Audi makes 2017 Q7 SUV handle like a sports car
The supercharger spins up, jamming air through the 3-liter V-6 engine as I accelerate down the straight. At the turn I'm on the brakes for a brief moment, then back on the throttle, turning the wheel to aim towards the apex. The precise steering does what I want it to and shows no lag.
Things get magic in the turn as I feel the car rotate underneath me, helping me out with all-wheel-drive and a little added steering angle at the rear wheels. A few turns later, there's a moment of slip. But instead of ending up in a cow pasture, the car uses its handling systems and traction control to get itself back on the line I wanted.
Throughout these driving exercises, I'm sitting up high. And I've got room in the cabin for six more people.
Audi put almost everything from its impressive array of automotive engineering and tech into the 2017 Q7, the latest generation of its largest SUV. The Q7 seats seven, but in the third row it comes down to a choice of passengers or cargo. Making that transition easier, power-folding third row seats come standard.
Less of a brawny SUV than a modern crossover, the Q7 has a roof line that hits 5 foot 8 inches, so many people will be able to look right over the top. That height makes it relatively easy to load cargo onto a roof rack. And rather than the flat single-frame grille of older Audi models, the Q7 shows off some new design thinking with a more sculpted front end. The general shape shows function over form, but Audi manages a few design touches, such as the low side trim pieces that designer Edwin Ollifers called "blades" during a press briefing.
Most importantly, the new Q7 is a showcase for handling, cabin and driver-assistance technologies. All of which make this luxury SUV a bit of a playground.
First up, the Virtual Cockpit replaces the instrument cluster with a high-resolution 12.3-inch LCD showing maps and other infotainment screens overlaid with virtual gauges. After spending a few days behind the wheel, I was slightly disappointed with this system compared to the version I saw in the Audi TT Roadster.
In the TT, I could access every infotainment function, from entering destinations to searching for music, using the Virtual Cockpit display in front of me. In the Q7, Audi retains a traditional center-mounted LCD in the dashboard, with some functions only available on it. Audi makes destination search easy by providing just one entry box where you can enter a street address or a business name. But, frustratingly, I could only use that on the center display, not on Virtual Cockpit. Likewise, I could only access the car's connected features, from parking availability to local fuel prices, on the center screen. The Virtual Cockpit in the Q7 only let me view navigation, vehicle information, the stereo and phone screens.
Audi's navigation system remains one of the most striking in the industry, pulling maps from Google Earth into the car over a dedicated 4G/LTE connection. The destination search I described above streamlines inputs over previous Audi systems and taps into that data connection for online business searches. You can enter letters or numbers by tracing them with your finger on the console-mounted touchpad.
Adding to this information-rich environment, Audi gives the Q7 a head-up display, which showed me my speed and the current speed limit, along with turn-by-turn directions for navigation.
The whole infotainment system, which Audi calls "MMI Navigation Plus with Virtual Cockpit", integrates data better than any car in the industry. I really couldn't get enough of it.
Supercharged and fuel efficient
For an engaged driving experience, I could change the virtual gauges on the instrument cluster from a small to large format. The head-up display still served as my primary means of checking the speed, but the virtual tachometer was helpful when I used the paddle shifters or sport mode with the Q7's eight speed automatic transmission.
Superchargers aren't commonly used on engines today, but Audi sticks one on the Q7's 3-liter V-6 engine, bringing its output up to a healthy 333 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. On the throttle, the Q7 gave me comfortable acceleration -- not neck-breaking but more than enough for passing maneuvers.
One problem with superchargers comes from the drag they put on the engine, which reduces fuel economy. Audi solves this problem with what it calls "supercharging on-demand", essentially disconnecting the supercharger's turbine when the car coasts or runs at steady speed. As another fuel-saving technology, the Q7 includes an idle-stop feature, which shuts down the engine at traffic stops.
Both of these technologies worked seamlessly for me. I particularly liked how I could control idle-stop, with a soft or hard press on the brake pedal to either keep the engine running at a stop or make it shut down.
Audi's DriveSelect system let me choose between different drive modes, including Comfort, Dynamic and Offroad, each of which is a preset for throttle, steering and suspension. The Q7 I drove came with the adaptive suspension option, giving it an air suspension and four-wheel-steering, that last piece of technology similar to what you will find on the new Porsche 911.
The four-wheel-steering makes the rear end of the Q7 better follow the front end in hard cornering, and it gives the whole SUV better maneuvering in tight parking spaces -- although in most situations you won't even notice it working. The air suspension hunkers the Q7 down in dynamic mode and gives the body a little more lift in the Offroad setting.
While not quite up the level of the BMW X5 M, these systems come together to make the Q7 handle much better than a car of its size should. However, this doesn't entirely disguise its 5,000-pound weight, as I could still feel that bulk pull it in the turns.
This impressive handling is likely not what most buyers of seven-passenger SUVs are looking for, though. Comfort mode loosened up the steering a little and took some of the tension out of the throttle. Here the Q7 proved an easy driver, the kind of car you can jump in for a quick shopping trip. My one faint criticism of the driving dynamics is that the ride could be a little softer in Comfort mode. As it was, I wanted the air suspension to flow a little more smoothly over rough asphalt.
Ultimately, the Q7 is a driver's car for those who also need to haul around family members and a lot of stuff.
What makes that performance driving character kind of funny is the fact that the Q7 can come with a wealth of driver assistance options, enough that it's getting darn near to being able to drive itself. Setting my speed with the adaptive cruise control, the Q7 maintained a comfortable following distance from traffic up ahead. It could even brake down to a full stop without my intervention. At the same time, lane-keeping assist made the steering wheel wriggle under my grip, the system intent on keeping the car dead-on between the lane lines.
When I loosened my grip on the wheel, the Q7 did an admirable job steering itself. However, after some tens of seconds it flashed a warning on the Virtual Cockpit instrument panel telling me I needed to steer. Then it deactivated the system. The Q7 won't tolerate abuse of its driver-assistance features.
Those features add a lot of convenience to the Q7, but there is quite a bit more to the car. Camera and radar sensors give it 360-degree awareness. A blind spot monitor system, alerting me to cars in the lanes to either side, is a given, but one of my favorite new features stops you from dooring cyclists. Radar at the rear corner of the car stays active after you park, and if you open the door when it detects a cyclist or car coming up, string lighting in the door flashes red.
The Q7's collision warning, which Audi calls Pre-Sense, is also bicycle-friendly. This system flashes a warning, and can even slam on the brakes, if you're about to hit something. When I drove down a winding road, it flashed on as I approached a cyclist up ahead.
Audi also gives the Q7 a surround-view camera system, which makes parking easy, and uses the radar to warn you about traffic when you back out of parking spots. Surprisingly, Audi doesn't offer an automated parking feature on the Q7, despite its robust sensor load clearly making that possible.
Audi's current toolkit of technologies and drivetrains is making every new generation of each model something of a revelation. This impressive trend goes back to the 2015 A3 and 2016 TT. The Q7 holds up this trend well, but it's also costly. Base price only comes to $54,800, which roughly converts to £36,880 or AU$75,895. But take it up to Prestige trim, bringing in the Virtual Cockpit display, and it jumps to $64,300, roughly converting to £43,220or AU$89,052.
Once you add the Driver Assistance package for all those safety features, and the Adaptive Chassis, bringing in four-wheel-steering, you're over 70 grand. If you really want to go crazy, add the 23-speaker Bang and Olufsen premium audio system for another $5,000, which converts to £3,360 or AU$6,925.
The Q7's closest current rival would have to be the Volvo XC90, which emphasizes comfort and elegance over driving dynamics. Or you can look to the BMW X5, a rival for handling, but third-row seating only comes as an option.