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NEW TRUCK REVIEW
Audi hits luxury-performance SUV target with new Q7
  By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

NEWARK, N.J. (SNS) Ė Sport utility vehicles didnít make a lot of sense to Audi a few years ago, as the German company rolled out a progression of high-tech and well-crafted sedans and sports-performance models. That was then, as they say, and this is now.  

Audi is unveiling the Q7, mother ship to the entire line, and a large SUV built to command a profitable alternative to keep Audi customers away from those Escalades and Denalis.

Wolfgang Hoffmann put it all in simple terms when he first introduced the Q7 to the North American media in New Jersey a few weeks ago. "SUVs make up 60 per cent of the market in the U.S.," he said. "And we didnít have one.

Pretty simple. Large premium SUVs are often large trucks with a great variance in amenities and performance, and if Audi is looking for a proverbial home run, the Q7 touches all the bases of performance, safety, style, and versatility.

"A lot of loyal Audi customers have one or two cars, and a luxury SUV," said Hoffmann. "Twelve to 15 percent of customers who left the Audi brand for their last purchase did it because we didnít have an SUV."

The General Motors command of the large-SUV segment is legendary, with the Tahoe/Yukon leading to the Cadillac Escalade, which led back to the Denali, a luxury version of the Yukon for the GMC division. All are newly redone for 2006.

"There are three generations of SUVs," said Hoffmann. "First was the two-box design, which was a truck, with a ladder-frame structure, designed to be rugged for heavy work and off-road use. Next came the crossover SUVs in the í90s, built on car platforms with the safety of car-like control, comfort, quality and status.

Now we are about to start the third generation Ė performance SUVs."

Combining size, strength, luxury, safety and off- and on-road performance takes some doing, but the Q7 calls those bets Ė and raises the ante with its high-technology engine.

The Q7 has the latest generation of Audiís potent 4.2-liter V8, which Ė along with Audiís superb 2.0-liter four-cylinder Ė made a list of top-10 engines in the world for 2006. The latest version goes to four valves per cylinder with chain-driven dual overhead camshafts, and direct injection.

Direct injection has the effect of making engines feel more powerful than their size indicates, with fuel economy expected only from much smaller displacement. The direct-injection Audi V8 makes 350 horsepower and 325 foot-pounds of torque, with 85 percent of its torque unleashed from 2,000 RPMs and on up.  

Despite a curb weight of 5,467 pounds, the Q7 will sprint from 0-60 in just under 7 seconds, with an electronically governed top speed of 130 mph.

A narrow-angle 3.6-liter V6 will be available later this year, with 280 horsepower and 265 foot-pounds of torque. The V6 model takes 8 seconds to reach 60, but the bigger difference is the price of the two.

The large performance/luxury class vehicles, such as the Escalade or Denali, cost $60,000 and more. The Q7 with the V8 starts at $59,900, while the same vehicle with the V6 starts at a comparative bargain $49,900.

Over a thousand V8 model Q7s were presold before any advertising even started, and projections are for the Q7 to be one of Audiís best-selling models, even in its first year.

Because the V8 model was the only one available at introduction time, all of our preliminary findings are on that vehicle. Towing capacity is 5,500, or 6,000 with the towing package.

The Q7ís handling is superb, with double-wishbone suspension on all four wheels, and settings for comfort, normal or sport, and a steering system with lower boost at higher speeds, the Q7 has the road manners of a top sporty sedan.

"But," said chief engineer Frank van Meel, "we didnít want to make a car that looked like it would do well off the road, then break your axle when you tried it."

The optional air suspension can adjust ground clearance from 6.5 to 9.5 inches, and it is complemented by ESP, an electronic stability program that allows the driver to lock the wheels to spin all four when necessary, and adds hill descent assist, which lets you creep down steep embankments without riding the brakes.

The same six-speed automatic transmission, with wide-spaced gears for on-road smoothness, can hunker down and perform when the going gets rugged, too.

  One of the subtle but significant changes Audi is making is to the previous quattro standard of 50-50 torque feeding both axles. On the Q7, the standard mix is 60 percent of the torque to the rear, 40 percent to the front.

That is more of what Mercedes and BMW have been advocating over the years than what Audi has steadfastly used to complement its front-wheel-drive base set-up.

Interestingly, BMW and Mercedes have altered their all-wheel-drive mix to allow more power to the front at the same time Audi is moving more power to the rear in its quattro.

But when the system detects any slippage, the torque split alters itself, moving up to 65 percent to the front, or up to 85 percent to the rear.

When it comes to deciding on a $60,000 vehicle, it is obvious that certain features might be pivotal. The Escalade, for example, is basically a Tahoe with all sorts of creature amenities that make it the premier prestige SUV. That well-earned title will be threatened by both the new Mercedes GL and the Audi Q7.

The Q7 has the tall, vertical grille that denotes all the new Audis, and on a large truck-like vehicle, Iíd say it looks better than on the cars, where itís still a bit controversial. A strong, high-strength steel frame and body are topped by a sleek roofline, which houses three rows of seats. You could house seven occupants, or two, plus enormous quantities of stuff.

With seven aboard, and all seats upright, there is still 10.87 cubic feet of storage available behind the third seat. With just the third row folded flat, it jumps to 42 cubic feet, and if you fold down second and third rows, you can reach 72.5 cubic feet for storage.

Obvious features include a choice of burl walnut, olive ash, or Japanese tamo for real wood interior trim, plus a back-up camera system, four-zone climate control, and an optional panoramic sunroof that is a three-section picture window to the sky.

Adaptive cruise control lets you maintain a set interval behind the vehicle ahead, and will slow you to a complete stop if need be. Braking Guard uses a radar warning system to send a signal if the vehicle ahead brakes harder than your braking attempt, and if need be, it adds brake force.

Adaptive lights also shine around corners ahead, and a radar-guided parking system gives you a rear video readout on the navigation screen, with different color grid lines to help guide you to safe and accurate backing up and parallel parking.

Some other companies have some of those same features, but one that I think is unprecedented is the Q7 side-warning detector, which uses radar to note an overtaking vehicle, and if it moves into the vehicleís blind spot, a panel of LEDs on the side mirror light up as a warning to the driver.

 

Externally, Audi calls the Q7 styling "coupe-like," and boasts of dynamics that adapt well to both on-road and off-road use, and "multifunctionality." I think that means it can handle various functions, but Hoffmann stretched function to what I claim is an 18-letter journalistic record with "multifunctionality."

The ability of a vehicle to have functions has led to adding "functionality" to the automotive PR lexicon. Hoffmann also referred to Audiís "DNA," another of the auto PR-speak buzzwords.

Every journalist I know cringes when "DNA" is used to link models, whether or not a connection exists. Precious few, if any, auto PR types even know that Deoxyribonucleic acid is the structure of molecules forming two lines, whose paths intertwine in a double-helix to bond two complementary components, thus forming the chemical basis for linking heredity.

Hoffmann used DNA to prove the same company that makes the A3, A4, A6, A8 and TT sports car is now making a do-everything SUV.

Director of marketing Stephen Berkov said: "We need some reasons why SUVs are still OK. We think the Q7 proves that performance can be efficient, safety can be exhilarating, design can be beautiful, and functionality can be elegant."

For Audi, thatís not a badÖuhÖDNA. But the Germans made a major concession to build the Q7 primarily for the U.S. market by installing six cupholders and four more water bottle holders. "We put in six cupholders," said Hoffmann.

"That was always a battle with the engineers.

They said, ĎWhat are these Americans DOING in their cars?í "

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.