Snowstorms are what we live for at the Globe. Our metro staff gets to ask travelers trapped at Logan Airport how their day is going. Our photographers snap people falling on ice, and if there's a Pats game, the sports writers watch it from heated, refreshment-filled box seats.
Over in the automotive section, we're out with the plows, trying to sort the wannabe winter cars and trucks (any Jaguar or unladen pickup) from the truly great ones (hint: they're not just Subarus).
My storm trooper during the day-after-Christmas blizzard was Audi's seven-passenger Q7, equipped in TDI trim with its 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6. Ordinarily, it's a delightful car to slog through snow.
The quattro all-wheel-drive, paired with a hefty set of 20-inch winter Dunlops, routed power so seamlessly that sometimes I was unaware I was slipping in the first place. The 406 lb.-ft of torque got this rig to speed in no time, and the 8-speed automatic kept everything hush-hush. The front seats offered six levels of heat, and the four-zone climate control kept my parents and girlfriend comfortable while the wipers iced up from the freezing bursts of wind on I-91.
So what, with its stability and slick, Tron-like LED headlamp accents, kept the Q7 from being the easy foul-weather cruiser it should be?
Well, I did, when I knocked the wiper off, that's what.
My girlfriend argued I shouldn't have pulled on a moving wiper. But she's from south Texas, and the wiper flick is a pretty standard, albeit crude, procedure in the Northeast. When ice sticks to the blade and no longer wipes the glass clean, you reach your arm out and lift the blade when it sweeps near, slapping the ice off without having to pull over.
But on the third try, the Q7's wiper snapped in two. Being German, it was impossible to reattach like a normal wiper, forcing me into a gangster-lean the rest of the drive home.
Most wipers stand these flicks without fail. But the Audi wipers are a two-piece design. Instead of the blade attaching to the wiper arm, this one slides into a plastic strap that hangs limply off the arm, and it's secured together with two clamps. This makes for mighty wiping in regular conditions since the base of the arms pivot, allowing the blades to flex and sweep a wider angle. What I wouldn't have given for our $71,800 Audi to have instead offered wiper deicers on the base of the windshield, like those on a $26,000 Hyundai Tucson.
Maybe I should have kept my hand in the car. After all, this is a vehicle over-engineered to the point where Bang & Olufsen tweeters rise out of the dash and the navigation system renders the Boston Globe building down to the Gothic letters on the wall.
Even the glovebox doesn't open like a glovebox. Like in Jaguars, the locking mechanism is electronic, just like the fussy automatic towel dispensers in public bathrooms that have you waving your wet hands around like an idiot. The Audi box trapped my dad's phone inside and wouldn't budge until he pressed the open switch (an obscure icon to the right of the LCD monitor) about 30 times. Then the glovebox wouldn't close another dozen or so times, even after emptying it.
Surely, those all-in-one HVAC knobs that control temperature, 12 fan speeds, 9 fan directions, and the heated and cooled seats will be more reliable? And the myriad of vehicle configurations buried within menus and submenus of the MMI system will hold up? Maybe there's a reason Audi programmed every service department in the country into the GPS.
All this doesn't erode the Q7's worthy drive, however. Like all Audis, the chassis feels forged from a solid block of steel (though at a belt-popping 5,567 pounds, it should be from an aluminum block like the A8). The interior isn't as intuitive as the Porsche Cayenne's, but it's all very handsome, high-quality, and well-lit. The panoramic sunroof turns the Q7 into a rolling greenhouse, and handling and ride quality are exemplary for such a large vehicle.
Like nearly every big SUV, the Q7 sits atop an optional air suspension that keeps the body level, offers height adjustment, and tailors firmness to the driver's style. It's not as off-road pretentious as the Range Rover — nor would it be as capable — but the Q7's shocks deliver a creamy ride with minimal brake dive and body roll. The quick steering seems to shrink the Q7 down to Q5-size, especially when parking. Many midsize sedans don't handle and steer this well.
While I saw an indicated 30-mpg average on the highway, the diesel's low-end torque and fuel savings are exhausted by the excess weight. The EPA 17/25 rating of the TDI is barely higher than that of the two supercharged gasoline models, at 16/22. That problem should be left to Porsche, now under Audi corporate, which cut a whopping 408 pounds off its new Cayenne.
If Audi does that to the next Q7, it'll have a seven-seat segment leader. Let's hope they add a few pounds to the wipers.
2011 Audi Q7 TDI
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $50,900 / $71,800
Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 17 city/25 highway
Fuel economy, Globe observed: 20 mpg
Drivetrain: 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6, 8-speed automatic, front-engine, all-wheel-drive
Body: 4-door, 7-passenger SUV
Horsepower: 225 @ 3,750 rpm
Torque: 406 ft.-lbs @ 1,750 rpm
Overall length: 200.3 inches
Wheelbase: 118.2 inches
Height: 68.4 inches
Width: 85.7 inches (with mirrors)
Curb weight: 5,567 pounds
Style, ride, traction, and powertrain are top of the class
Too heavy to realize diesel benefits, questionable electronics and ergonomics
THE BOTTOM LINE
A good SUV that tries too hard to be great.
Mercedes-Benz G350 BlueTEC, Cadillac Escalade, Infiniti QX56, Lexus LX 570, Lincoln MKT