Q7 loses mass, maintains appeal

The previous Audi Q7 established a as spacious and imposing premium sports utility. The new model loses kilos to enhance its credibility – but does it still make the same impression?

For: Beautiful interior, superb drivetrain, impressive weight loss, electronic assists.

Against : Still doesn’t wholly ‘engage’ with the driver, engine start button awkwardly-located, S-Line required to meet quality expectation.

Score: 4.1/5

THE story goes that planning for this just-arrived second-generation new Q7 was started while the first was still fresh.

Not because Ingolstadt feared it needed a Plan B should that initial vehicle might become a dud. Quite the opposite. Having found the first was doing so well, they wanted to make doubly sure the next – the car here now – would be all the better.

It’s not just Audi pride at stake. This Q7 is the first vehicle with the second-generation MLB underpinning, a vital architecture thatll again share with the next Porsche Cayenne and VW Touareg but also a Skoda equivalent plus Bentley’s first-ever sports utility, the Bentayga.

On top of this, MLB platforms beyond conventional drivetrains. Next year the diesels that have kicked off the sales charge are joined by a pair of battery-assisted editions. One is an eco-minded plug-in rechargeable with the current car’s V6, but creating an optimum 275kW/800Nm, and e-tron badging. The other is a V8 diesel hotrod, the SQ7, which employs an electric motor to elevate performance punch to an estimated 335kW/800Nm.

But that’s in the future. Today we’re driving the more powerful of the 3.0-litre V6 TDi editions, the 200kW/600Nm version in $139,000 S-Line trim.

Styling, image:

Here’s a car that tells its strongest story from the inside, looking out.

I’m not suggesting the Q7’s body shape is unduly dull or even particularly amorphous. It has always had its sheer presence to turn heads and that’s still a factor, regardless that this new generation actually bringing less bulk and perter dimensions, with a 37mm reduction to length and 15mm chopped from the width.

In addition to being clever with the proportion, Audi has also implemented the usual bling requisite to a car of such social status. Ranging from a grill big enough to double a security gate on a Hobbit’s doorway to fancy bold strips across the headlamps rendered – like the tail lights –in LED. The shape also has more than a few sharp creases and oval twin exhausts. Big wheels, too.

So there’s a lot to dwell on, yet from subdued reaction – including from an owner of the previous generation – there’s a sense it somehow seems to lack an elemental something that utterly reinforces this is the most aspirational large family-minded Audi in the market.

Mind you, discussion over whether it’ll make quite as much impact on the school run as, say, a Volvo XC90 or Mercedes GLE tends to die away when you get inside. Talk about a route to redemption.

Audi’s trademark expertise with interiors is well known, but this one really sets out to impress. The overall environment isn’t quite as next-decade-now as the Volvo, but the detailing is stunning, the standard of fit and finish beyond reproach and there’s very little about what you see, touch or –in respect of the leather – smell that isn’t suggestive of this being a top-dollar offer.

These days it’s crucial to have a high-tech element to brag about and in this instance it’s not only the standard centre console-located infotainment system but also Audi’s Virtual Cockpit system, which replaces all conventional gauges in the cluster with a 12.3-inch LCD screen to display a range of information including vehicle and engine speed, navigation, entertainment and other vehicle settings.

Q7 is the second Audi here to get Virtual Cockpit, after the TT, but the SUV’s optimisation is far smarter because the big screen is still supplemented by a second 8.3-inch retractable centre viewer. Yes, that means some functions (like the sat nav) can be duplicated, but it’s a good solution, allowing a huge spread of information, far more than a TT driver will see at any one time.

As always, it’s difficult to bypass the S-Line package, which not only enhances the comfort in provisioning Valcona leather upholstery, front sports seats, brushed aluminium highlight trim, and black cloth headlining but also ticks a few more safety boxes.

The Q7 is very well-provisioned with an active safety package that includes autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane and side assist, rear cross-traffic alert, cross lane alert and a blind spot warning set-up that alerts disembarking front-seat occupants to an approaching car or bike. Nonetheless the S-Line pack strengthens this protection layer all the more with a head-up display, 360-degree view camera, self-parking system, night vision, LED headlights, and Audi's latest active lane assist system. With the latter, the Q7 becomes one of a small but growing number of vehicles that can steer itself during highway driving, albeit only for a few seconds at a time, before requiring the driver to retake control. Also offering reassurance is a solid five-star crash test score with ANCAP.

Another option, not fitted to our test car, is a four-wheel-steering system that makes the car easier to move at low speeds - between 5kmh and 15kmh the rear wheels turn in the opposite to the front, reducing the turning circle to one that is smaller than that of a Q3 – and and more stable when you're travelling quickly, when the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the fronts so the vehicle can change lanes without tuning on an axis.

Incredibly, Audi NZ still misses out on a couple of extra functions seen in Europe, the most handy being a smart reversing aid that allows the car to virtually self-steer a reversing trailer, with the car’s driver finetuning the action by way of the MMI controller. But it can’t be delivered here because our rules prudently require a safety chain whose presence upsets the electronics. It’s a shame this aide cannot be provisioned as the 3.5-tonne-rated Q7 has a tow bar as standard.

Powertrain, performance:

Audi’s avowed intention to pay much more attention to efficiency and environmental responsibility now reflects in this model being a whopping 300kg lighter than its predecessor, mainly as result of the body being rendered largely in aluminium with ultra-strength steel; this combines lighter weight with incredible rigidity and strength.

With less mass to haul, the engines needn’t be as big: In regard to absolute capacity, the buck stop now with this 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel, as opposed to a 4.2-litre V8 – and, briefly – a 6.0-litre V12 that headlined the old range. But they’ve been sent to the museum, now.

As much as we lament the big capacity units’ passing – they were glorious to sit behind – it’s hard to suggest the new unit is in any way a downgrade. This new 2997cc unit is massively torque-rich mill, oozing in refinement and – with power and torque optimums emerging from 3250rpm and just 1500rpm respectively – easily accessed stonk. Putting your foot down in this model produces the same train-like pull that made the bigger capacity engines such an experience.

The primary aim of the rework is, of course, to make it a better world citizen: That’s obvious with a claimed optimum fuel burn of 5.9-litres per kimometre, a significant improvement of 3.2L/100km (25 percent) over its immediate forebear. The optimal figure was not achieved on test, but an average 6.8L/100km from a mix of town and country running was still impressive enough, given its size.

Power and torque are up 14 percent and nine percent respectively. That it feels more accelerative is borne out by the factory’s claimed 0-100kmh time of 6.5 seconds (a full 2s better than the first gen 3.0-litre TDI). The top speed of 234kmh doesn’t seem far-fetched, either.

The eight-speed tiptronic automatic is a dream and the Haldex-based Quattro four-wheel drive, in which a new centre-differential replaces the transfer case, operates so seamlessly you’ll be hard-pressed in most normal driving situations to tell what it’s up to.

Driving appeal:

Clever engineering has taken the Q7's overall weight to an unladen weight of 2060kg and that change is instantly apparent.

This is still a large car – which benefits it being a seven-seater, of course - but it drives more like a mid-size wagon; I suspect you could slip between this offer and the now dimensionally similar A6 Avant and be hard-pressed to pick where the pure station wagon has a dynamic edge.

That’s the good news. The slight disappointment is that Audi’s large cars have always been affected by a slight numbness in their driving attitude. They steer, turn and handle well, but most – at least those outside of the RS arena – struggle to truly communicate.

That’s still the Q7. In some areas it is simply superb; mechanical refinement, for instance, beautifully contained. And the suspension tuning, here, is more incisive than in the previous offer. When operating in its comfort setting, the it soaks up all manner of surface imperfections with aplomb and, when in the sport sector, it feels quite a lot firmer and more alert.

Also, being so much lighter, it doesn’t feel lardy around the bends any more. And, yet, despite all this, it never delivers the same degree of driving pleasure that comes with a BMW X5 or Mercedes’ GLE. One challenge is the steering; even though the different settings affect its sharpness, there’s never any true ‘feel.’

In part, too, there’s a sense that the security blanket provided by all of those incredible driving assists is sometimes too enveloping. It’s possible to turn almost all the aides off, by going into a MMI sub-menu, which doesn’t necessarily help realise Audi’s laudable occupant safety aims. Yet though this but gives better idea of what this new engine and the now considerably lightened chassis is capable of, it’s still not opening all the doors.

What above off-road? Well, what about it? Nine out of 10 buyers will ever go there and taking the tester in relatively tame territory seemed to cement that you wouldn’t want to get too rough; the fact is has road-focused tyres (without a full-sized spare), no actual low range and looks far too nice to scratch says so much. Gravel and dirt routes, beach and snow field accesses won’t present a problem. The selectable lift/off-road mode raises ground clearance to 235mm and improves approach, departure and ramp-over angles. Hill descent control is also fitted, and there is a display available on the centre screen that shows either key angles (steering, pitch and roll) or positioning (by altitude, direction, and latitude/longitude), but assuredly Ingolstadt isn’t out to outshine a Range Rover. If adventure travelling is an utmost priority, best look elsewhere.

But the lowering of the car seems to provide a pleasant physical as well as visual effect. Any impression this is more like a big car is enhanced by a driving position that is comfortable and, while commanding, a bit lower set than previously.  

Despite the downsizing, interior space has increased, with more room for all occupants and 14mm extra headroom up front.

The front seats, which include adjustable under-thigh support, are armchair impressive and there's ample room in the middle row of seats too, all three of which adjust individually fore and aft. The third row (a power-folding pair) is capable of accommodating a couple of adults for shorter trips, or children for the longer haul.

Luggage capacity is 295 litres with the rear seats up, and increases to 770 litres when they are folded down to create an extended boot floor. Drop the middle row down too, and the carrying capacity rises to 1955 litres.

How it compares:

BMW X5, Mercedes GLE, Range Rover Sport and Vogue, Volvo XC90, the Lexus LX and perhaps RX, maybe some high-end seven-seater vans and people-carriers … all might be considered rivals, depending on user circumstance.

The Q7 is hugely polished and has power to burn. It rides with panache and provides a premium experience in terms of its refinement and interior quality. It’s also loaded with kit. It just doesn’t impart much character and perhaps the styling isn’t quite right, for reasons no-one can really fathom.

As before, it’s a machine for the self-consciously stylish. It’s just not quite touching the soul. Yet surely those who liked the old one will have no truck moving up into the new.