Little more than a decade ago, if you wanted an Audi that could hit 60 mph in under 4.5 seconds, your local dealer would've had exactly one model to show you: the company's brand-new R8 supercar, packing a 4.2-liter V8 and six-digit price tag. Today, that same salesperson might unexpectedly walk you over to an 2021 Audi SQ7, if only to watch your cerebrum twist itself into a pretzel. Like Audi's now-iconic mid-engined supercar, this brand-new SUV has also arrived packing a TFSI V8 and a price tag that, yes, can exceed six digits.
Funny thing, though: This three-row utility vehicle has a lot more power, torque and it gets better fuel economy. See? As it turns out, 2020 isn't all bad.
Believe it or not, the heavyweight crossover seen on these digital pages would actually give Audi's first-generation sports car a serious run for its money from stoplight to freeway merge. Packing 500 horsepower and 568 pound-feet of torque from its 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8, the SQ7 even has a vastly more power-dense engine -- the naturally aspirated 4.2-liter V8 in Ye (Not So) Olde 2008 R8 Coupe only mustered 420 hp and 317 lb-ft and that powerplant, friends, was a landmark moment in metallurgy.
Today, Audi offers a whole range of models capable of trouncing the original R8's performance figures -- most for much less money. Of course, none are as incongruous as this 5,300-pound SUV, let alone as capacious. The German automaker says this seven-passenger express can hit 60 mph in a scant 4.3 seconds -- a tenth quicker than the original R8 -- and power to a top speed of 155 mph on its 21-inch summer tires. (Optional all-seasons bring a major v-max haircut, all the way down to 130 mph.)
Those performance and consumption figures paint a visceral picture that's underlined -- somewhat -- by a model-specific multi-mode exhaust. Poke the starter button and the Q7's V8 barks briefly before quickly settling to idle. You'll know right away that this isn't a garden-variety four- or six-cylinder Q7, but even with SQ7's more assertive tone, it's still not particularly vocal by default.
To change that, you'll have to cycle through the Drive Select menu. Putting the SQ7 into Sport opens up the exhaust valves while amplifying other performance attributes like steering weight and transmission programming. Alternatively, you can call up more sound specifically by tailoring the exhaust setting in the Individual mode. The touchscreen preset for the loudest option is called Present, which reads a bit like a grade-school suck-up during attendance roll call.
That 'teacher's pet' imagery seems apt, because despite possessing a more strident soundtrack than its European counterparts (owing to different particulate filters), this SQ7 could arguably stand to be a bit more vocal still. Performance models from AMG or Jaguar's SVR are significantly more declarative inside and out and even BMW's non-M specials can be, too. Yes, I know this isn't an RS Q7, but in the absence of such a model, it'd be nice to have an even more socially reprehensible setting, if only to blow out mental cobwebs on lonely winding roads. As it is, the V8 makes a fine sound, it's just a bit too muffled by the time it makes its way inside.
Of course, Audi's engineers haven't just fitted the SQ7 with 165 more horses and nearly 200 lb-ft more torque than their next-most-powerful Q7. There's a standard adaptive air suspension system that hunkers 15 millimeters lower by default and, despite firmer tuning, the SQ7's setup still ably negotiates Michigan's pockmarked roads (no mean feat considering the 285/40-series low-profile Continental ContisportContact 5 rubber and 21-inch wheels). There's also more aggressive tuning for the eight-speed Tiptronic automatic and model-specific throttle mapping and electronic safety-nanny settings.
Perhaps most importantly, all SQ7s come with all-wheel steering, a feature optional on lesser Q7s that provides up to 5 degrees of rear-axle steering. Combined with the SQ7's rear-biased 40:60 Quattro torque split, this SUV is surprisingly nimble, be it hustling down a B-road or jousting to grab that last early morning parking spot at Orangetheory. While it still feels like a big vehicle, when pushed hard, the SQ7 does shrink around you enough to feel more like a midsize performance wagon than a high-power SUV. (Fair enough, as that's more or less what most of these pavement-bound utility vehicles actually are.)
One thing that doesn't shrink when going hard, however, is fuel consumption. EPA estimates call for 15 miles per gallon city, 21 highway and 17 combined, but leadfoots won't find it hard to send that figure substantially south.
This SUV's adroit handling is also a comment on its (relatively) modest footprint. The SQ7 stretches 199.6 inches from its unique, mask-like, double-slat grille to its model-specific rear bumper. By comparison, the Mercedes-Benz GLS580 spans a vast 205 inches and weighs about 400 pounds more. The BMW X7 M50i compares similarly. It's only slightly shorter than the Benz at 203.3 inches and it's more than 300 pounds heftier than the vehicle seen here.
In fact, even if it's longer than its Porsche Cayenne platform-mate, the SQ7's dimensions nevertheless help it feel significantly more wieldy than key rivals. That sensation would likely have been enhanced even further if my tester had been outfitted with Audi's optional Sport Package ($5,900), which includes 48-volt active roll stabilization, a torque-vectoring rear sport differential and red-painted brake calipers.
That said, the Audi's smaller size also means it gives up a substantial amount of third-row seating and luggage space to that same competition. The SQ7 taps out at 69.6 cubic feet of cargo room with its second- and third-row seats folded. That's generous, but it's still some 15 cubes shy of the GLS and a whopping 21 cubes shy of the X7 -- it's almost like the SQ7 is a full class-size smaller.
If you don't need to make use of the SQ7's rather-tight third row frequently, it won't really matter. You'll still be plenty comfortable inside, plus you'll be surrounded by some of the best, most-powerful in-car tech in the biz. Audi's latest MMI Touch Response dual-touchscreen infotainment interface is here in force, as is Audi's second-generation Virtual Cockpit digital gauge cluster. This hardware takes a little getting used to, but it's nicely configurable and very powerful.
The rest of the interior isn't too shabby, either. SQ7-specific touches are pretty minimal, but they include comfortable and supportive sport seats wrapped in quilted Valcona leather. In a nice development, with top-flight Prestige models, those seats aren't just heated, they're also ventilated (previously if you wanted cooling on most performance Audi models, you had to revert to less-grippy standard seats). There's a matching perforated-leather three-spoke wheel, though it's let down by the return of Audi's tab-style paddle shifters. These plasticky-feeling switches have been around for too long.
On the plus side, it's worth noting that the Prestige spec also includes features like dual-pane acoustic side glass, soft-close doors and a driver assistance package with features like adaptive cruise control, traffic-sign recognition, lane-keep assist and a head-up display.
You're probably wondering what all this pace and posh costs, but first, a brief explanation is in order. The Matador Red SQ7 seen here is actually a 2020 model, but it's one of only a small number of examples carrying this model year designation (blame the coronavirus shutdown's impact on production and shipping). As such, 2021 models are also beginning to trickle into Audi dealers nationwide, sitting cheek-by-jowl with their 2020 counterparts. Regardless of model year, the SQ7 range starts in Premium Plus guise, essentially what would be a mid-rung trim on the standard Q7. The 2020 SQ7 line starts at $85,795 (including $995 delivery), while 2021 models ring up $200 higher. Step up to Prestige trim and before visiting the options list, you're looking at $91,395 for a 2020 or $92,195 for a 2021.
My Prestige tester includes the aforementioned Matador Red metallic paint ($595) as well as handsome Carbon Vector inlays ($750) in the cabin. Add in laser headlights ($1,650) and splurge on Audi's killer Bang & Olufsen 3D audio system ($5,000) and you get $99,390 as tested. That's obviously a ton of cash, but it's also more than competitive. Benz's 2020 GLS580 starts at $98,795 delivered and that's before a dizzying array of options. BMW's X7 M50i is even more dear at $100,795 sans options (including destination). Believe it or not, not only are the SQ7's rivals bigger and more costly, they both have model ranges that extend even further into the stratosphere thanks to AMG and Alpina.
To be fair, it'd be awfully hard to call anything in this class a "bargain," even if the SQ7 is something of a do-it-all, high-performance juggernaut, but for those fortunate enough to be shopping for SUVs in this rare air, the 2021 Audi SQ7 is worth a long, hard look.