top of the existing facelift. Air suspension is all-round, while the SQ8 Vurpsrung gets active roll stabilisation hardware; in 2,996mm wheelbase cars, that’s liable to be significant. Inside, the petrol-powered cars keep the Virtual Cockpit technology that was introduced with the 2019 refresh, so you get a plethora of screens – including a pair of centre console-mounted, haptic touch ones – and broad instrument cluster display. Added to that is Audi’s full suite of driver assistance features, supportive leather seats and, if you tick the boxes, massage functions and carbon fibre trim. As before, you’re absolutely not left wanting for kit.
Same goes for the fit and finish of the cabin; if technology and build quality are your thing, you’d struggle to find fault with Audi’s interior. Obviously the SQ7 comes with greater practicality, its boxier body and optional three rows providing even those in the boot with decent space – and USB C ports. The middle row, on its sliding rail, has plenty of space, even when set at its most forward placement, and that’s the same in both cars. Obviously, rear headroom is slightly tighter in the SQ8, but for the vast majority of people it has ample vertical space. It doesn’t matter where you’re sat when it comes to hearing the rumble of that V8 petrol. It’s present everywhere.
The difference in tone is clear from the first turn of crank. The V8 petrol starts with familiar Audi 4.0 bass but it’s also remarkably smooth on tickover thanks to the slackening of active engine mounts. Audi’s cylinder deactivation tech is so seamless these days that on a light throttle cruise, the eight is genuinely docile and the auto is happy to slip into top gear. It’s probably thanks to the motor’s occasionally dormant fuel injectors that any pre-warned prods of the accelerator do require a dropping of cog (in contrast to the old diesel, which just surged from any start point) before you’re given the full shove. But we’re talking a two-tenth process. Then it’s a thud in the back and an ominous, burly roar from the other side of the bulkhead. The specialness of that never wears off.
In truth, we’re still not keen on the artificial thud of each upshift from the eight-speed in Dynamic mode (their presence feels even less necessary now that the engine’s so characterful), but thankfully they’re absent in the gearbox’s Balanced setting. The relatively small plastic steering wheel paddles themselves also feel oddly cut-price in such a high-grade setting (and a far cry from a Stelvio QF’s extended metal ones), but there’s absolutely no faulting the instantaneous responses of the transmission and elasticity of the motor. Nor is there much to be said against the way the air suspension soaks up bumps or maintains body control through dips and over crests. Combined with the low-speed manoeuvrability and high-speed stability that’s enabled by all-wheel steering, this big car feels much smaller on the road.
As you’d expect, there are tremendous reserves of grip. The SQ7’s limits are so high that talk of its balance feels somewhat redundant and the lack of steering feel is of no real issue. The car treats corners as an excuse to burrow seemingly deeper into the tarmac and allows for exuberant use of maximum attack almost whenever you please, while the optional carbon ceramic brakes provide enormous stopping power via a progressive, easily modulated pedal. On our German test route at least, they never provide any suggestion of cooking fluids. The discs tick furiously after a run, but the rotors just keep on going and going without fade. You’re never asked to manage temperatures in this enormous hunk of metal; it just pummels on mile after mile, fronts biting with a few degrees of body roll and rear following without complaint.
The SQ8 does alter from that a little, because it’s been deliberately setup to have limits that are more approachable. Certainly, you’re aware of a slightly stiffer secondary ride and roll in all modes is reduced, so it feels ever so slightly keener on turn in and you’re aware of a tensing of air spring and anti-roll hardware under load. The stiffer configuration unlocks a small dose of adjustability, but in all but the occasional split second, the car just hammers down a road with both axles glued to the tarmac. It’s not exactly all-absorbing for the driver, but certainly the unrelenting pace makes for an exciting ride. Only now, with the V8 engine begging to be spun towards its redline and the gearbox more eager to switch cogs than it was in the diesel, there’s a new strata of character to exploit.
Certainly there's an argument which says the SQ7 has lost a key USP in the fight against a V8-powered Range Rover. And that against the BMW X6 M the SQ8 no longer looks like the sensible alternative. Compared with the old diesel versions, this is true. But the V8 petrol models still do such an impressive job at both ends of the spectrum and remain so eminently capable that while they’re not able to deliver the have-it-all breadth of capability that their MHEV diesel predecessors offered, they remain compelling all-round options. The pump colour might have changed, but elsewhere both cars signify much the same combination of presence, plushness and pace. You'll just be less of a stranger at the petrol station.
AUDI SQ7 / SQ8 | SPECIFICATION
Engine: 3,996cc, twin-turbocharged V8
Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch S-tronic auto, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 507@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 568@2,000-4,000rpm
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight: 2,200kg / 2,270kg(unladen)
MPG: 23.3 (WLTP combined)
CO2: 277-276g/km / 276-275g/km
Price: £73,000 / £83,000
1 / 19