Audi was one of the first carmakers to realize the potential benefit of equipping both its road-going and competition cars with an AWD system. Taking advantage of rule changes during the early ‘80s that allowed AWD cars to compete in the World Rally Competition, Audi entered its first model equipped with the sophisticated drivetrain, winning its debut race and maintaining this lead for the next two years. Prominent wins and the proven reliability of its quattro technology have made Audi a leader in AWD ever since the introduction of the first quattro model back in 1980. And now, with close to 30 years of AWD experience under its belt, Audi has released its take on the highly popular SUV.
Considering its heritage, it’s strange that Audi was so late to the table in delivering a full-size SUV model. For years it released jacked up versions of its A4 and A6 Avant wagons equipped with off-road tires and protective side-cladding as an alternative to poplar soft-roader models from Japanese and American carmakers. Even after German rivals BMW and Mercedes Benz released their own off-road models with the X5 and M-Class line of cars, Audi was still years away from adding an SUV to its lineup.
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With significant ground lost to the competition, in 2006 Audi finally launched its first ever SUV, the behemoth Q7. But by now, the market had changed. Demand for large SUVs was declining and the competition was already releasing second-generation models, which meant the new Audi quickly fell into obscurity amidst a sea of worthy rivals. To save costs, the development of the Q7 was shared between Audi, Volkswagen and sports car brand Porsche for its Cayenne SUV, but official figures have the three sharing only 15% of parts in common. The Q7 lacks the V-Dub’s locking differentials and low-range transfer case but it does offer seating capacity for seven passengers, albeit very limited capacity in the back. This is a vehicle that was never meant for serious off-road use but rather to cart around to shopping malls or for high speed luxo-cruising.
Like most Audi V8s, the 350hp (257kW) 4.2L unit in the Q7 is a work of art. Floor the pedal and the mechanical whirs combined with the bellowed grunt is an aural delight. When pushing hard from a standstill, there’s a slight pause as 440Nm of torque is sent to the hubs before the front-end rises and the big Audi barrels down the straight like a genuine muscle car. At around seven seconds for the 0-60mph sprint, the Q7 isn’t super quick but it’s incredibly fast for a vehicle this size. The six-speed auto did an admirable job and always managed to pick the right gear even when pushed hard, downshifting quickly and revving freely to redline in sports mode. Trips to the gas station will soon become a frequent event, because this is an SUV you’ll want to drive like a sports car. But as thrilling as the FSI V8 is, its 17L/100km thirst means the new 4.2L TDI is the pick of the bunch.
When it comes to the twisties, the Q7 has its ups and downs. There’s plenty of grip from the 275mm wide tires, and in dynamic mode you can fling the Q7 around corners surprisingly quick. It’s steering is well-weighted and the handling feels agile, no doubt thanks to the all-independent double-wishbone suspension set-up and quattro splitting torque 42:58 front to rear via a Torsen center diff. The test model was equipped with the Audi's new three-mode air suspension, which can switch between sport, comfort, and automatic settings. Each mode has its own characteristics that vary the level of damping according to vehicle speed, and the system will also automatically raise and lower the car when driving on the highway. Anything other than ‘dynamic mode’ is horrendous at speeds beyond 50mph. But even in this firmest setting, there’s significant lean going into corners and the vehicle will flex substantially before becoming settled. It also suffers from major wind and road noise at highway speeds.
Despite being the latecomer, Audi’s Q7 doesn’t feel as car-like as BMW’s previous generation X5, which has now been superseded by an improved all-new model. Serious off-roading isn't the Q7’s forte either, but it copes well with muddy trails, loose surfaces and steep inclines. When roughing it in the bush, the adaptive air suspension includes additional Off-Road and Lift features. The first mode basically gives an additional inch of ride-height, while Lift mode enables the suspension to stretch to the maximum allowable limit. At the rear, a separate button will lower the tailgate by up to 2.8in for easy loading of cargo.
The interior is typically Audi, with a well designed layout and minimal switch gear providing a clean and uncluttered look. However, the design seems dated against the latest BMWs and lacks the air of quality found in Audi’s own sedan range. Positioned above the A6 in Audi’s lineup, I expected the Q7 to come with a decent sound system, but there wasn’t even support for MP3s. Another folly is the MMI system, which has obviously been designed for LHD markets alone. In RHD versions, the driver is forced to turn the input knob anti-clockwise but intuitively you’ll want to turn it towards yourself, i.e. clockwise. Fortunately, there are enough buttons on the center console for frequently used functions such as the stereo and climate control, relegating the MMI to navigation and suspension duties.
A premium station-wagon on stilts sums up the new Audi Q7. Keeping up with thoroughbred German saloons on the Autobahn is no problem for the big-Audi, and combined with the ample interior space and bevy of useful mod-cons, the Q7 is ideal for today’s discerning luxury SUV buyer. Just don’t tell them about its off-road shortcomings. - Viknesh Vijayenthiran
Review: Audi Q7 4.2 FSI