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New flagship SUV is lighter, smaller and smarter. But is it any better?

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The Audi Q7 is a rather obvious but effective symbol of the sudden, puffer-fish-style expansion of Audi’s model range.

Ten years ago, this car maker didn’t build SUVs. Although it had plenty of quattro-branded four-wheel-drive know-how, it had never taken that next big logical step. It had only recently started making a Sportback in the guise of the previous-generation five-door Audi A3 and had yet to launch the Audi R8 sports car. When Audi launched the original 2006-2014 Audi Q7, it was a different form.

Audi SUVs have quickly become big business. From a standing start, the previous Q7 sold fairly strongly and consistently across Europe and North America throughout its lifecycle

Now, as we welcome the second generation of Ingolstadt’s unashamedly full-sized luxury 4x4, it is one of three Q cars in the range. By the time the next Q7 comes along, its high-riding siblings could number as many as six, certainly four with the Audi Q2 on its way. That would be an astonishing rate of expansion, but not necessarily a foolish one.

Audi SUVs have quickly become big business. From a standing start, the previous Q7 sold fairly strongly and consistently across Europe and North America throughout its lifecycle.

It didn’t trouble the volumes of the segment leaders, but since it’s larger and slightly pricier than the average large luxury 4x4, that was predictable. But the Audi Q5 and Audi Q3 have smashed every sales target that the firm has put in front of them. If this new bigger brother for them can replicate just a bit of that success, it’ll be a huge money-spinner for Audi.

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As you’re about to read, Audi is evidently determined to deliver that greater success, having thrown the kitchen sink at the new Q7 in terms of new platform, powertrain, chassis and infotainment technology. This car is the first of many new Audis (and Porsches and Bentleys) based on the firm’s new MLB-Evo platform. It’s a bit of a strategic milestone. Already it has spawned a hybrid Q7, the monstrous SQ7 and the highly anticipated, customisable, height-of-luxury Bentley Bentayga.

Audi’s claim is that it’s also advanced, lightweight, aerodynamic and efficient – at the same time as being luxurious, refined, fine handling, capable and laden with sophistication. It sounds like a serious piece of work. But is it any more discreet than the previous Q7, or any easier to like? Let’s see.

Audi Q7 design & styling

The Q7 is, in Audi’s own words, “still a big car” – and relatively so, in a segment full of necessarily big cars. It has shrunk marginally compared with its predecessor, but by no more than a couple of inches in any of the major dimensions.

However, the biggest success of the car’s styling could be to make it appear as though a more significant amount of bulk has been dispensed with. An effective combination of reduced body volumes and strong horizontal bodywork creases makes this car look much lower and less hulking than the previous one.

In the broadest sense, most people probably wouldn’t pick this as the most visually striking or appealing car of its ilk. But its new-found sense of understatement seems much more becoming of an Audi, and it’s a change of which we heartily approve.

What’s more, although it hasn’t cut down on the Q7’s kerbside footprint much, the truth is that Audi didn’t need to. The company has done what it’s famous for: employed cutting-edge technology to deliver the gains that other car makers use more obvious means to achieve and often court compromise for the sake of.

The Q7 is 300kg lighter than the car it replaces. That’s an enormous saving, even on a two-tonne-something car, and it has been made on component parts as various as seats (19kg), doors (24kg), brakes (8.5kg), exhaust systems (19kg) and electrical wires (4kg).

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As remarkable as it is, the car’s mixed-metal underbody ultimately amounts to just another item on that list of weight savings (71kg). Made up of just over 40% aluminium and 12% hot-formed ultra-high-strength steel, it features joining techniques new to Audi, as well as structural reinforcements, dubbed ‘torsion rings’, arranged both horizontally and vertically.

UK buyers will be offered a 3.0-litre V6 TDI engine in 268bhp and 215bhp states of tune, driving all four wheels through an eight-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox, a proper centre differential (as opposed to a clutch-actuated power split) and a limited-slip differential between the rear wheels. The Audi Q7 e-tron will be offered with a 3.0-litre V6 TDI and electric motor working in tandem to produce 254bhp, while those wanting a ballistic SUV should look no further than the SQ7, fitted with a twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8 diesel engine forcing out 429bhp.

Steel springs are standard fit, but a height-adjustable adaptively damped air suspension system is on the options list and delivers ground clearance of up to 245mm. Our test car was a 268bhp diesel on air suspension.

Also on the options list is a four-wheel steering system capable of turning the rear wheels up to 5deg in the opposing direction to the fronts at low speeds, to reduce the car’s turning circle. At higher speeds, it can turn them up to 3.5deg in the same direction as the front wheels, to improve cornering stability and steering response.

It’s an unusual and welcome feature to find on such a large and potentially unwieldy SUV. More’s the pity, then, that it wasn’t fitted to our test car.

INTERIOR

The view from the driver's seat on the Audi Q7
Front occupants have lots of room and the cabin ambiance is top-notch

Physically smaller this Q7 may be, but its status as a bona fide seven-seater is intact. Few SUVs challenge a large MPV for back-row space, but the big Audi comes close; its generous wheelbase and capacious roofline translate into sufficient leg and head room for a modest-sized adult.

Small children, the most likely occupants of the third row, ought to have no complaint, save perhaps for the height of the seat in front of them and the distance to the windows (neither unusual in the class). Raising the third row from the boot floor is made easy by the assistance of electric motors, although getting there is still a clamber best suited to the young.

Driving under trees for 200m in traffic on a bright sunny day, the dashboard bings, telling me to turn the headlights on. No human would turn them on in that situation. Automatic tech still has a long way to come

Conversely, physically getting the second row out of the way still requires the muscle mass of an adult, despite hydraulic assistance. Seats up, there’s room for a few shopping bags. Flatten them and there’s a very competitive 770 litres.

The second row has three individual seats, which, in contrast to the rearmost two, all slide fore and aft. Once lowered, there’s a fridge-freezer-swallowing 1955 litres.

It’s a model of practicality, then. For front-seat occupants, it’s a very smart conveyor of modern luxury, too. Land Rover and Volvo have set the cabin standard here recently, but Audi’s interior sensibilities are easily up to the challenge.

Its preference for brushed metal (or the appearance of it), sweeping lines, supreme fit and finish and an extraordinary confidence with geometric forms serve it well here.

With some helpful options fitted, there isn’t a surface or item of switchgear that doesn’t commend itself to the touch, and Audi’s integration of technology as part of the experience is possibly unparalleled in the mainstream.

So it’s surprising that its virtual cockpit system (where the infotainment menus migrate to the instrument cluster) seems a shade less effective than it does in Audi’s saloons and sports cars, the Q7’s higher driving position placing it further from your natural line of sight.

Still, opting to have the virtual cockpit does make you feel like an Airbus A380 pilot – and we fail to see how that can be a bad thing.

Helpfully, there are only two trims to choose from for the Q7, and even the entry-level models are stuffed full of equipment, such as adaptive xenon headlights, 8.3in Audi MMI infotainment with sat nav, Bluetooth, smartphone mirroring, DAB, dual-zone climate control, and electrically adjustable and heated front seats. Upgrade to S-line and luxuries such as LED headlights, four-zone climate control and leather/Alcantara seats are all included.

The SQ7 behemoth gets a reversing camera, adaptive air suspension, a quad exhaust plus Audi's 12.3in Virtual Cockpit included in the package, while the Q7 e-tron gets a load of energy conserving technology including brake regeneration, a fully electric mode and three-zone climate control.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

The Audi Q7 is impeccably hushed and refined at motorway speeds
Audi claims 6.5sec to 62mph for our test car, and we validated that at 6.2sec to 60mph

Manufacturers that consider themselves premium no longer countenance the idea of building a large SUV that could be thought sluggish.

Most are powered by powerful six-cylinder diesel engines, and those that are not (such as the Volvo XC90) get cutting-edge four-pots. The stupendously heavy outgoing Land Rover Discovery is one of the slowest, yet even that beats 10.0sec to 60mph and comes with 443lb ft of torque to help it along.

The Q7 is impeccably hushed and refined, the audible presence of that engine and the intrusion of road and wind noise reduced to a remarkably quiet 68dB murmur at 70mph

The previous Q7, even in its lowliest guise, was a decent performer, and the old 4.2-litre V8 version was properly (and improbably) quick. The latest range-topping Q7, aided by its terrific weight loss, continues in the vein of that old V8 model, even though it develops 67bhp less.

Audi claims 6.5sec to 62mph for our test car, and we validated that at 6.2sec to 60mph. That makes the Q7 quicker than the current stock Porsche Cayenne Diesel by the best part of a second.

That’s impressive, but probably not the criterion on which it’ll be judged day to day. The reduction in mass notwithstanding, the Q7 remains a two-tonne, high-sided prospect, so standing starts conducted at full tilt still seem a little gauche.

Instead, it’s the ease with which the big Audi merges with traffic, makes it to motorway speeds and overtakes lesser mortals that defines the quality of progress that has become inexorably linked to upmarket SUVs.

In all, it copes admirably, the engine’s 443lb ft of torque readily available from 1500rpm and capable of sending the lightened Q7 from 30-70mph in the same 6.2sec it takes to reach 60mph from standstill.

Administered by the eight-speed gearbox, the thrust is typically well mannered and the V6 barely tightens up at all before upshifting at 4500rpm. Moreover, the car is impeccably hushed and refined, the audible presence of that engine and the intrusion of road and wind noise reduced to a remarkably quiet 68dB murmur at 70mph.

RIDE & HANDLING

The Audi Q7's optional air suspension results in a comfortable and compliant ride
Optional air springs result in a comfortable, compliant ride over most surfaces

Anyone familiar with the ungainly, hard-edged oxen cart that the Audi Q7 used to be will likely find themselves in awe of the new model’s well-oiled suppleness.

With optional air springs fitted, it appears to have taken its cue more from Land Rover than from its SUV-shaped rivals at BMW, the suspension favouring a permissive long-wave fluency over most ground that allows the Q7’s body a hefty degree of congenial float.

Entwined with the steady hum of effortless power and the indulgent embrace of the surroundings, the general experience is one of serene agreeableness

There’s the odd niggle in the ride over pockmarks and expansion joints at low speeds, but we’re inclined to blame that on our test car’s 21in alloy wheels. Otherwise, entwined with the steady hum of effortless power and the indulgent embrace of the surroundings, the general experience is one of serene agreeableness.

At which point, one suspects, many buyers’ expectations will have been met. Some may notice that the Q7 has linear steering and generally goes where you point it, but few will complain that the directness and patent lack of heft in that steering mean that the car clearly isn’t as intuitive in its handling as the equivalent Range Rover Sport.

Whereas the Range Rover disguises its imposing mass by immaculate management of responsiveness and rate of turn, the Audi doesn’t. As a result, the saloon-car quickness of the Q7’s rack occasionally feels a little incoherent, given the straight-ahead insouciance of the body control.

Granted, with a roundabout-sized application of lock, the air springs and adaptive dampers rise to the occasion to stop your buttock cheeks having to do the same. But the ramping up of firmness doesn’t come as naturally or imperceptibly as in the better-handling Land Rover.

Still, that’s a marginal shortcoming in the long run. We’d find a Range Rover Sport easier to place on the road and more engaging to drive quickly, but the Q7’s shortfall in such areas isn’t serious enough to take more than a faint edge off its more ingratiating qualities.

An intimate relationship with road is rarely high on Audi’s wish list anyway, and in a two-tonne, seven-seat SUV, the resulting detachment could even be considered desirable.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

The second generation Audi Q7

The list prices of the Audi Q7 make it unexpectedly punchy on price. They’re roughly in line with the BMW X5’s and slightly cheaper than a like-for-like Mercedes-Benz GLE or Range Rover Sport.

But list prices, as ever, tell only part of the story. With perhaps a little residual scepticism about the car to contend with in the market, our sources aren’t predicting the exceptional residual values of some rival luxury SUVs for the Q7.

Our True MPG testers produced an average economy result of 32.6mpg for the Q7. Although that’s slightly poorer than its chief rivals, it’s only by a solitary mile to the gallon or so

But the problem evidently isn’t severe enough to prevent decent value emerging via contract hire deals. Company car drivers ought to find the Q7 broadly as cheap on a monthly basis as a like-for-like X5, and competitive CO2 outputs should prevent any nasty surprises materialising via your P11D.

There are two trim levels: entry-level SE and S line, which upgrades your car with 20in alloy wheels, nappa leather sports front seats, a sportier steering wheel and bodykit and a four-zone climate control system. The good news is that you don’t have to have the upper-level sportier trimmings to access all of the Q7’s optional active safety and chassis systems and infotainment features.

Audi’s S line sporty trappings look fitting on the car and don’t hurt its function. The packaged options are also worth having if you have the budget to spend. The Leather Pack (£1500), Technology Pack (£1950) and Dynamic Pack (£2655) add pretty much everything you’ll want.

Our True MPG testers produced an average economy result of 32.6mpg for the Q7. Although that’s slightly poorer than the most recent like-for-like X5, Range Rover Sport and Cayenne we tested, it’s only by a solitary mile to the gallon or so.

VERDICT

The 4 star suave and spacious Audi Q7

Given the hefty weight loss and longevity of its predecessor, it’s tempting to compare the renewal of the new Q7 with Land Rover’s replacement of the Range Rover Sport.

Both are lighter, nimbler, quicker, more economical, better appointed and far more luxurious and technology-packed than their forebears.

The Q7 feels like a real statement car to me: Audi flexing its muscles and showing what it can do, a bit like Mercedes-Benz does with the S-Class. I didn’t expect to like it so much.

In driver reward, off-road ability and handsomeness, the two diverge. But the Q7 is hugely practical, commendably potent and immaculately mannered, and it comes with a brilliantly constructed cabin – a breathable mix of cathedral-like tranquillity and upper-class imperiousness.

Audi knows what its customers want as well as any car maker – and this Q7 feels much more like the ultimate expression of that knowledge than the last one ever did.

It’s undeniable that we prefer some of its rivals as more engaging cars to drive but, regardless, the Q7 is destined for big things.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Audi Q7 First drives