The Tri-Motor SQ8 E-Tron Is The First Audi That’s So Fun It Made Me Giggle

The Tri-Motor SQ8 E-Tron Is The First Audi That’s So Fun It Made Me Giggle

It’s a Tuesday morning in the mountains north of Malibu, California, and I’ve got a huge grin on my face. I’m behind the wheel of a brand new car, braking sharply to enter a long, uphill hairpin turn with a decreasing radius. Halfway through the bend I press harder on the accelerator and the tail kicks out ever so slightly as the car rotates around, accelerating through the apex as I make a quick steering correction to point the nose at the corner exit. I laugh out loud, a bit astonished by what I’m driving. After a set of sweeping S curves I dive into a tight right-hander, and another outburst of giggles ensues.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’m in the latest hot hatchback or high-end sports car. In reality, I’m driving the 2024 Audi SQ8 E-Tron, a large electric luxury crossover that’s the latest version of what used to just be called the E-Tron (and not to be confused with the gas-powered Q8). The standard Q8 E-Tron is a perfectly nice but ultimately boring EV, but this SQ8 performance variant is the first Audi that has truly made me smile and laugh from pure driving fun.

Full disclosure: The SQ8 E-Tron is so in demand but produced in such low volumes that every available car is going straight up for sale instead of any entering the press fleet, so Audi really wanted me to drive thirty minutes from my apartment to Santa Monica for my only chance to try out the updated SUV. They bought me a very nice lunch afterward.

The handling magic is thanks to the SQ8 E-Tron’s upgraded powertrain, which is essentially the same as the pre-facelift E-Tron S. Audi added a second motor at the rear axle, giving the tri-motor SQ8 E-Tron a maximum power output of 496 horsepower and 718 pound-feet of torque when boost mode is activated. That’s 94 hp and 228 lb-ft more than a standard dual-motor Q8 E-Tron, and good enough to get the SQ8 E-Tron from 0 to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds and reach a top speed of 130 mph, 1.2 seconds quicker and 6 mph faster than the Q8 E-Tron.

Photo: Daniel Golson / Jalopnik

That additional speed is all well and good, but it’s the dual-motor rear axle’s new torque-vectoring capabilities that are the star of the show. With a motor individually powering each rear wheel and no mechanical connection between them, torque is completely variable and can be adjusted in under five milliseconds, much quicker than a mechanical system could. The SQ8 E-Tron’s outside rear wheel can put out 162 lb-ft more torque than the inside wheel, with the inside front wheel able to be braked at the same time. In Dynamic mode this gives the SQ8 immediately responsive turn-in that surprises me with how entertaining and transformative it is. The torque vectoring feels totally natural, and it makes the SQ8 much easier to drive quickly on a twisty road.

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Making its canyon prowess even more notable are the SQ8 E-Tron’s underpinnings. Unlike other high-performance EVs on the market, the SQ8 E-Tron shares its MLB Evo platform with internal combustion cars ranging from the Audi A4 and Q5 to the Lamborghini Urus and Porsche Cayenne. It doesn’t have fancy chassis tech like active anti-roll bars or rear-wheel steering, either. The SQ8 E-Tron weighs 6,118 pounds but it feels so much more nimble than that figure suggests, helped not only by the torque vectoring but its near-50:50 weight distribution and low center of gravity. Compared to the Q8 E-Tron the SQ8’s steering is much heavier, which I vastly prefer, and the steering wheel offers more road feedback than other new Audis I’ve driven.

In fact, the SQ8 E-Tron’s tossable handling makes me glad that its straight-line speed is relatively tame compared to more powerful competitors. The acceleration is quick enough to take my breath away and shove me back in the seat without being exhausting or too much; the perfect amount of power to drive quickly on a good road without reaching dangerous speeds and pushing too hard. Other fast Audis I’ve driven like the RS5 and S7 have felt nothing more than dull and competent to me, but the SQ8 E-Tron is genuinely precise and engaging.

Detail shot of the wheel of a bright red Audi SQ8 E-Tron Sportback

Photo: Daniel Golson / Jalopnik

This is the first Audi S model to have a wider body, and it really transforms how the Q8 E-Tron looks. The SQ8 E-Tron has a set of fender flares that increases overall width by 1.5 inches, and the track is 1.4 inches wider as well. As standard the SQ8 E-Tron comes with 20-inch wheels, but my test car has a set of rad twisty 22s wearing Hankook Ventus S1 Evo 3 EV tires with a square 285/35R22 setup. These changes give the SQ8 E-Tron a seriously hot stance, especially the Sportback model, and the front flares even have functional air channels. The sticky summer tires certainly help provide the SQ8 with a ton of grip, and I don’t experience a single moment of understeer or hear any tire squeal—aside from when I made a hard left turn at full throttle from a stop sign, leaving black tire marks on the road.

Peek through the SQ8 E-Tron’s wheels and you’ll see one of its biggest flaws. The SQ8 has the same brake setup as the standard Q8 E-Tron (albeit with red calipers added), consisting of six-piston calipers with 15.7-inch rotors up front and single-piston calipers with 13.8-inch rotors in back. The friction brakes themselves aren’t the issue; they’re plenty strong and weren’t prone to fade even after a few hours of hard driving. My problem is with the SQ8’s regenerative braking, or lack thereof.

Like other Audi EVs, the SQ8 E-Tron has regenerative braking that’s adjustable through a couple of stages using the steering wheel pedals, but it doesn’t have true one-pedal driving. Even in the strongest setting the regen can’t bring the SQ8 close to a complete stop, which I find to be really frustrating. It’s even annoying when in the canyons. I love being able to drive an EV quickly on a good road without ever needing to touch the brake pedal, but in the SQ8 it’s hard to tell whether slowing down using just regen will be enough when approaching a corner, leading me to make some awkward stabs of the brake pedal both much too early and a little too late. I start getting into the groove eventually, but going from regen to pressing the brake pedal never feels natural or seamless. Sure, I could just turn the regen braking off completely and only use the friction brakes, but at that point why drive an EV at all?

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Up-close shot of the front end of a bright red Audi SQ8 E-Tron Sportback

Photo: Daniel Golson / Jalopnik

Turning back onto Pacific Coast Highway and putting the SQ8 E-Tron back into its Comfort drive mode is a serene experience. Standard dual-pane glass makes the SQ8 even quieter than the A8 sedan, and the suspension’s softest setting is nice and cushy despite the big wheels. In normal driving situations the front motor is turned off for better efficiency, and the rear axle’s torque vectoring makes city maneuvers and highway lane changes quicker and tighter.

The SQ8 also gets the same battery and charging improvements as the standard Q8 E-Tron. Battery capacity has grown from 86.5 kWh to 106 kWh, increasing the EPA range from 208 miles to 253 miles. With the 22-inch wheels the range drops to 218 miles, still 37 miles greater than before, and my car’s display showed 235 miles of range with a full charge. The SQ8 E-Tron can now fast charge at up to 170 kW, an increase of 20 kW, now good enough to go from 10-80% in 31 minutes. The standard onboard charger is a 9.6 kW unit, but an $1,850 package adds a second charge port on the car’s left side and increases the AC charger’s capacity to 19.2 kW, cutting Level 2 charge time from 13 hours to only 6.5 hours. Plug & Charge is standard, and every SQ8 E-Tron comes with two years of free unlimited charging at Electrify America stations.

Like before the SQ8 E-Tron comes in two body styles, the standard SUV and the Sportback that has a sloping “coupe” roof. (As a lover of crossover coupes, the Sportback would be my choice.) Other than those fender flares, the SQ8 is differentiated from the normal Q8 E-Tron with aluminum mirror caps and other silver exterior accents, though my car has the optional $3,500 Black Optic package that gives all the exterior trim a gloss black finish and adds those 22-inch wheels. The SQ8 also has larger front grille openings, different badges, and a couple of unique exterior colors, including the awesome Soneira Red of my Sportback.

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Photo showing the dashboard and interior of an Audi SQ8 E-Tron Sportback with black leather

Photo: Daniel Golson / Jalopnik

Aside from a perforated steering wheel, an embossed shifter, sport seats with thicker bolsters, and some additional carbon trim, the SQ8’s interior is identical to that of the Q8 E-Tron, which is to say attractive but not particularly interesting. The SQ8 comes standard with extended leather on the dash and door cards, and the front seats are 12-way power-adjustable. For $2,000 you can get a package that adds ventilation and massage for the front seats, but it annoyingly replaces the sport seats with the standard Q8 E-Tron’s seats, which aren’t as supportive.

Unchanged for the SQ8 E-Tron is Audi’s MMI infotainment system that pairs a 10.1-inch upper touchscreen with an 8.6-inch lower touchscreen, the latter of which is mostly used for climate controls and other vehicle settings. Both screens have haptic feedback, which is great, and the 12.3-inch virtual cockpit gauge cluster display is excellent, especially when using navigation. While MMI is easy to use I’ve never really been a fan, mostly because of how dour and old the graphics look and the lack of customization for the screens.

Every SQ8 E-Tron has a 3D Bang & Olufsen sound system, four-zone automatic climate control, a hands-free power tailgate, heated front and rear seats, a heated steering wheel, an integrated toll reader, navigation, a panoramic sunroof, a wireless phone charger, and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It also comes with all the safety tech you’d expect, including a 360-degree camera system, adaptive cruise control with lane centering, automated emergency braking, automatic high beams, blind-spot monitoring, parking sensors, rear collision detection and traffic sign detection. Spending $6,000 to go for Prestige trim level gets you digital matrix headlights, a lightbar at the top of the grille, a head-up display, soft-close doors, sunshades in the rear doors and parking assist.

Black leather seats of an Audi SQ8 E-Tron Sportback

Photo: Daniel Golson / Jalopnik

The SQ8 E-Tron starts at $90,995 including a $1,195 destination charge, while the Sportback version costs $93,795, That’s a $15,400 upcharge over the standard Q8 E-Tron and $14,800 more than the Q8 E-Tron Sportback. If a performance-oriented electric SUV is what you’re after, I think it’s well worth the money. The SQ8 E-Tron might not be as wonderful to sit in as a BMW iX M60 or as fast and technologically advanced as a Mercedes-AMG EQE SUV, but it’s more fun to drive than either and cheaper, too.

Most of all, the SQ8 E-Tron has me excited for Audi’s upcoming electric cars like the A6 E-Tron and Q6 E-Tron that will ride on new dedicated EV platforms. Those models will have more powerful motors, more efficient batteries and more impressive features, plus usher in what I find to be a more exciting design language. If they make me crack a smile like the SQ8 E-Tron does, Audi might make a fan out of me yet.

Detail shot of the Audi SQ8 E-Tron Sportback's B-pillar badge

Photo: Daniel Golson / Jalopnik