Of all the luxury brands to make the transition from cars into SUVs, Audi's addition of a real sport-ute to its lineup will be the least abrupt. Audi has 25 years of all-wheel-drive experience behind it with quattro. And it already offered a step up into the world of utes in the form of the crossover allroad. So the new Q7 doesn't come to Audi showrooms out of left field - not like BMW's X5 did.
Even so, Audi is blurring the Q's identity a little bit to broaden its appeal. The Q7 has genuine off-road capability, but Audi is playing up its passenger-car-like handling and on-road bias.
So is it a crossover or a true SUV? It's both, since Audi wants to tackle the likes of the Mercedes-Benz R-Class, the Range Rover Sport, and the BMW X5 - not to mention the vehicles it's distantly related to, the Volkswagen Touareg and Porsche Cayenne. It has all the technology it needs to hit the off-road trails, but like its luxury brethren, Audi's counting on the $50,620 Q7's sophisticated style and truly carlike handling to get shoppers past the initially odd notion of an Audi truck.
Thrust and parity
The Q7 arrives in America with a single engine-transmission combination on the spec sheet. The brand's smooth, forceful 4.2-liter V-8 is the sole engine available at launch. With direct injection technology and four valves per cylinder, the V-8 churns out 350 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. Though it's been tuned for better low-end torque, the strongest sensual impression the eight-cylinder leaves behind is the muted hammering it barks out above 4000 rpm.
The transmission is a six-speed Tiptronic automatic gearbox, which does an invisibly good job of managing the power if you decline to use its sport-shift mode. In an SUV of this size, Tiptronic-style shifting seems a little showy and asinine, so we parked it in Drive and paid attention to the road ahead as the Q7 hustled around the Arizona desert. Audi says the Q7 accelerates to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds and hits a top speed of 130 mph - decent numbers for an Audi sedan and solid for a 5269-lb SUV, though slower than the Benz R500.
Later in the fall, a V-6 option will be offered. That 3.6-liter V-6, derived from the power unit found in the A3 hatchback and the TT sport coupe, also will sport direct-injection technology and will also be teamed up with a six-speed Tiptronic automatic. Making 280 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque, the V-6 version will accelerate to 60 mph in less than 8.2 seconds on its way to a top speed of 130 mph. It goes on sale in September.
An all-independent suspension and quattro all-wheel drive grant the Q7 comfortable, capable handling and 5500-pound towing capacity. Torque is normally split 42:58 front to rear, which Audi says gives the Q7 a nimbler feel. The Q7 also has a three-mode air suspension - sport, comfort, and automatic - that varies the damping of the vehicle according to conditions and the speed of the vehicle. It also raises the vehicle in off-road driving and lowers it at highway speeds. (An off-road package will be available with underbody and rocker-panel protection.) The Q7's power steering, with lovely effort and feedback, is hydraulically actuated.
Fit for duty
The Q7's basic floorpan is a cousin of that underpinning the VW Touareg and Porsche Cayenne, but as a seven-seat model it's been substantially evolved for its Audi mission. There is some commonality - less than 15 percent, Audi engineers say, mostly in the floorpan stampings on the front end to the B-pillar - but the Cayenne and Touareg are much more closely related to each other than to the Q7. Too, the Q7's suspension components are similar to those in the Touareg but the Audi pieces are formed from aluminum to save weight.
The Q7 body is all Audi, and confidently the best-looking of the trio. Sharp cutlines give athletic definition to the profile, and the body curvature on the rear end around the taillamps manages to look clean and simple when it's really a complex set of shapes. The Q7 seems far less slab-sided than either the Cayenne or Touareg - whether or not you like its full-frame grille is a matter of personal taste.
The body encases a cabin with three rows of seats and, Audi says, 28 seat/cargo configurations. That's because the third-row seats fold flat and the second-row seats move back and forth four inches to create more legroom, as well as fold flat. Audi says the cargo hold, with two seats up and two rows folded, leaves 88 cubic feet of space for ferry duty. (Six-cylinder cars will be offered without the third-row seat.)
The seating areas are pretty comfortable. The second row has plenty of leg room, the third is predictably scant for adults - but even back there, the nearby trim panels have molded-in cupholders, and flipping and folding the seats into desired positions is an easy task even for 100-pound moms. And getting access to the area is no chore: the tailgate is skinned in lightweight aluminum and is power-operated.
Audi interiors took a baby step backward with the latest A6, and the Q7 shares much of that car's interior themes. But the Q7's interior still stands head and shoulders above those from the likes of BMW because of superior materials - rich leather, suede, and wood - and uncluttered lines. The Q7's wood trim comes in choices of walnut, olive ash, or tamo, which Audi describes as a Japanese dark wood. Aluminum touches grace the shifter surrounds, inlay the wood and surround controls and the Multi Media Interface, probably the easiest of the iDrive-type controllers to operate and understand intuitively. Clear gauges and easy ergonomics rule the driver's controls: the steering wheel-mounted roller that finely adjusts the audio system's volume is typical of the well-executed controls.
The Q7 comes heavily equipped with luxury features. Leather seats are standard, along with automatic climate control, a power tailgate, the MMI system, 18-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, and keyless entry. Major options include a cold weather package with heated front and second row seats, and heated steering wheel, for $850; a $2400 technology package consists of a rearview camera with rear acoustic parking system, Audi side assist that monitors the vehicle's blind spots, and a keyless entry-start system; and standalone options like a three-panel sunroof, 19- or 20-inch alloy wheels, a four-zone automatic climate control system, satellite radio, adaptive cruise control, and DVD navigation. Audi also plans to offer an S-line version of the Q7 with 21-inch wheels and body-color trim.
And in terms of safety, Audi stocks the Q7 with dual front, side, and curtain airbags, along with anti-lock brakes, stability and roll control. Rear side airbags are optional.
In the case of the Q7, the numbers don't have it. Despite its beefy stats and tons of equipment, Audi's first true SUV is a lighter, nimbler piece than its data sheet spells out. Among its colleagues, only the Range Rover Sport approaches its sense of style and deft blend of on- and off-road personalities.
2007 Audi Q7
Base price: $50,620
Engine: 4.2-liter V-8, 350 hp/325 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 200.2 x 78.1 x 68.4 inches
Wheelbase: 118.2 inches
Curb weight: 5269 lb (V-8)
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): N/A
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side, and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, traction control and stability control
Major standard equipment: MMI interface; automatic air conditioning; power tailgate; 18-inch wheels
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles
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