First Drive: 2011 Audi Q7 downsizes with an upside

2011 Audi Q7 - Click above for high-res image gallery

If there's to be a singular automotive theme guiding us into this second decade of the 21st century, it's downsizing. If not in dimensions, then in displacement. Automakers, forced to adhere to higher government-mandated fuel economy standards and lower CO2 emissions, are beginning to collectively reduce engine size while attempting to maintain the thrust consumers demand.

The newest posterchild for this movement comes in an unlikely wrapper: the 2011 Audi Q7. Packing the same supercharged 3.0-liter V6 found in the S4 sports sedan, Audi bids adieu (or is that Auf Wiedersehen?) to the 3.6-liter V6 and 4.2-liter V8 for the 2011 model year and brings with it the 2011 A8's eight-speed automatic transmission. We tackled the congested highways and byways in and around Ingolstadt to see if the revised Q7 has the goods to placate both bureaucrats and buyers, while taking a deeper look into Audi's new powertrain strategy. Click through to the jump to see if we can make sense of it all.

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Photos by Damon Lavrinc / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

The supercharged 3.0-liter TFSI V6 fitted to the aforementioned S4, as well as the midsize A6, is quickly becoming Audi's low displacement replacement for its wonderful but aging 4.2-liter V8. Nestled between the banks of the 90-degree V6 sits a Roots-type, twin-scroll blower with a rather modest capacity of two liters, huffing a maximum of 11.6 psi into the lightweight aluminum block and delivering two different power figures depending on spec.

In low-output guise, 272 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque is available from 2,250 rpm to 4,750 rpm, with a claimed 0-62 mph time of 7.9 seconds. The high-output version brings 333 hp and 325 lb-ft to the party (beginning at 2,250 rpm), reducing the 62 mph sprint to 6.9 seconds. The latter configuration is down some 17 hp from the outgoing 4.2-liter V8, yet it delivers the same amount of torque – something that matters more when motivating a massive slab of SUV. As you'd expect, fuel consumption has been reduced across the board, with Audi claiming a reduction of 15.7 percent in the low-output Q7 and 11.5 percent in high-output form when compared to the ol' V8. The result is an estimated EU fuel economy rating of around 21 mpg on the highway – something we're keen to test in the real world when the revised Q7 goes on sale this summer.

For our money, the one engine, two outputs strategy is a smart move by Audi, allowing the automaker to essentially offer identical engines (tuners take note: power is modified electronically) to suit different consumer demands for both power and price. With the exception of "Supercharged" badging on the fenders of the high-output 3.0T S Line model, by all outward appearances, the two 'utes are nearly indistinguishable and the overall cost of development has been reduced so Audi can redirect its resources towards powertrain enhancements – namely its new eight-speed auto 'box.

With a gear ratio spread of 7.25:1 and a narrower torque converter that saves over 24 pounds compared to the six-speed automatic, Audi claims that fuel consumption has been reduced by four percent through the use of the new transmission alone. Included in the gearbox is a new oil cooler that gets warmed up by the engine's cooling system, boosting the tranny's temperature from a cold start and reducing drag in the transmission that much quicker.

The net result of all these powertrain modifications isn't easy to detect when slogging through the city, but when the road opens up and traffic begins to dissipate, the cohesion of the engine/tranny combo shines through. The low-output V6 is just that – less – but it proved adequate enough to get us up to triple-digit speeds on the autobahn with minimal fuss. Mid-range torque is predictably more pronounced compared to the 3.6-liter V6, allowing us to simply stomp on the long pedal and let the eight-speed auto quickly jump from gear-to-gear, keeping the blown six in the meat of its power band. We'd avoid calling the low-output version "quick" by any means, but assuming this is the combination Audi claims is good for 20+ mpg on the highway, it could get consumers in the door and out for a test drive.

But anyone that drives the low- and high-output versions back-to-back is sure to option up for the higher-spec trim, particularly if Audi equips the uprated model with some of its most popular options.

The 333-hp version is simply superior – not just because it's packing more power (yes, we like power), but because the eight-speed gearbox feels more at home with the additional grunt. Some of the hunt-and-peck gear selection we experienced on the low-output model didn't seem to manifest itself on the uprated variant. The gearbox still reaches for eighth when cruising along at highway speeds, but whereas the 272-hp mill would require the 'box to shift down from the top ratio to fourth for a mid-speed pass, the higher-output model would simply grab fifth, run up to the red and then snatch sixth without drama.

For both Audi and Q7 owners, it's a win-win. Audi saves on development costs and consumers save at the pump. Couple that with the increased efficiency of the new drivetrain combo, an overall reduction in emissions and fuel consumption, and everyone has something to crow about. Whether luxury SUV customers are willing to trade in the prestige of a V8 for an (admittedly misleading) 3.0T badge remains to be seen, but as a means of keeping the SUV relevant in this cleaner, greener climate, the 2011 Q7 is yet another step in the right direction.

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Photos by Damon Lavrinc / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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