Although people in Texas don't get many chances to drive in the snow, Audi has a vehicle perfectly suited to such a chore: the 2010 Q7 TDI (diesel) crossover utility vehicle.
I found that out first-hand last week while traveling on snow-covered roads during the blizzard-like snowstorm that moved across the Texas Panhandle and much of the South.
Where other vehicles were slipping and sliding and running off into ditches, the Q7 chugged along as though it was a snowmobile, and never once did it come close to bogging down on the slippery stuff.
Born and raised in West Virginia (the Mountain State), I'm no stranger to snow driving, but where I was during the height of the storm - driving on Interstate 40 - the biggest hazard I faced was other drivers who didn't have a clue how to handle their vehicles on slippery roads.
So instead of worrying whether my own vehicle could make the hill ahead, I spent most of my time dodging other cars spinning out of control in front of me. And it was during those incidents that I was most appreciative of the sure-footed Q7 and its Quattro all-wheel-drive system.
But for those who don't regularly drive on snow or ice, the Q7's all-wheel drive is still a valuable asset even on dry, curvy country roads such as those found in the Hill Country, and it's also good to have when the rains come down - offering great traction on wet roads, even if the moisture isn't in frozen form.
In good weather or bad, though, the Q7 TDI is a delight to drive, and it's one of the best choices out there among the current crop of SUVs designed for heavy duty family hauling.
Audi added the diesel model to the Q7 lineup last year. TDI stands for "turbo-diesel injection," and is the term Volkswagen and its Audi premium brand use on their newest diesel-powered vehicles.
Prices for the 2010 Q7 begin at $46,900 (plus $825 freight) for the base 3.6-liter V-6 gasoline model, and run as high as $61,000 for the 4.2-liter V-8 gasoline version.
The Q7 3.0 TDI - the model I tested - is between the two gasoline models, and begins at $50,900. It arrived last spring as a 2009 model, but its price did not change for 2010.
All Q7 models come with the Quattro fulltime all-wheel-drive system, and all are equipped with the Tiptronic six-speed automatic transmission, which has a manual-shift feature for sportier driving.
The TDI model uses the same 3.0-liter V-6 diesel engine that Volkswagen introduced for 2010 in the Touareg SUV, which is built on the same architecture as the Q7. The Touareg is 13 inches shorter and can accommodate only five passengers, however, while the Q7 is offered with a third row of seating and can handle up to seven people.
This engine is no slouch. It's rated at 225 horsepower and 406 foot-pounds of torque, and it's all that torque that allows this vehicle to take off like a jackrabbit from a standing start, although that's certainly not the way to drive it to achieve the great fuel economy it's capable of.
EPA ratings for the TDI model are 17 mpg city/25 highway, compared with 14/20 for the V-6 gasoline model and 13/18 for the V-8. Both gasoline engines come with direct fuel injection, which helps improve fuel economy.
With its 26.4-gallon tank, the Q7 TDI can go more than 600 miles before refueling.
And forget the idea of a noisy diesel vehicle belching smoke as it goes down the road. The Q7 makes uses of a new "clean diesel" technology that meets U.S. Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle smog standards, and eliminates the noise and black tailpipe smoke of earlier diesel engines.
The Q7 TDI even qualifies for a $1,150 federal "alternative motor vehicle" tax credit, Audi says. That's because of the increased fuel economy and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions of its clean diesel technology.
Unlike the Touareg and the Porsche Cayenne SUV, also built on the same architecture, the all-wheel-drive system of the Q7 does not offer low-range gearing for serious off-road driving. But it's fine for snow and ice, limited off-road driving, and performance-style handling on those twisty country roads.
Audi updated the entire Q7 line for 2010 with new exterior styling and improved interior features, although the vehicle still looks pretty much the same as last year's model.
The Q7 now comes with LED taillights and optional LED turn signals and daytime running lights.
Other exterior changes include new wheel choices, front and rear bumpers, headlights, grille, mirror housings, and lower body panels. The new grille is has a gloss-black finish with vertical chrome strips.
Inside, there are new optional ventilated front seats, a new decorative inlay on the passenger side of the dashboard, more ambient lighting on the doors, a new multimedia interface, additional chrome accents, and a few other tweaks.
The navigation system has a three-dimensional map, Sirius traffic information and a joystick controller, which can take more attention than a driver wants to give it, however, especially when cars are spinning out of control ahead on slippery roads.
But the system also is capable of taking voice commands to direct the driver to various destinations. They include such simple statements as "I'm hungry," "I need gas" and "I need coffee," which are then translated into guidance to the nearest locations.
The Q7 has a federal five-star crash safety rating and has been designated a "Top Safety Pick" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Safety features on all models include electronic stability control with traction control, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, front seat-mounted side air bags, roof-mounted side-curtain air bags for all passengers, and rear acoustic parking sensors.
Luxury amenities abound, including leather seats and automatic climate control. But one feature my tester didn't have that I could have used was heated outside mirrors. That would have helped with the ice buildup and the fogging that I experienced during my snow driving.
Standard features on our tester included 19-inch alloy wheels; heated, 12-way power front seats; a two-passenger third-row seat; leather-wrapped, manual tilt/telescopic steering wheel; rain-sensing windshield wipers; AM/FM/Sirius radio with six-disc CD changer and iPod integration; Bluetooth phone connection; and a power tailgate.
The power tailgate opens with the push of a button on the remote key fob, but unlike most others I've seen, the only way to close it is to reach up to the bottom edge of the door and press a button there, which was inconveniently out of reach for my wife, who is barely five feet tall.
The front bucket seats were quite comfortable, and my wife found the seat heater to be useful when outside temperatures were below freezing. But the seats don't have the cooling/ventilating feature that many of the newer premium vehicles offer, which is more useful in Texas than seat heaters.
At highway speeds, the cabin of the Q7 is quiet, and the ride is cushy - but not to the point where it adversely affects handling. The vehicle steers and handles more like a sport sedan than an SUV.
Extras on our tester included the Premium package ($6,000), which added the Audi navigation system, xenon headlights, LED daytime running lights and turn signals, a Bose surround-sound speaker system, a rearview camera, a seat memory for the driver, and a panoramic sunroof.
We also had the Warm Weather package ($1,150), designed for the Texas summer, which brought four-zone automatic climate control (separate controls for each front seat and each of the two rear bench seats), as well as manual window shades for the rear doors and tailgate.
Total sticker price for our 3.0 TDI was $58,875, including freight and options.
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1994. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; firstname.lastname@example.org.