Apparently the options on the table for the Audi Q8 SUV launch were the boulevards of Paris and Chile’s Atacama Desert. It’s hard to imagine a more yawning difference in atmosphere and landscape, but presumably the company thought that this consummate all-rounder could shine pretty much anywhere.

The Q8 comes at an interesting point of transition for Audi. From a purely product-based perspective, it’s a new kind of flagship, heading up the company’s SUV family (Q2, Q3, Q5 and Q7, with which it shares a fair amount of packaging and underpinnings, and a rumoured Q4 as well). It also runs neck and neck with the more conventional A7 Sportback and A8 saloon, sharing a fair chunk of their interior design ethos. And finally, it’s also an unashamed, traditional internal combustion engine powered machine – there’s even a diesel – launched just a few months ahead of the company’s very first all-electric model, the e-tron. More troublingly, as we sat on the terrace of the Tierra Atacama hotel and watched an augmented reality design presentation, Audi’s long-term CEO was twiddling his thumbs in an Augsburg prison, temporarily held as part of the ongoing investigation into falsified emissions tests.

The reverse of the Audi Q8 SUV

Photography: Armand Attard

The alleged engineering subterfuge might have given way to boardroom shenanigans but it’s clear that everyone else in the VW Group is keen to move on, and fast. All this goes unspoken, but they make an interesting backdrop to a car test. Is the Q8 the best getaway car? Out here in the Atacama, the air is thin and the arid landscape far-reaching, unforgiving and ruggedly beautiful. The Q8 is a quiet triumph for the company’s design team, whose job is to conjure up off-the-wall ideas that don’t always align with the deeply conservative thoughts of the company board. Less practical than the Q7, substantially larger than the Q5, more luxurious than either and also self-consciously ‘designed’, the Q8 pushes the company’s design language up a notch.

The grille is more prominent and self-contained, the flanks wider and more pronounced and the rear detailing, with its car-width lighting bar, emphasises the broad, muscular stance. The design team claim there are nods to the original ‘ur’ Quattro in there, the iconic 1980s rally supercar. The low rear roof-line and steep rear screen are the key elements here, for they’re meant to convey style (and therefore sophistication). This is a strict five, not seven-seater; Q8 buyers are not supposed to be practical types.

Driver cockpit of Audi Q8 SUV

There’s now an SUV for every conceivable niche, small to large, and the Q8 pushes the genre into the luxury sector, the final slice of a keenly segmented market pie. In fact, Audi is rather late to the game. The car’s close rivals are those in the oxymoronic ‘SUV coupe’ sector – the BMW X6 and Mercedes-Benz GLE, both of which parlay the scale and stance of the large SUV into a less practical but more ‘stylish’ body shape.

The Q8 is an easy winner of any comparative beauty contest, outside and in, being well proportioned and handsome and not in any way freakish. Car companies frequently catch flak for showing their products in unrealistically aspirational surroundings, with all other traffic surgically scrubbed out in post-production and the golden hour of sunlight bathing everything in a sympathetic glow. Atacama certainly fits the bill. Dry as dust, monochromatic and monumental, with sprinklings of snow at high altitude and long, straight stretches that are as barren and devoid of life as the surface of Mars, it is the best backdrop for a car launch outside of pure CGI. Unsurprisingly, the Q8 stands out amongst the local fleet of battered pick-up trucks and coaches – ‘it’s like a spaceship,’ the Q8’s lead interior Mauricio Monteiro Dos Santos notes as we trundle down another spectacular dirt road.

The interior is certainly a nice place to be, regardless of the location. Monteiro Dos Santos and his team have worked hard to integrate technology. Of course, there are a lot of screens, their glassy black mirrors embedded within the general cabin architecture, all the better to showcase new features like the ‘intelligent driving partner,’ an automotive version of Alexa or Google Assistant, as well as a navigation system that ‘learns’ your regular routes and warns you of unexpected delays. In total, there are 39 driver assistance systems, including a quasi-autonomous trailer mode that keeps track of what you’re towing to keep it on the straight and narrow when manoeuvring.

Audi Q8 SUV dashboard

All lifestyle bases covered, then. Audi expects Q8 sales to be equally divided between Europe, US and China. An RSQ8 is in the works, ramping up the power and dynamics, taking this car close to its raucous VW Group relative, the Lamborghini Urus; closely united under the skin although very different in attitude and aesthetics. Like any modern ICE machine, the Q8 provides plenty of power and although the steering is hardly razor sharp, it is a perfectly decent thing to drive, both on the smooth desert roads that taper to the distant horizon and for the occasional bit of light off-roading. Privately, some at Audi mutter that this car will take a big chunk out of Q7 sales, for most car buyers chose aesthetics over abilities, time and time again. It’ll also come up squarely against the forthcoming e-tron; there is a strong familial resemblance.

How much longer will the SUV rule the roost? Car design is entering a new phase. The current conventions feel like they are having a final fling, as choice, change and new technology create hitherto unavailable options. The Q8 is a case in point, leading the charge for a typology – and a company – in a state of flux. Big and bold, it epitomises contemporary thinking about car design and technology. In five years time, things might not look the same. §