Audi's highly impressive opening volley into the SUV market, the Q7 (with a choice between 5, 6 or 7 seats), has just been launched to the international press.
I travelled to Germany courtesy of Audi SA to drive the 3.0-litre V6 TDI quattro and 4.2-litre V8 FSI quattro through some snow-covered landscapes between Munich and Regensburg.
First impressions first: Audi's brand new giant of an SUV, the Q7, looks a whole lot better outdoors, in fresh and open air, than it does indoors.
And photographs just cannot convey the huge presence that the car carries with it.
It's as if this huge bulk of metal, measuring more than 5 metres in length - and straddling almost 2 metres from side to side, so much the better to anchor an aggressive snout and a powerful hood, plus a glasshouse that flows fluently and flat over a high sporty shoulder line swoop before dipping rearwards with the grace of a coupe - it's as if this huge chunk of metal needs space to come into its own.
And it does - except on the road, where an amazingly agile chassis driving through Audi's famed quattro system makes mince meat of anything a tight and twisty road might throw at it.
Space to express itself dynamically is not needed by the Q7.
In fact, the tighter the road, the more this behemoth will surprise and delight in terms of handling and body control.
These then, are three of the main ingredients in an intoxicating mix of Q7 attributes: an imposingly bullish presence (borne from Satoshi Wada's robust yet elegant styling), a massive volume (which translates into lots of interior space) and a superior chassis (delivering extremely sporty dynamics).
The latter is doubtlessly enhanced by wonderfully weighted steering and good car balance, courtesy of power plants having been mounted unusually far back for an Audi engine bay.
But there are other highlights, too, of which superb drive trains, outstanding build quality and exquisite detailing - as is the norm with Ingolstadt - set the tone for a vehicle that might, in one foul swoop, change the way the world has been thinking of SUV's up to now.
No low range
Audi, for one thing, has purposely set out to create a tar-biased SUV.
With a wheelbase of more than 3 metres the Q7's brake-over angle is less than a VW Touareg's, just to begin with.
Ingolstadt has thus decided very early on in the conceptual stages to ignore the option of a low-range transfer case which can only add unnecessary weight, relative to the real world need thereof, by SUV users.
In Audi's view, four-wheel-drive will provide enough traction in adverse conditions. The Q7 therefore is an unashamedly black-top based and biased vehicle.
And judging from some really hard high-speed cruising on wet German roads, as well as a 10 minute stint on a fully snow-covered track, Audi has a point.
The Q7 behaved impeccably throughout, tracking with great authority and turning in with ease and composure to spare.
Body control, in fact, is top notch, courtesy of good weight distribution, severe torsional rigidity and an outstanding chassis which (in the case of our test vehicles) rode on the Q7's optional air suspension, ranging ground-clearance from 180 to 240 mm.
Platform and steering
The Q7's air suspension technology has been transplanted from the A8 limousine, of course.
The platform, in contrast, rather stems from the VW Touareg/Porsche Cayenne, boasting an identical suspension lay-out and geometry.
The electronic system and dash design are both borrowed from the A6, with the excellent and exceptionally easy MMI infotainment system lifted from the A6 and A8.
So too, is the four-zone climate control system and the hydraulically assisted speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion Servotronic steering.
What is completely new, however, is the latter's variable ratio (spreading from 10.0:1 to 16.5:1, depending on steering wheel angle).
When turning out of the centre position, directional responses are therefore more indirect to guard against nervous vehicle reactions at high speeds.
At greater rudder angles, however, control is more direct and agile.
Being completely mechanical, the system is therefore akin to the variable ratio on a Porsche 911's (and not to be confused with BMW's electrically assisted Active Steering concept).
In the Q7's case, Audi had managed to hone the algorithms of this angle-dependant steering ratio and speed-sensitive power assistance virtually to perfection.
Outstanding weighting at all speeds, then, complimented by good feel and a fair bit of feedback, elevate Q7-steering to marvellous levels of control and composure.
Complete the equation with great car balance, plus a rear-wheel biased torque split (40:60) under a rigid body structure on somewhat firm and quick damping coupled to 4x4-stability and traction, and it's easy to see why Q7 handling is so sporty and dynamic.
Engine, transmission and performance
It is noticeable that engines in the Q7 are mounted quite far back, virtually over the front axle.
Our guess is that there is more to this than simply trying to achieve good weight distribution.
The Q7-bay looks suspiciously receptive to a nice fat V8 TDI or possibly a V10 petrol in the 5-litre zone, derived from Lamborghini's unit in the Gallardo.
So watch this space.
In the mean time, however, the Q7 is powered by one of two Audi mills:
- The well-proven 4.2-litre V8, now with fuel saving FSI direct petrol injection technology, and
- The virtually brand new 3.0-litre V6 TDI common rail diesel with piezzo injectors.
The latter offers the advantage of very quick reactions, allowing up to five injections per cycle, with two small pilot shots guaranteeing fine atomisation of the injected fuel for easier, quieter and more complete combustion.
Releasing 171 kW/4000 r/min and massive torque of 500 Nm/1750-2750 r/min, the TDI's body of just under 2300 kg is hauled from 0-100 km/h in a fraction over 9 secs.
Top speed is 210 km/h, although this could be pushed up to 216 km/h via less drag on the lowest air suspension setting.
What is really impressive though, is how quiet this oil burner performs at idle and under accelerative loads.
The V8 petrol, by contrast, growls with healthy aural delight while pumping 257 kW/6000 rr/min plus 440 Nm/3500 r/min via a smooth and quick 6-speed tiptronic auto-box to all four wheels, factors which combine to shuttle 2 240 kg to 100 km/h in less than 7.5 secs.
Top speed for the V8 is a dazzling 244 km/h (or 248 km/h with air suspension).
By the time the Q7 is launched locally, in the third quarter of 2006, the range would have been expanded by a brand new 3.6-litre V6 (206 kW, 360 Nm) as well.
Part of the Q7's performance advantage - especially under slippery conditions - resides in the latest self-locking and quick-acting Torsen diff which Audi has developed with supplier Borg-Warner.
In contrast to the hydraulic clutch systems used by Mercedes and BMW to split torque fore and aft, Audi's Torsen is completely mechanical, with no lag whatsoever.
The moment any wheel slips, the diff instantaneously directs more torque to those with grip.
Specialists at supplier Alcon as well as Audi's Neckarsulm plant have also ensured that Q7-weight will be kept down via the liberal use of aluminium.
The V6 might be a cast-iron block with aluminium heads, but the V8 is all-aluminium, as are many components such as the gearbox casing and suspension parts, particularly the wishbones.
Saving 22 kg in the process, the bonnet, wings and tailgate are also from aluminium, with the latter taking pride of place because of its complicated S-line cut around the rear lights, in order to utilise big embedded one-piece clusters.
This eliminates the risk of bad line-ups between inner and outer cluster segments, and also allowed designers to fit conventional lights with complicated jewel-like arrangements, creating the appearance and visual effects of LED lighting.
Even more interesting - and really useful - is Audi's optional and ground-breaking side assist system.
This utilises two 24-gigahertz radar sensors to monitor the blind spot in the driver's side mirror and send warning signals via flashing flickers (mounted on the inside of the Q7's exterior mirrors) if the lane into which one wants to change holds any dangers.
In addition the parking system has been expanded to include an optional rear-view camera housed in the handle of the tailgate.
When reversing graphics on the (standard) MMI screen show whether the space required for parking is big enough to accommodate the Q7.
Blue lines also indicate the ideal line to be followed.
And the camera image shows the rear bumper and extended tow hitch, in order to manoeuvre the car with precision onto the drawbar of a boat or trailer.
ESP has also been improved with hill descent control as well as an off-road mode to optimise braking and traction on loose surfaces, and to arrest a fishtailing trailer.
Adaptive cruise control, furthermore, now brakes the vehicle to a standstill, if necessary.
By golly, even the wipers - which are hidden from sight when sitting in the car - automatically move a notch upwards onto the windscreen when the Q7 is parked in temperatures of zero degrees Celsius or less, so as not to be snowed and frozen over.
Cabin and equipment
Fantastic interiors are always a highlight of the Audi experience, and the Q7 is no exception.
Plastics might be a little harder to the touch than one would expect, but fine textures and a classy look immediately set the tone for exquisite detailing via one of three different woods and/or aluminium.
Combined with clear architecture, calm surfaces, uncluttered ergonomics and wonderfully stylish instruments, the net result is yet again a masterpiece of top-quality craftsmanship as only Audi can seemingly produce.
Seats (by Faurecia, which also supplies the dash) can be ordered in two or three rows, depending on a choice of a 5, 6 or 7-seater vehicle.
Ingress and egress is noticeably free of the hassle to lift one's feet over a sill lip, courtesy of a completely flat floor from side to side, both front and rear - although the second row, with class-leading leg room, does provide an upwards-slanting angle for executive-style support of one's feet.
The third row, however, is very difficult to get in and out of, and is really only for kids.
All three rows, however, offer at least two cupholders plus a power outlet. And each door can hold a 1.5-litre bottle.
The rear also provides the option of a fully independent air conditioning system.
And a really wide panoramic roof stretching the length of the roof is available at extra cost as well.
SA launch and prices
SA will get the Audi Q7 in the third quarter this year. Prices should be pegged between R530 000 and R620 000