You may think that it is really bad timing for Audi to come out with a large fuel-thirsty SUV, but in all fairness, development on this vehicle began several years ago when gas prices were stable and large SUV sales were on the rise in the US market. Be that as it may, the new Audi Q7 is here and it's a beauty, so let's take a close look at the vehicle and let the market judge whether the decision to produce this bad boy was the correct one.
The Q7 is a vehicle type that Audi has never attempted before. Up until now, Audi was a car company. It manufactured sedans and station wagons with a sports car and a convertible thrown in for good measure. In other words, cars. So an off-road capable SUV that can seat seven is a totally new venture for them. That's not to say they don't have off-road experience. The Audi Allroad Quattro was a very capable vehicle that was based on the A6 station wagon platform. In fact almost every vehicle Audi makes has the Quattro all-wheel drive system either standard or available as an option.
The styling of the Q7 speaks for itself and is easily recognized as an Audi by its open-mouth grill up front and the 4 interlocking rings prominently displayed coming and going. The interior is also a class act with large comfortable seats in a cockpit that is elegant and welcoming.
On the road, this SUV is as comfortable and as easy to drive as a sedan while the higher seating position provides the driver with a commanding view of the road. The 4.2 liter V8 has more than enough power to move this 5,300 pound beast with ease, providing powerful acceleration with a hint of a rich exhaust note, just enough to make the driver feel in charge of a formidable machine.
Currently, this sultry V8 is the only engine available, but sometime in the second half of 2006, Audi will add a more fuel efficient 3.6 liter V6 to the line along with reduced standard equipment. This will help bring the price of admission down to the neighborhood of $45,000. This is only an estimate since Audi has not announced pricing for the V6 models at the time of this writing. Currently, the base price for the V8 Q7 is $49,900.
Our test vehicle was the Q7 Premium model with even more standard features, like Premium Cricket leather seats (I wonder if the seats chirp at night) and a panoramic glass sunroof that extends from the front to the third row. The front portion can tilt and slide back, while the section over the third row seat will tilt up. A power operated perforated sun shade covers the front and second row seats, while the rear has a manually operated shade. The Q7 Premium starts at $59,900 before adding options like Adaptive Air Suspension, Side Assist and Adaptive Cruise Control. Expect a fully optioned Q7 Premium to leave the dealership at close to $70,000.
We took the Q7 out to the Pocono mountains in Pennsylvania in order to wring it out on the back roads and off-road trails. On the way there, we had an opportunity to see how it drove on the highway and also to test a new bit of electronic wizardry called Audi Side Assist. This gismo keeps watch over the blind spots on either side of your vehicle. You know the ones. When a vehicle is passing you, there is a point where you can no longer see it in your side mirror, but it is still not visible by turning your head to the side.
What Side Assist does is keep watch with a pair of 24-gigahertz radar sensors, one for each side of the rear bumper. When the detectors see a vehicle in your blind spot, a yellow light illuminates on the inside of the mirror on that side of the vehicle. If you look in the mirror to see if it is safe to change lanes and you see the light on, you can safely assume there is a vehicle there. If you put your turn signal on while something is in that blind spot, the indicator will begin rapidly flashing. The only time you notice it is when you are looking in the mirror to perform a lane change so it is not distracting in the least. The indicators are positioned so that only the driver can see them lighting up.
With the Adaptive Air Suspension in Comfort mode, the highway ride is as good as a very good sedan. Switch to Dynamic mode and the ride stiffens up to provide excellent handling for a large SUV. There is also an Automatic mode that monitors your driving style and automatically switches from soft to firm as necessary. There are two other positions, Off-road for normal wilderness driving and Lift for maximum ground clearance.
Wind noise is only apparent at speeds over 80 mph and then, it is only a whisper. Road noise was well subdued, but not totally absent. On winding country roads, the steering was direct and cornering was relatively flat and stable. Brakes were superb with powerful short stops and excellent pedal feel with no noticeable fade. This is especially noteworthy since this is a 5,300 pound vehicle.
Once we reached our Pennsylvania destination, we had a chance to experience off-roading Audi style. At the base of the trail we were about to take, the helpful Audi folks instructed us on the finer points of readying the Q7 for roughing it. "First press this button over here, the trail gets very narrow in places." We did and noticed the outside mirrors silently folding themselves into the body. Then we were asked to turn our attention to the nav screen and rotate the control wheel for the MMI, or Multi Media Interface, to pull up the Adaptive Air Suspension screen. We then were told to select Off-Road Hi mode, which we did. Within a couple of seconds, the Q7 began to rise -- "Second Floor - shoes and sportswear - going up...".
Now that we had sufficient ground clearance and our mirrors were safely tucked into the body, we were ready to tackle the rocky trail up to the top of the mountain. I have to tell you that this was not a road for wusses. There were shear drops just at the edge of the narrow rutted path and absolutely no guard rails in sight, but the Q7 took to this rough terrain like a mountain goat on steroids.
The weather was sunny and bright, but the day before saw plenty of rain, so the trail had a good amount of muddy puddles and a couple of small lakes in our path. While the other vehicles in our Q7 caravan carefully steered clear of the water so as not to splash their shinny new vehicles, my co-driver and I decided to see how high we could send a muddy plume of water. Needless to say, we had the dirtiest Q7 of the group.
Now remember, Audi bills the Q7 as a crossover, so it is not a true off-road vehicle like a Range Rover or a Hummer. The Q7 does not have a two speed transfer case or locking front or rear differentials that are needed for real wilderness survival. It also did not have the heavy duty suspension pieces and rugged axles found on those other vehicles, which would have added considerably to the weight. But it did have plenty of ground clearance when needed and enough guts for casual off-road use.
Let's get back to civilization, which is where the Q7 is at its best. Audi does interiors as good as any car company and this interior is absolutely stunning with rich looking real wood and aluminum trim pieces that fit together like a fine watch. The gauges in the instrument cluster were clear and easy to read and all controls felt like they would last forever. The steering wheel radio controls included a pair of thumbwheels to control volume and station selects. This type of control is much more natural than a button that you press and hold waiting for the volume to reach the desired level.
The car-like cockpit of the Q7 was patterned after the Audi A6 and A8. The console contained the controls for the MMI and for the Advanced Key system. With Advanced Key, you never have to take the key out of your pocket or purse. As long as the key is on your person, touching a door handle will unlock the doors and a simple tap of the start button on the console will bring the engine to life. The MMI controls handle the GPS Navigation, the sound system and other secondary tasks, like controlling the amount of ground clearance for the Adaptive Air Suspension. It takes a bit of time to become comfortable with MMI, but it is mostly logical and easy enough to figure out without constantly cracking opened the owner's manual.
There are two different seating configurations to select from when ordering the Q7. You can opt for either a 6 passenger or 7 passenger layout. Both layouts use 3 rows of seats. The six passenger arrangement has a console between the first and second rows. The seven seat layout uses a three passenger second row which replaces the two captain's chairs. In either case, the third row is a bit tight and not so easy to climb into. This seat is probably best left to pre-teens.
The Q7 is loosely based on the VW Touareg platform, but the body structure is quite a bit longer and has some innovative engineering of its own. Several types of materials were brought together to construct this new body including normal, high-strength and very high-strength steel as well as several panels made from light-weight aluminum. In order to improve build quality, new joining techniques such as laser welding, laser soldering and bonding were used.
Most body seams on the Q7 have been engineered so they are in places that are hidden from view. Because of this, when you open a door or the hatch, the places where you would normally see spot welds are clean and finished like the rest of the body. These new techniques also show up in the solid vault-like feel when closing a door or driving over rough roads.
The Q7 comes standard with a host of safety features including head protection curtain air bags that extend to protect all three rows, Electronic Stability Program with roll-over detection and a brake-wipe feature that automatically removes water from brake discs. There are also standard side airbags for the front row and optional side air bags for the second row occupants.
If you are looking for an upscale SUV with room for 7, classy styling, a beautifully appointed interior and real off-road capabilities, the new Audi Q7 is tough to beat.