The town of San Pedro de Atacama, in far northern Chile, was once a quiet new-age oasis in the middle of the driest desert in the world. Surrounded by only the snow-capped Andes Mountains, it’s still about as isolated as any place on earth can be — a full 18-hour drive north of Santiago — and maintains an end-of-the-world vibe that makes you wonder, “What if I stay?” But in recent years, it has also become a top luxury-travel destination. The fact that the whole place looks like a purpose-built backdrop for Instagramming a sun salutation means that the secret of San Pedro de Atacama got out. The town’s stocky adobe buildings quickly filled up with knick-knack shops offering authentic ponchos and alpaca sweaters. One upside: you’re now able to admire those snowcapped mountain peaks through the windows of a cushy private cabin at the spectacular Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa.
It is in this setting that Audi launched the new Q8, the brand’s avant-garde SUV flagship. The ambition of the new Q8 has as much to do with the way it looks as it does with the way it drives. It too is exceptionally Instagrammable. There’s no bad angle on it. The sharp creases stamped into the sheetmetal catch the light, highlighting its complex form. In person, it’s much lower and wider than you imagine. It stands out like a spaceship among the adobe huts of San Pedro.
The brief for the design team was to create a fastback SUV — a sportier, more luxurious — version of the successful Q7. This time, style could take priority over practicality. The Q8 has only five seats instead of seven.
“In the beginning, we wanted to do a coupe based on the Q7,” says Frank Lamberty, the designer credited with the exterior shape of the new SUV. “So the question for us was: do we just cut off the roof at the back, or do we really have to create a new car?” Lamberty and his team went for the latter solution, starting from scratch. It was more difficult, and more costly, but it’s the reason the Q8 looks unlike any of its competitors. Other brands took the easy solution. Not Lamberty, and not Audi.
He is, by the way, also the man who designed the original R8, Audi’s first supercar. It broke new ground for the company, pushing the whole brand further up-market and proving it could compete at the highest levels of the sports car segment. Arguably, Lamberty’s R8 is the most important car in Audi’s modern history, even more important than the original, iconic TT.
Lamberty is riding in the back seat of the Q8 as we speed along the Martian dreamscape of the Atacama desert. He pulls out his phone to show me pictures of the R8 he recently bought: blue metallic paint with a silver side strake and manual transmission with that lovely metal gated shifter. That car is aging as beautifully as the Mona Lisa. (Contrary to what you might imagine, designers don’t get to keep the cars they design; Lamberty had to buy one just like everyone else.)
Knowing Lamberty’s resumé, it should come as no surprise that the Q8’s proportions are so striking. In person, it looks unusually low and wide — just like the old R8 did. Using Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality glasses to examine a virtual Q8 outline overlaid atop a virtual Q7 makes the differences especially striking. You’d never guess they were based on the same architecture.
The wheelbase is the same, but the Q8 has a much wider track. Its roof is lower and stops earlier, cutting down at a rakish angle toward the rear bumper. The whole car is 60 millimetres shorter. It’s easily the best-looking Audi SUV to date.
Once you escape the new high-end tourist destinations, the high altitude and extremely dry air of the Atacama desert make it the best place in the world for stargazing. You can see a whole different night sky. The Southern Cross shines brightly, pointing down toward the south celestial pole, the fixed point around which the Earth spins.
The nearby Paranal Observatory — among the largest in the world — looks deep into space, searching for ancient light from the oldest parts of our universe.
However, the high altitude is murder on cars. Our road trip takes us up to some of the highest mountain passes in Chile. At over 4,000 metres (according to the car’s altimeter) the engine is starved for oxygen. Try to go for a jog up here and you’ll feel you’ve suddenly aged 30 years. Luckily, the Q8’s V6 engine has a hefty turbocharger to compress what little air there is and force it into the cylinders. At sea level it produces 335 horsepower, which is staggering for a luxury SUV.
From every seat in the cabin, the Q8 has lounge-like spaciousness. The expansive greenhouse provides a panoramic view of the landscape. Like all recent Audis, it features the ultra-modern virtual dashboard and centre console. The all-glass control panels only add to the feeling that you’re piloting some kind of futuristic space rover across a foreign planet. Every other high-tech feature you can imagine is packed in here: adaptive air suspension, four-wheel steering, and a 48-volt mild hybrid system.
Not only is the new Q8 the best-looking SUV from Audi to date, it will — like the original R8 — break new ground for the brand. It pushes Audi’s SUV offerings further up-market into rarified luxury territory. Like San Pedro, Audi’s lovely new flagship won’t stay a well-kept secret for long.