Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2017 Audi SQ7

MULHOUSE, France – Tucked into the northeast corner of France, between the Swiss and German borders, the Alsace region is a popular destination for "cyclotourism" and part of the EuroVelo route network.

With the world's largest collection of Bugattis in nearby Mulhouse, you'd think the Vosges switchbacks would be a mecca for exotic sports cars too, but nope – the only traffic we encountered on the route wore spandex. It was nearly as painful to see them labouring up the mountain – bikes rocking to and fro, legs pumping furiously– as it was crawling along behind until we could finally overtake.

"Quel dommage," you're probably thinking, "you're stuck with a big old diesel SUV instead of one of those Bugattis formidables."

Ah, but dropping the hammer, we rocketed past those two-wheelers with the panache of a Grand Sport Vitesse. Six-hundred-and-sixty-five pound feet of torque delivers as slick an "au revoir" as any of Ettore's fancy sports coupés – with room for four passengers and a week's luggage.

The latest of Audi's sports utility vehicles to undergo the "S" treatment, the SQ7 is what happens when you take the largest vehicle in the Ingolstadt, Germany-based automaker's portfolio, and run it through an extreme performance makeover.

It's not as though the Q7 has until now, led a rather sedate existence – the top-spec model in its debut year featured a massive V12 diesel power plant. But this is the first time Audi's range-topping SUV will also receive the S-Line's dynamic handling modifications as well as a boost in power.

Upon a closer look, there are a few subtle cues that this isn't just a run-of-the-mill Q7. The SQ7 boasts subtle badging, an aluminum outlined grill, and functional vents on the front fascia. In behind, there's a sporty rear diffuser with quad tailpipes.

The cabin is typical of what we've come to expect from Audi – top-notch craftsmanship using high-quality materials. There's deep, cushy, quilted leather bucket seats, Alcantara, real wood, carbon-fibre inlays and aluminum trim. As the range-topping model in Audi's SUV lineup, the SQ7 comes standard with the superb 23-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system and the "Virtual Cockpit", featuring a fully customizable 12.3-inch cockpit display.

It's a high-tech environment, with a Wi-Fi hotspot, 32-colour-palette LED ambient lighting, voice command, MMI all-in-touch with handwriting recognition, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and Audi pre-sense collision avoidance. New "Traffic Jam" technology uses radar-based adaptive cruise control to monitor braking and acceleration in stop-and-go traffic – and can also look after steering, hands-free, for up to 30 seconds.

With the optional third row, there's room for up to seven passengers. Trunk space is 235 L, which increases to 705 L with the third row down flat, and up to 1,190 when you drop the middle row.

More about the SQ7: Ten things you need to know: 2017 Audi SQ7

It might be ludicrous to think of something with these dimensions in terms of handling and performance, but the SQ7 makes you forget you're in a large 2,270 kg SUV.

Standard quattro all-wheel drive, and available sports suspension, S-tuned adaptive air suspension, an electronic sway bar, four-wheel steering and torque vectoring rear sport differential all sound highly complex (and expensive) but in this case the end result is a large vehicle that handles like a sports car. But it's the stonking great gobs of instantly available torque that slam you back in your seat while simultaneously sending your sunglasses flying.

It may be four cylinders shy of that infamous 12-cylinder oil burner, but the new 4.0L V8 TDI takes a quantum leap forward in efficiency. With 435 hp and a stupefying 664 lb-ft of torque, the SQ7 is not only the most powerful SUV in existence, but it boasts world-first technology to achieve that benchmark. The SQ7 owes its seamless power to a sequential twin-turbocharging system augmented by an electric compressor. You could almost refer to it as a "tri-turbo" setup. The first turbocharger deploys at startup through low and medium engine loads, helped by the electric compressor. The second turbocharger kicks in at higher speeds.

Turbo lag is non-existent, since the compressor virtually eliminates any delay while the turbos are spooling up. Peak torque is achieved as low as 1,000 rpm, propelling the SQ7 to 100 km/h from standstill in 4.8 seconds. The compressor derives its power from a 48-volt electric motor run by energy stored in a lithium-ion battery pack. This electrical subsystem is also responsible for powering the electric mechanical active roll stabilization.

While the SQ7 has enough manners to cruise luxuriously at low rpm around the countryside, tromp the pedal in Sport Mode and it comes alive with a roar. Despite the SQ7 having nearly 300 kg more than the Q7 to lug around, there are a number of reasons – aside from its innovative turbo setup – that it moves so well. Under the lightweight aluminum skin, the stiff chassis makes the SQ7 very stable, as a result it needs less time to recover from hard cornering.

Sending all that power to the road through Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system is an eight-speed automatic transmission. Another suite of impressive technology makes the SQ7 as sure-footed as the proverbial mountain goat. The optional dynamic handling package adds a torque-vectoring rear differential that can send extra power to the outside wheels when cornering, greatly reducing understeer. All-wheel steering can turn the rear wheels three degrees in the direction of the fronts, improving its stability and turn-in during high-speed cornering. The same system works to reduce turning radius, by turning the rear wheels in the opposite direction at speeds under 15 km/h. The package also includes the electric active roll stabilization, an ingenious system that can separate the two roll bars into two pieces to provide more comfort over rough terrain, and automatically join them again when the curves require more stiffness.

It sounds like hyperbole, but even through the tight mountain switchbacks, the SQ7 cornered as flat and composed as any sports sedan. It serves notice to competitors Porsche Cayenne Turbo S, the BMW X5 M and Mercedes Benz GLE AMG 63 S.

There are no prices as yet (the SQ7 won't arrive here until late next year) but expect it to command a 15-20 percent premium over the regular Q7, which starts at $65,000.