► We join Audi's validation drive of new Q7
► Driving across Namibia's desert
► It's more agile, but still huge!
Roughly translated, Sossusvlei means ‘dead-end marsh’. Located in the southern part of the world’s oldest desert, the Namib, it’s a vast salt and clay pan flanked by vividly orange sand dunes up to 380m high. Its solitary concrete highway was completed only in 2002, but most of the surfaces we’re driving on still consist of washboard loam, pebbles, and 101 varieties of sand & dust. Automotively speaking, this is hostile country.
Fortunately, the new 2015 Q7 is no stranger to hostility. It’s arguably Audi’s least-loved model, a victim of its vast size, gargantuan weight, high price and planet-strangling thirst. The Mk2, however, is a different beast – it’s worked off 325kg in weight, courtesy of loads of aluminium, magnesium and titanium, ditched its boxy, big-rig posture and landed an mpg claim north of 50. You could call it a fightback, but this week’s final evaluation drive will help us decide.
Why Audi tests in Africa
While secret prototypes are tested on Audi’s own cordoned-off proving ground in South Africa, the public roads in Sossusvlei are popular turf for undisguised pre-production vehicles. No spy photographers here – in fact, in the course of two days I counted only 23 cars – 22 pick-ups and one Polo. There are no villages to speak of, just some camping grounds, and one hotel, one bakery (delicious!) and one watering hole (less so) within a 150-mile radius of our base. Fuel? Not really a problem. At regular intervals, you come by a pair of pumps, a tiny shop and a small dwelling with an adjoined parc fermé for chickens or goats. Water? Nada. If you don’t bring it, you’re in trouble. Noontime highs can peak around 45DegC.
In all probability, the design of the new Q7 won’t make you heady with excitement. ‘After two and a half years, I am slowly beginning to like it,’ admits one of Audi’s own bigwigs. In contrast to the Mk1, which looked like a downsized Kenworth rig with singleframe grille, the 2016 model is kind of an outsize Q5 hampered by bland proportions. Whereas there is nothing wrong with a drag coefficient of 0.32, the track is too narrow for the mildly flared arches, and the 21in wheels barely make the street-cred grade. The interior, though, seems absolutely faultless – a true work of art, crafted to Bentley standards and loaded with state-of-the-art assistance systems.
But while the new Q7 takes us one step closer to the debatable goal of fully autonomous driving, it is not yet 100% there in terms of functionality and ergonomics. Take the by-wire gear selector which, when pushed forward all the way, no longer selects park but – ooops! – reverse. The P button is integrated in the joystick like in a BMW, and like a BMW this Audi now also features a set of eight so-called favourite keys. Although the touchpad in the centre console has doubled in size compared to A6 and A8, they shrunk the MMI controller, making it less convenient to access. Truth is, this cockpit is an in-between solution. Breakthrough progress is reserved for next year’s A8, which boasts a fully adjustable touchscreen with haptic feedback and glare-free, scratch-proof ‘gorilla’ glass, a totally revised centre stack-cum-armrest, the next-gen virtual cockpit display and a 48V electrical system.
We set off after breakfast and return at dusk, a group of tired road warriors, faces dusted with fine red sand. The cars look sane from a distance, but the team leader reports three casualties: one front axle has suffered from playing Evil Knievel in the dunes, an underbody protection panel has been detached by a flooded ford, and we also have an AC unit go awol, which is a bummer when you can’t open windows or sunroof. Attending the injuries takes some time, but the fleet is in full force again on day two.
What does an engineer learn from whipping a car over surfaces that make your teeth clatter and blur your vision?
‘A lot,’ replies r&d guru Ulrich Hackenberg. ‘It answers questions like do the seals work properly? How does the windscreen cope with the body flex? What about noise insulation? Can you still listen to music? Is the air-con quiet enough? Are there any rattles or creaks? Handling and roadholding are important disciplines – we go quite fast on surfaces which feel like golf balls embedded in liquid soap.’
Predictably, the Namibian outback is not an ideal place in which to test driver aids. You don’t need automated cruise control if there are no other cars, lane discipline doesn’t matter when there are no defined lanes, and with 318,000sq miles of empty space available you can do without automated parking. We did try the predictive efficiency assistant though. Whaat? In connection with Google Maps (access to which costs an arm and a leg), sat-nav will work in snyc with ACC and traffic-sign recognition, and help to avoid unnecessary acceleration and braking manoeuvres by looking ahead a couple of miles. To our surprise, the Q7 would not only readily download a set of local maps, on request it even calculated the fastest route back to Ingolstadt, more than 8000 clicks away. Said the friendly virtual female voice: ‘Route guidance begins now. Caution – road block near Lake Chad and again near Orange-Senqu.’ Now that’s what I call German thoroughness.
Audi brought a bunch of 3.0TFSIs to the southern tip of Africa, but there was only one 3.0TDI, which is expected to be the best-selling model by some margin. The 333bhp 3.0-litre V6 engine has been tuned for better fuel economy and smoother running characteristics. With 325lb ft on tap, the Q7 TFSI accelerates to 62mph in 6.1sec, tops 155mph and averages 36.7mpg. Not bad at all, but not quite as muscular as the 272bhp oil-burner which commands a punchy 443lb ft. The TDI takes 0.2sec longer to reach the 62mph mark, runs out of steam at 146mph, and returns an unlikely 52.3mpg. Both engines rely on the familiar eight-speed automatic ’box. Normally, the torque split is a mildly tail-happy 40:60, but if conditions require it, the front end can take up to 70% or the rear up to 85%. The centre diff is supported by ABS and ESP which pull the vehicle straight at the limit by slightly decelerating the wheels closest to the apex.
New 2015 Audi Q7 in detail
Like the body, the chassis is all-new. Instead of double wishbones, the Mk2 relies on a five-link suspension starring separate springs and dampers. Fitted with the optional air suspension, the Q7 will lower its ride height by 30mm at speed while pumping up the ground clearance by 60mm off-road. For the first time, Drive Select incorporates seven different modes. In addition to Comfort, Auto, Dynamic, Individual and Allroad, there is now Efficiency and Off-road which puts up to 245mm between the car’s belly and the terrain. The parameters you can tweak are damping, steering, engine and transmission. The most radical setting is Efficiency which selects neutral whenever possible, shifts up early, and slows down on the approach to built-up areas. The newly developed all-wheel steering does the job – at slow speed, up to five degrees of rear countersteer reduce the turning circle by one metre or 10%, while above 60mph all four wheels move in the same direction, thereby solidifying the directional stability.
The Q7 previews the VW Group’s other full-size crossovers: VW Touareg, Porsche Cayenne, Bentley Bentayga and Lamborghini Urus. All will be built at the Bratislava factory where the capacity has been extended to 225,000 units per year. The assembly process is extremely complex – the plant must cater for two different wheelbases (Q7 and Bentayga sit on the longer platform), five bodystyles and interiors, a range of engines (from a four-cylinder to the W12), and special features such as a carbonfibre roof. As far as the Q7 is concerned, there are four more drivetrain options in the offing. In addition to the export-only 252bhp 2.0TFSI, there will be an entry-level 3.0TDI ultra rated at 218bhp and a brawny SQ7 powered by a 408bhp twin-turbo 4.0-litre diesel. Perhaps the most interesting powerplant is the V6 diesel hybrid, which musters a combined 373bhp and, on paper, returns an incredible 166.2mpg.
In the land of Springboks, Oryx and Impalas, fuel is much easier to source than a socket, so testing the hybrid must wait until summer. Not surprisingly, the 75-litre tank of the diesel was still more than half full at the end of our 350km loop. The TFSI was roughly 25% thirstier over the same distance, which explains its bigger 85-litre tank. Back home in Europe, a supercharged petrol engine (that’s what this is – despite the misleading V6T/TFSI badging) will probably score highly. Out here, however, where cattle-grids, rock-slides and crater-sized potholes abound, you’re better off with the relaxed and beefy hulk of a diesel. While the Q7 TFSI uses up to 28% less fuel than the model it replaces, the TDI is 23% more economical.
We drive in convoy, with each Q7 being manned by a different head of department. Led by Hackenberg are top-rank specialists in charge of suspension, drivetrain, body, electronics, quality and general vehicle development. The days are filled with driving, talking, taking notes and stopping to swap cars. That way, we sample different seats, trim levels and equipment packs. At the end of the tour, three extras emerge as particularly desirable: LED matrix lights, 18-way chairs and the head-up display. Another interesting option is the MMI all-in-touch infotainment which allows you to zoom and scroll with your fingertips, a method which is likely of lesser appeal in right-hand-drive models. Voice control is no longer a frustrating guessing game in esperanto. The latest software pioneered by the Q7 can cope with straight talk like ‘where is the next filling station?’ or ‘take me to a burger place.’ Unfortunately, burgers in the Namibian desert still wear their fur coats.
Practical, if not loveable
The new Q7 is not an easy car to fall in love with, but does have merits such as more shoulder room and 890 litres of luggage space, good all-round visibility (optionally enhanced by six surround-view cameras), adjustable rear seats and soft-close doors. But the biggest asset is perhaps the effect dramatic weight loss has on vehicle dynamics – the Q7 has the cushiest, quietest ride in its class. Like a mobile cocoon, it celebrates the art of splendid isolation – no suspension rumble, no tyre roar, little wind noise, a hushed petrol engine and a civilised diesel.
Perhaps even more intriguing is how the slimmer body, the lower centre of gravity and the lighter chassis transform the handling. The first Q7 was a safe but stoic ’bahn-stormer that started losing interest in direct proportion to the radius of the corner it was about to tackle. The Mk2 turns in with more verve, keeps body roll better in check and holds the road with greater determination. The handling is now more playful, and the transition from mild understeer to mild oversteer is as creamy as a ripe camembert. Slow bends are still a fight against mass and inertia, but carving through 50mph corners with a tad of opposite lock from entry to exit is simply priceless. As far as we can tell, the LP-size steel rotors are totally up to the job, but as soon as the SQ7 arrives, even more aggressive carbon-ceramic brakes will be on offer.
Two days in Africa have put dozens of ticks on the r&d clipboards, and left me feeling very impressed with the Q7. But respect isn’t love. If I bought one I’d lose sleep worrying that I should have held out for the less expensive 2016 VW Touareg 2 or the purportedly prettier and sportier 2017 Porsche Cayenne. I’d probably end up compromising on an A6 Allroad. But if you need all that space, if you must leave the beaten track, and if you really want to replace that old-school SUV, the Q7 will not let you down. The kids will love it, no matter whether they are five or 50. Like the backbenchers in our test car, two journalists engrossed in a pair of removable tablets, who, via speedy LTE connection, miss some of the most surreal, unique and most photographed scenery in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa so we can watch live Bundesliga football. Big car, small world.