DO you hear it? That long seismic moan underfoot, the thick serial popping of tectonic fractures as if the Earth's rivets were giving way? It can only mean the arrival of the Audi Q7, the latest full-size luxury SUV to give the planet a hernia.
But wait, you say, I thought Americans had finally gotten sick of full-size sport-utility warthogs. Isn't that part of Detroit's current crisis, that the market is abandoning these Rabelaisian monsters in favor of more sensibly sized transport? Actually, no. It turns out Americans are only sick of American SUVs. We can't seem to import enough mid-five-digit Range Rovers, Lexus LX470s, Mercedes-Benz ML500s and Volvo XC90s (though not technically imported, BMW X5s are built in South Carolina, which might as well be another country).
And that's not all. Soon to swell these tubbo ranks is Mercedes-Benz's new GL, a three-row, Escalade-sized sport-ute, which in its deft and graceful styling looks like a grand piano with 19-inch rims.
But what about rising fuel prices and greenhouse gases and all the other sacred memes of enlightened transportation advocacy? Bah. Let them eat carbon.
Audi actually tried to remain aloof from the luxe-UV sty. For years it has faithfully offered Avant models -- that is, station-wagon variants -- of its exemplary all-wheel drive sedans, the A4 and A6, vehicles that deliver the alpine traction and cargo versatility of an SUV without the half-ton of adipose sheet metal. Audi even built the Allroad, a kind of Subaru of the Gods that was as close to a perfect compromise between on-road handling and off-road knobbiness as could be. Fewer than 2,500 discerning souls ponied up for one of those in 2005.
In fact, according to company execs, the Q7 project hung in the balance for a while, as engineers and marketers debated whether to instead offer an Avant version of the A8L sedan along the lines of the 2001 Avantissimo concept car. But that got shot down because it would have been too expensive to re-engineer the aluminum-bodied A8L as an estate. In 2003, Audi showed its Pike's Peak concept, which emerged as a fully formed preview of the Q7. The show car was a hit.
Rather reluctantly, it seems, Audi conceded to market forces, not just here but also in Europe: Sales in the premium SUV segment in Germany rose 300% between 2000 and 2004 (to 52,046 units).
Although the Q7 project may have been a compromise, the car itself seems anything but. Pieced together with proven components from Audi's considerable larder -- the instrument panel and console array are right out of the Audi A6, the 4.2-liter Quattro powertrain can be found in the A6 and A8L -- the Q7 has the full measure of Audi refinement and techno-sexual ardor. No hint of truckiness resides beneath the luxury-sedan gloss. Standard equipment includes Audi's Multi Media Interface (MMI), the friendly and intuitive rotary-dial controller that accesses the climate, audio, navigation and accessory car systems; and a 14-speaker Bose sound system, among many other items. The cabin is beautifully turned out in a variety of wood laminates, leather, and aluminum trim. The interior is pianissimo quiet. The laser-welded steel chassis is stiffer than Dick Cheney's après-hunting cocktail.
The Q7's biggest drawback? Weight -- big, raw, don't-sit-near-me tonnage. This is an unavoidable consequence in these sorts of kitchen-sink vehicles that must offer credible off-road capacity as well as luxury on-road performance. Under the hood of the Q7 is Audi's 4.2-liter, 350-horsepower direct-injection V8 engine (a V6 and a turbocharged V6 diesel will come later) buttoned to a reinforced version of its six-speed Tiptronic transmission. This powertrain has the requisite oomph to accelerate to 60 mph in seven seconds, and the Q7 cruises effortlessly at 75 mph. But beyond that, you can begin to feel the effects of its weight and aerodynamic resistance in passing performance. The Q7 bulldozes the wind with its .37 coefficient of drag.
The standard-issue Quattro all-wheel-drive system is deployed here, with 60/40 front/ rear torque split and automatic center-locking differential. The hot setup for the Q7 will include the optional (and very heavy) air suspension system, which provides a speed-sensitive ride height adjustment (the vehicle lowers on its suspension at higher speeds); a roll-stabilization program to keep the vehicle from lolling in corners; an off-road lift setting that gives the Q7 emergency ground clearance of 9.7 inches; and a fording depth of more than 20 inches.
That must be one inconveniently located day-care center.
Bone-stock, the vehicle weighs in at 5,269 pounds, according to Audi, and that's before you start picking and choosing from the dizzying array of optional features. Here's a partial rundown: lane-changing assist, a radar-based warning system that alerts drivers to cars in their blind spot with flashing signals in the side-view mirrors; adaptive cruise control with automatic braking that, like the Mercedes S-class reviewed last week, will speed and slow the vehicle automatically in the seesaw of commuting traffic; hill-descent assist, which stabilizes the vehicle on steep declines; and trailer stabilization, which can null out the weaving of a trailer with targeted activation of brakes (5,500-pound trailer capacity).
Then you can start piling on optional 20-inch wheels, Xenon adaptive headlights, and a rear-camera parking assist system with optical and audio cues to help moor this muhtha at the local gigundo-plex.
Not having a set of scales with me during the press event in Phoenix last week, I can't say for sure how much a fully equipped Q7 weighs, but I'd wager my weight in lard that it's more than 5,600 pounds. And so, although the vehicle is tuned very differently from its platform mate Porsche Cayenne, both SUVs have this massive, heavy-hearted feel at the tiller so that they never really feel as secure as they are -- and certainly not as secure as a proper station wagon would be. Likewise, both vehicles have a slightly synthetic feel, as you sense the computers quietly ciphering away in the background to help manage the cornering loads, shifting weight and demands of road surface.
The "Q" stands for "Quattro" -- so lay off, Dr. Dobson -- and the "7" represents the maximum number of passengers. Apparently, there's an undocumented burst of fertility in the land, since Audi is one of several manufacturers to trumpet new vehicles with optional three-row, seven-passenger seating (e.g., the Jeep Commander and the Subaru B9 Tribeca).
Permit me an aside: This curious urge toward seven seats is an example of what might be called contingency anxiety, which I believe is a huge psychic motivator in the high-end SUV segment generally. It's the fear that one day, someday, you might be called upon do something extraordinary in your vehicle -- drive your wife to the hospital in a snowstorm, ford a swollen stream, rescue a Cub Scout den from angry bees -- and you have to buy the utmost vehicle as a hedge against such a day. Contingency anxiety is the reason so many people drive around in five times more vehicle than they really need. Aside ended.
In order to make room for the third row of seats, the Q7 -- built in Bratislava, Slovakia, alongside its platform mates Porsche Cayenne and VW Toureg -- is a foot longer than the Porsche or VW, over a wheelbase stretched 6 inches. The third-row seats can accommodate passengers as tall as 1.6 meters, Audi says (a quick glance at a metric conversion table reveals that 1.6 meters equals 1 Seacrest).
Third-row packaging is a riddle that no manufacturer has quite solved. It's effortless to reach steerage in the Mercedes R-class, for example, thanks to the vehicle's enormous second doors. The problem is that these doors are too big to open handily in parking lots (this is why minivans have sliding doors). In vehicles such as the XC90, the Q7 and the lumbar-assaulting Jeep Commander, the smaller hinged doors, combined with the placement of the seats directly above the rear axle, make entrance and exit plenty awkward and even uncomfortable.
Ah, what the heck. They're only children.
As for the Q7's outside, all the corporate cues are in place: the high shoulder line, the narrow, arched greenhouse, the sloped roofline. Some might argue that the big single-frame Audi grille actually fits better on the tall Q7 than it does on other, smaller Audis. The looks do seem to grow on you. Others might argue that the Q7 looks like the world's most expensive pool skimmer. For my part, I think of the Avantissimo and dream what could have been.
How much? That depends on how crazy you get with features and where you buy it. According to Audi, the Q7 4.2 FSI will list at 64,900 euros in Germany, which equals $77,503.70. However, list price in the U.S. is an entirely more reasonable $49,900.
So, for the first people who line up at dealerships to buy the Q7, I say: Willkommen.
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Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2007 Audi Q7 SUV
Base price: $49,900
Price, as tested: $62,000
Powertrain: 4.2-liter, DOHC direct-injection V8; six-speed adaptive automatic transmission; all-wheel-drive with automatic center-locking differential and electronic differential lock front and rear
Horsepower: 350 at 6,800 rpm
Torque: 325 pound-feet at 3,500 rpm
Curb weight: 5,269 pounds
0-60 mph: 7.0 seconds
Wheelbase: 118.18 inches
Overall length: 200.23 inches
EPA fuel economy: 16 miles per gallon city, 20 highway (est.)
Final thoughts: Luxury sedan in elevator shoes
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