There’s no other way to say this but when I first jumped behind the wheel of the Audi Q8 55 TFSI with its 340bhp, three-litre, twin-turbo V6 offering up 500Nm of torque, I was somewhat disappointed.

Not with the Q8 itself, which encompasses some brilliant new design themes along with all the connectivity trickery carried over from the A8, it was with the right pedal. This engine is not unfamiliar to us having been tested under the hoods of the A8, the A7 Sportback, the A6 and A5 but somehow the extra bulk of an SUV shape didn’t justify its relatively sluggish performance.

As is usual for drive programs, we travel two up and in this case, I opted to let my colleague take the opening stint while I perused the car’s incredibly slick interior without paying too much attention to where we were going. The Atacama desert on the edge of the Andes in Chile is a hostile place to launch a luxury car and it was only as we stopped for a quick pic opportunity that I noticed snow on the side of the road and the unbelievably picturesque mountain range we were traversing. I also didn’t realise that my colleague was extracting the most from the engine by keeping it in Sport mode and changing gears with the paddles to maintain momentum, yet it didn’t seem that steep.

However, the second I stepped from the car, my head went light and fuzzy, there was a slight imbalance under foot and what I feared was early stages of a headache confirmed that we were at a ridiculously high altitude for a day’s drive. At 3,500 metres above sea level (11,500 ft), the air is thin so cars struggle to make full power but it was also very noticeable on us too. And yet it was from here up that I was to drive the Q8 for the first time and my first impression was that it immediately felt less powerful than I had remembered other Audis. It was lifeless, as if its turbos weren’t connected. I slipped it back into Sport to give it the extra ponies it needed as there was still some serious altitude ahead we needed to conquer. Seven drive modes cover the full spectrum of off-road and on-road conditions running through the Q8’s eight-speed transmission but we focused on All-Road and Off-Road mainly to make use of the 254mm variable ride height from the air suspension and kept it in Sport on road using the manual paddle shifters. Once we were back down to 2,500 metres at the end of the day, it was like someone had added two extra cylinders and normal power was resumed. The difference just from the air density was remarkable.

 

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Inside of course, you wouldn’t know as the four-zone climate-control air-con regulated the environment to perfection. As expected, the Q8 gets the increasingly familiar 12.3in Virtual Cockpit screen that’s now on nearly all Audis and can be configured to display a number of different items while Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are also built-in.

Like on the just-released Touareg from sister company VW, it also houses an additional 10.1in screen for infotainment on top of an 8.6in screen for climate controls. Both include haptic feedback that sends a small pulse back through you finger so that it feels like a button, but in terms of keeping your eyes on the road, it’s still never as good as the real thing.

However, Audi has worked hard on its voice recognition software so that you don’t have to put on a clumsy German or American accent and speak slowly to make it work. It still struggles with the Australian ‘strine but it’s getting better.

We stopped further up in a small village comprising a few mud huts and discovered that the town’s average life expectancy hovers around 42 years due to the thin air which is not bad considering that at our next stop, we would be staring at a volcano on the border with Bolivia, 10 minutes away that peaks at 5,500 metres above sea level. Not only is that altitude uninhabitable for humans over extended periods but it also marks the half way point in the troposphere, which in layman’s terms is just referred to as ‘atmosphere’. So not the best place to try out the Q8’s keyless mobile app where you can lock, unlock and start the car via a smartphone but I’m told it works a treat.

Our peak before turning back was 4,520 metres (14,830ft) which is higher than the finish line of the Pikes Peak Hillclimb, ‘the race to the clouds’ where they race with oxygen bottles strapped to their faces, yet here we were in the Q8 taking it literally on a Sunday stroll. Up there both car and human perform at just 57 per cent of their capacity and to put that into perspective, as we flew out of Dubai on the A380 Airbus, it was a full two minutes after the seat belt sign had extinguished that we passed through the same altitude. So despite the relatively wide open roads and flat terrain, this was a serious test of the Q8 as the engine worked hard to overcome its 30 per cent loss of power and with thinner air flowing through the radiators, engines also overheat, especially turbos which require massive radiators and intercoolers just to survive.

The Q8’s swoopy roofline and five seat capacity tricks you into thinking its competitors are the BMW X6, Mercedes GLE Coupe or even Range Rover’s Velar but in reality, as it’s the flagship, its rivals are closer to the Mercedes GLS and BMW’s upcoming X7 or even X8.

 

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Our off-roading consisted of light gravel, snow and river crossings. Its lack of power was compensated by a 48-volt mild hybrid system that generates 12kW of energy stored in a lithium-on battery. This helps it to cruise from 55kph to 160kph with the motor turned off as well as power an upgraded Stop-Start system which cuts the motor from 22kph.

There are plenty of suspension options and all with adaptive dampers from the base coil springs to air and sports air. The air models are self-levelling which lower for easier access and provided us with the extra ground clearance we needed. Driving along the same rough clay, potholed roads in our hotel shuttle cars and then the Q8 the next day showed the difference a good air suspension package can provide.

Q8 debuts Audi’s bold octagonal grille for the Q range and gives the off-roader a much-needed aggressive look that has been missing from the Q range. It also introduces blistered guards which the team tried to link back to the original UR Quattro from the Eighties though it’s a tenuous bridge at best. The design team excelled with interior space given its four-door coupe profile. There’s plenty of headroom even in the rear which is partly due to the pillarless doors. Aside from style, having the double-glazed glass not housed in door pillars meant the design team could extend the roof panel right to the outer edges.

Rear legroom is outstanding and even with the driver’s seat pushed back, I had no trouble fitting behind the seat.

The technology on offer with the Q8 effectively mirrors the A8 with the exclusion of Level Three autonomy. Available features include adaptive cruise control with traffic jam assist, 360-degree camera with panoramic sensors, self-parking and a kerb warning system.

At just under five metres, it’s a bit shorter than the Q7, though marginally wider and shares the now familiar platform with the Q7, Bentley Bentayga and Lamborghini Urus where its likeness can be seen across the rear, in the D-Pillar and through its use of pillarless doors and four-wheel steering.

Aside from the 340bhp and 500Nm numbers, official figures haven’t been released for the petrol engine as Audi’s priority is to get the diesel out first. However the Middle East will be the first market to get the petrol, even before homeland Germany and will arrive sometime next year with prices yet to be announced.