First Drive: 2016 Audi Q7

Verbier, Switzerland – The alpine roads around Verbier, Switzerland wind and twist up and down the mountain faces, connecting the chalets and villages liberally sprinkled wherever the skiing might be best.  The scenery is truly breathtaking and it feels as if you’re travelling from one postcard to the next.  With ski season behind us, the smooth asphalt ribbons are the perfect place to test the handling prowess of machines like Audi’s new TT or upcoming R8 supercar.

Audi wanted to showcase just how much the newly designed five-link front and rear suspension does to the handling of this spacious hauler, so let us get right to the point: it is truly remarkable.

But neither of those models is why the Ingolstadt company has flown a collection of auto journalists from around the world to this magical place.  Instead, Audi’s product experts are sharing their newest SUV offering, the Q7.  The brand’s largest vehicle – a seven-passenger crossover – seems an unlikely fit for roads that feature in the dreams of true driving enthusiasts.

There is good reason for this, and it’s not just because the lavish mountain resorts are likely to be littered with these luxury machines next winter as successful business leaders bring their families away for alpine holidays.  No, Audi wanted to showcase just how much the newly designed five-link front and rear suspension does to the handling of this spacious hauler, so let us get right to the point: it is truly remarkable.

Typically vehicles of this size and capacity may have a luxurious ride, but tend to handle curves like an elephant on a ball – lots of roly-poly and not a lot of confidence.  The new Q7, however, remains poised when managing cornering speeds higher than would be prudent in anything else of its kind.

The nimbleness of the Q7 was no better illustrated than on the countless tight hairpin turns on the narrow Swiss mountain roads.  Never did the big Audi feel unwieldy or cumbersome, even when encountering oncoming traffic.  Part of this is due to the fact that the new Q7 is actually slightly shorter and narrower than the outgoing model, yet it is more spacious inside.  Part of it is also its four-wheel steering system – a first for an SUV – that results in a surprisingly tight turning circle.  This will serve Q7 owners well not only on curvy mountain roads, but also when navigating the tight confines of urban centres.

What makes this Audi’s great handling more impressive is that it does it without compromising ride quality.  We drove vehicles wearing both 20 and 21-inch wheel packages (the former with all-season Pirellis, the latter with more sporting Goodyear F1 rubber), and the ride was always supple, never crashing over the admittedly very smooth Swiss roads.  Smaller 18 and 19-inch wheel packages will also be available on the Q7.  Of note:  road noise from the large rolling stock was higher than expected and noticeable within a cabin otherwise all but absent of wind and engine noise.

Audi claims the new Q7 maintains good off-road capability, with hill descent control standard, and having undergone testing on the wild terrain of Namibia.  Unfortunately we had no opportunity to try the Audi off-road during our Swiss drive.

The Q7 has undergone a significant weight-loss program which no doubt has further enhanced its spry nature.  The new five-link suspension replaces a double-wishbone setup and eliminates 100 kg of mass.  The body – now with more aluminum than before – accounts for a reduction of 71 kg.  Other areas, like the powertrain and exhaust also shaved kilos, resulting in an overall reduction of up to 325 kg compared to the preceding Q7.  Audi claims this makes the Q7 the lightest vehicle in the class.

A reduction in mass – especially one as significant as this – has other performance benefits, too.  Obviously braking is easier when there is less momentum being arrested and the Q7s we drove exhibited strong stopping power, albeit with brakes that were a little grabby.  Acceleration and passing is also easier with lower mass and the Q7 is quicker than before.

Motivation comes from a pair of V6 engines and includes the familiar (and revered) 3.0 TFSI gasoline engine with 333 horsepower and the torque-rich 3.0 TDI with its 272 horsepower.  Audi claims the former will reach 100 km/h from rest in 6.1 seconds, while the diesel is nearly as quick at 6.3 seconds.

What these numbers don’t reveal is the difference in personality between the two. The supercharged gasoline engine, with its 325 lb-ft of torque revs smoothly and willfully, giving a more lively and energetic drive.  Meanwhile, the TDI diesel dispenses nearly 120 lb-ft more torque (for a total of 443), making it nearly as quick on paper.  But the turbodiesel suffers a bit of lag just off idle, making it less fun to drive, and when driven back-to-back the TDI sounds louder and coarser than the TFSI.

The obvious upside to the TDI is its notably superior fuel efficiency over its gasoline counterpart.  Audi claims a combined fuel consumption rate for the diesel at 5.9 L/100 km, whereas the TFSI rates a still impressive 7.9 L/100 km.  An even higher-efficiency (and lower-powered) TDI will be available in Europe as a later release.  More interestingly, a plug-in hybrid diesel E-tron will be the first such application paired with Quattro all-wheel drive and arrives for the German market in 2016.

The exterior design of the new Q7 makes this large SUV appear more mid-size wagon-like.  In a market segment that celebrates large, masculine styling, the Audi is a refreshing departure with a sleeker look that grew on us as the driving event went on.  The look is less rounded than the outgoing model, and looks more like a tall, contemporary station wagon if anything.  Several wheel choices can dramatically shift the look from classy to aggressive depending on style and size selected.

Large windows all around provide excellent outward visibility and keep the interior bright, which is a good thing because Q7 drivers and passengers will want to bask in the stellar design.  Audi has been a long-time champion of excellent cabin styling and this new model is no different, featuring high quality materials and luxurious textures throughout.

The Q7 now has the largest interior in the segment.  Front seats were comfortable in the various trim levels we tried, with fully optioned versions featuring climate controlled and custom-contour thrones with massage capabilities.  The second row seats adjust for legroom, but in their most rearward setting provide no legroom for the third row passengers.  The second-row seats double fold to allow easier access to the third row.  The luggage area has a volume of 890 to 2,075 litres depending on whether a five- or seven-seat version is chosen.

Highlighted by a graphic-rich 8.3-inch screen, Audi’s latest MMI navigation plus infotainment system is state-of-the-art and compatible with both Apple and Android smartphone app systems now reaching the market.  We found the navigation screen’s satellite-image underlay to be especially impressive with its incredible detail.

Audiophiles will want to option up their Q7 with the top-level Bang & Olufsen 3D sound system with its 23 speakers and 1,920 watts of power.  A demonstration featuring a live recording of the Eagles’ Hotel California made it possible for passengers to close their eyes and imagine they were truly in the room with the band.  Based on current Audi pricing convention, this will be a very pricey upgrade over the standard Bose system.

Recognizing that flip-down screens tied into archaic DVD players are a thing of the past, Audi’s engineers developed their own optional tablets that affix to special mounts to serve as a rear seat entertainment system.  Unlike other tablets currently on the market, this specially designed unit features an anti-glare and anti-shatter screen, plus direct integration into the vehicle’s MMI system and features Audi-specific apps that will enable the driver to keep tabs on things like maintenance and trip computer information.

This is only the tip of the iceberg for tech in the Q7.  The big Audi is chock-full of impressive drive assistance systems designed to make motoring both easier and safer for the driver.  Adaptive cruise control with traffic jam assist, various active safety features to help Q7 drivers avoid accidents, long-range infrared night vision and self parking (both parallel and perpendicular) are all available.

One bit of tech that is completely new is the Trailer Maneuver Assist.  For anyone who has feared the challenges of backing up with a trailer and the counter-intuitive steering required to do so, the trailer maneuver assist feature will be a godsend.  With a trailer carrying two very costly Ducati Panigale motorcycles affixed, we were able to “park” the trailer within the confines of a tight parking space using nothing more than the MMI knob to tell the car where the trailer was to go.  The driver simply controls speed (up to 10 km/h) and the steering is handled masterfully by the car.  Brilliant and definitely next-level thinking and execution here!

Pricing for the new Q7 has not yet been announced, but if recent Audi model releases are anything to go by, the new model’s pricing is expected to be in line with the outgoing model.  The new Q7 should reach Canadian dealerships in late 2015.

SUV buyers wanting the driving agility and involvement of Audi’s celebrated Q5 compact crossover but with the space requirements of a full-size SUV are sure to love the new Q7.  After nearly a decade on the market, the highly successful outgoing Q7 is being replaced by a new model that is significantly improved in every respect.  Best of all, with such great, light-footed moves, Audi’s big crossover is legitimately fun to drive, even if you don’t have the Swiss Alps in your backyard.

The alpine roads around Verbier, Switzerland wind and twist up and down the mountain faces, connecting the chalets and villages liberally... 7/15/2015 12:58:35 PM