December 17, 2012

Road Test: 2012 Audi Q7
By: Kris Hansen

We're not afraid to admit it, we like SUVs. Not all SUVs mind you, oh no. We really enjoy driving Audi's SUVs, mostly because they are Audis, but also because even though they are a bit more of of a compromise in chassis dynamics than an Avant thanks to the higher ride height, they are still very much Audi, and are very nice vehicles to spend time with. We also are aware that there are some people who might argue that the Q7 isn't really an SUV, it's more of a large crossover vehicle. In other words, more car than truck. The Q7 is classified as a light truck by the EPA, but to us, a truck has its body bolted to a ladder frame, with a solid rear axle, leaf springs, and nothing even remotely resembling good handling dynamics. The Q7 has none of those things, instead is a proper unit body, with coil springs, anti roll bars and multi-link and double wishbone suspension. Much like a car.

The Q7 is capable of performing certain truck like tasks that cars can not though, such as towing 6500 lbs (when properly equipped), navigating very rough roads in any kind of foul weather, while seating up to 7 people (if some are willing to squeeze), with room left over for their luggage. We do feel that no truck can go around a corner the way a Q7 can though, which usually is where truck enthusiasts begin to roll their eyes at us, because obviously trucks aren't designed to go around corners. Either way, we truly enjoy the Q7 for everything it can do, which is plenty. 

We had 2 different Q7s come through our possession this year, and both were optioned a little differently, but both were superb vehicles for our needs and liking. SUV antagonists ask, how could we possibly enjoy driving a Q7? Isn't it too tall, too top heavy, too cumbersome on the road? It's an Audi, so, not at all. The Q7 has the remarkable ability to mask its bulk when the going gets frisky. It is entirely possible to hustle a Q7 along twisty mountain roads at a very brisk pace. When the going gets slippery, the Q7 is a skilled dance partner, willing to indulge in a few freestyle moves. And on the highway, full of people and stuff, the Q7 will happily cruise at any speed the driver deems reasonable, all day long. No, it is not a sports car, but anyone who enjoys driving will enjoy driving a Q7 once they give it a chance.

When equipped with the optional Audi adaptive air suspension (as the white TDI was), the Q7 lowers itself several inches from the “normal” ride height. In the lowest mode, it feels very much like a car, with well controlled body movements, and confidence inspiring stability. Even in the “comfort” setting, the Q7 never feels too tall, or tipsy in any way. We used the air suspension's “off road” setting on some local class 4 roads, and never had an issue with ground clearance, even in some very rocky sections. We did discover that the Q7, because it is tuned for on road handling rather than off road exploring, doesn't let itself articulate enough for even mild rock crawling. This results in the Q7 lifting one of its tires off of the ground now and then, and losing drive. Mechanically locking differentials would circumvent this problem, but in reality we don't believe too many owners will take their cars too far off of the beaten path. Nevertheless, it's nice to know they could.

We sampled the Q7 with 2 different engine configurations, the S line 3.0TFSI (333hp trim) and the S line 3.0TDI, both with Audi's 8 speed Tiptronic transmission. Both are similar in number of cylinders, valves, camshafts, and displacement, but that's where the similarity ends. The TFSI engine is force-fed air via a belt driven supercharger nestled between the cylinder heads, while the TDI has a conventional exhaust driven turbocharger feeding air directly into the intake.

The 3 liter supercharged gasoline engine had ample power for bringing the Q7 up to speed quickly, passing slower cars, and storming up interstate on ramps. Audi lists the 0-60 acceleration time for the Q7 S line at 6.9 seconds, which is brisk - but not necessarily fast for a car weighing nearly 5500 pounds. Keeping in mind that the 3.0TFSI essentially replaces the older 4.2 FSI V8 engine in terms of performance, but with less weight, less emissions, and better fuel economy, it's a winning proposition. The 3.0TFSI has better low end power too, making for very relaxed cruising. We found that we were able to average in the low to mid 20mpg range, quite good we thought, considering the sizable hole the Q7 drills through the air at speed.

As we've mentioned previously, we're big fans of Audi's latest diesel engines. Even though on paper the diesel Q7 is slower than the 3.0TFSI (0-60 in 8 seconds according to Audi, feels quicker than that), 0-60 only tells a very small part of the story. Once under way, the TDI engine propels the Q7 in such a relaxed and effortless way, that it's speed is deceptive. Driving a diesel is different than driving a gas engined car, and does take some re-education. Most diesel engines seem to be happiest around 2000 rpm, and this one is no exception. Keep it in the 1500 to 2500 range, and the acceleration is pretty firm. This engine will rev out to around 4000 rpm, but shifting at around 3000 will keep it in the meat of the 406 lb/ft of torque, which peaks at 1750rpm. Thanks to the variable vane geometry within the turbocharger, boost lag is minimal, and maximum pressure comes up nice and early.  

What we love most about the TDI is that there is a mountain of power on tap, yet using the power doesn't result in a quickly empty fuel tank. We averaged over 30mpg on a few trips. In fairness, once the Q7 gets over 60mph, it's difficult to maintain those kinds of numbers, but mid to high 20s is possible if the terrain is flat enough. Interestingly enough, even though yes, it does sound like a diesel (who would want a diesel that didn't sound like a diesel?) it doesn't smell like a diesel. At all. The low sulfur fuel combined with catalysts, particulate filters, urea injection and other wonderful things, the exhaust smells slightly like bleach, and that's about it. There is no smoke, no diesel smell. Yes, it would be a good idea to keep some disposable gloves in the car in case you run into a dirty fuel nozzle at the filling station, but then you only have to worry about that every 500 miles.

The Q7 interior is incredibly spacious. Even though slightly narrower than an A6 on the outside, inside there is enough room between the front seats that there are 2 armrests, which means less fighting for elbow room. Headroom is 10 gallon hat worthy, even considering the fact that the seats sit atop pedestals, instead of on the floor. This results in a much more upright seating position, though still very comfortable. The middle row of seats is spacious, and flexible - both in 60/40 split folding seat backs, as well as providing a bit of fore-aft adjustment to compensate for 3rd row passengers. They even have a bit of recline available. The 3rd row is quite snug honestly, but small people do seem to fit fine. If we were to have a complaint about the Q7, we wish that there was an option for the sport seats like the ones offered in the S line A4.

The Q7 also has lots of places to stow things. The door pockets are huge, they can swallow a 1 liter water bottle with incredible ease. There are cup holders in the large center console, which is also has a quite large and deep storage bin. There is a rubber lined recessed bin where the console meets the dash, perfect for cell phones, glasses, etc. There are also an abundance of 12v sockets in the cabin, and the cargo area. Beneath the floor in the cargo area is a storage bin, for emergency tools, or whatever else you want out of sight.

For 2012 the Q7 received all of the same updates to the MMI system as the rest of the lineup, including optional Audi Connect - the wireless data connection -with Google map overlay, on-line destination serarches, and full voice activated functionality. Audi also gave the Q7 the new MMI system menus, which help to consolidate functions (even though the Q7's button layout is unchanged) and make the system easier to use. The TDI we tested had the unbelievably good Bang and Olufsen sound system, which while not inexpensive, is absolutely worth the money for the true audiophile.

Overall, we truly love the Q7. Considering the size of the vehicle, it is quite entertaining to drive. This is a responsive and communicative platform, excellently suited for long distance high speed cruising, or low speed in town people moving. We found time to play with the car in the woods and on some twisty dirt roads, where it was fun to experiment with the torque of the diesel. We also took the 3.0TFSI variant on a road trip, where we found that not only is it also capable of good fuel economy, it's great at hauling a family of 4 AND all of their stuff, with room to spare, and then some.

We completely understand why so many Americans started driving SUVs – They are incredibly roomy and practical. The higher seating position truly does make driving in traffic easier and more comfortable, as we found while driving through Manhattan in one. But Audi took the SUV concept, and made their version one which remains 100% an Audi. And that's what we always tell people who question why we like the Q7 - It's still an Audi, just a taller one.

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