SQ7: No bigger rush

Audi has headed into Porsche territory with the SQ7. Is there more to it aside from stonking status?
Tuesday March 14, 2017
For: Stupendous engine, stonking pace, practicality.
Against: Performance Package is optional, annoying lane-keep assistance.
 

By Richard Bosselman

SEVERAL sports utilities are really good at acting out as sports cars.

Specifically they come in two sizes, a big one and a smaller lookalike, from a brand that knows a thing about performance driving.

Where trend-setting Porsche goes with first the Cayenne then the Macan, others have followed.

With its SQ7, Volkswagen Group sister marque Audi appears to have looked at everything the Weissach specialist has achieved with the under the skin sister ship Cayenne … and gone bigger. In size, in seat count – because, like the badge says, it seats a quintet (whereas Cayennes stop at five chairs) - quite potentially (despite this Q7 having won an automotive slimmer of the year award) in weight - and, most patently, in performance.

In order to become not only the quickest Q7 ever but also the wildest, fastest seven-seater diesel SUV in the world, Ingolstadt has plucked technology developed mainly for the e-tron racing cars that provided so much success in world endurance sports car racing, particularly at the parthenon of pace, Le Mans.

It has a twin turbo 4.0-litre V8 diesel, but that’s not all. There’s also an electric supercharger – Germany calls it an EPC, which is short for ‘electrically powered compressor’ - whose hunger for zap is so pronounced it requires its own on-board power station.

Excessive? Of course it is. The suspension system is also more than a little bit complex, too, and as for the level of luxury … well, it’s right at the leading edge there, too.

Grunt-wise, it’s as stupendous as you’d imagine. Even though I’ve driven plenty of fast vehicles, the first-time experience of this Saturn V rocket shove still startled.

Get beyond the ferocity of its acceleration, though, and some will wonder what it is that makes this $175,900 model that much more special than any other Q7. For all its smarts, in fact, I’d have to imagine some out there are going to ask if the whole shebang might seem a bit … well, stupid.

Design

Spend up large and you at least get a lot of metal for the money. The Q7 is the biggest vehicle Audi produces and, regardless that this generation of the seven-seater wagon is slightly smaller and somewhat lighter (hence the clever ‘weight is over’ promotional tagline) than the last, it still fills a carpark and strikes an imposing sight.

And a memorable one? Erm, not so much. Even though this generation is more cleverly-proportioned than the last, and also adds shoutier elements - not least a grille large enough to double as a security gate on a Hobbit’s doorway - styling-wise it really hasn’t done much to break the mould as much as it needed to. It seems we’ve just become used now to something that, when it first arrived, was truly something quite different.

That said, all Q7s have an affluent air and the SQ7 stands out from its lesser kin by taking some additional bling and a set of extra-bold 20 inch wheels. There are even some sports-style bodywork enhancements, though these stop short of the wings and ‘aero’ side strakes you’d get on a sports car. Because, well, why would you?

In-the-know fans will point to the signatures of a matte-grey radiator grille, quad rectangular exhaust tips, full-blown LED headlights and aluminium trim for the side air vents, mirror housings and door inlays.

Practicality is usually the USP of any large SUV and the Q7 is far from unattractive in that respect, offering plenty of comfort and space, even in those third-row seats, although ingress and egress to that really suits children best. 

Even configured as a seven-seater, the boot space still works out to 330 litres. Flop the third row into the floor and the compartment expands to 775 litres; perfect for vineyard raiders. The car proved commodious enough to swallow a mate's surfboard, though for this the centre row chairs also had to be lowered.

Though clearly family-minded in layout, the SQ7 is classily-trimmed. Audi’s trademark expertise with interiors is well known but this interior truly sets out to impress: Detailing and fit and finish is beyond reproach. There’s little about what you see, touch or smell that isn’t suggestive of this being a top-dollar offer.

These days it’s crucial to have a high-tech element to brag about and in this case it’s Audi’s Virtual Cockpit system, which replaces all conventional gauges with an LCD screen to display not just vehicle and engine speed but navigation, entertainment and other vehicle settings.

Our car also took the $10,000 luxury package that adds ventilated and massaging front seats, brown leather, a grey headlining, a panoramic sunroof, power assisted doors and a heated steering wheel. Needed? Nah. Nice? Rather!

The Q7 is very well-provisioned with an active safety package that includes autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane and side assist, rear cross-traffic alert, cross lane alert and a blind spot warning that alerts disembarking front-seat occupants to an approaching car or bike.

The S package layers in a head-up display, 360-degree view camera, self-parking system and Audi's latest active lane assist system, which allows it to briefly self-steer during highway driving. Also offering reassurance is a solid five-star crash test score with ANCAP.

NZ market Q7s lack something quite useful, a smart reversing aid that allows the car to virtually self-steer a reversing trailer, with the driver finetuning the action by way of the MMI controller. We don't get it because of local requirement for a safety chain (whose presence would upset the electronics).

Powertrain

Spoiler alert: Though this model’s 4.0-litre V8 diesel is one massively huge heart, with 320kW and a massive 900Nm of torque, SQ7 fans should be wary of claiming that their rig is the most muscular Q7 ever. It’s not. That title is maintained by the first generation V12 whose 6.0-litre produced a colossal 367kW and 999Nm.

Don’t sweat being runner-up: Every extra cylinder and kilowatt cost dear, given the V12 held a – cough – $100,000 premium over the SQ7 that would seem hard to justify in a head-to-head. I’d wager the new engine would still lend the same earthquake-inducing, landscape-ruffling impression. It’s certainly giving more with less in the 0-100kmh sprint; a stunning 4.8 seconds makes it a whole 0.7s quicker to the legal limit, according to maker claim.

Also, what we have now runs an even higher brag status. Surely nothing sneers so effectively than a smaller capacity engine with super powers.

Agreed, it’s a massively complicated solution to a first world problem. The EPC which, being powered by electricity rather than exhaust gases, can spin up faster than you could think. From rest to 70,000rpm in less than 250 milliseconds. The intervention lasts for two to three seconds but that’s enough to give the exhaust gases time enough reach the necessary pressure to give the turbos a heck of a boost.

The power that feeds the EPC is special brew, too. The SQ7 and the Bentley Bentayga (because it shares this drivetrain) are alone in having two electrical systems. In addition to the traditional 12-volt setup that does all the usual tasks, there’s a 48-volt system – basically an on-board power station.

Several automotive component suppliers are touting 48-volt systems as the fuel-saving technology of the future, with applications from mild-hybrid drivetrains to engine ancillaries such as air-conditioning compressors and water pumps. Argument is that reducing the drain on the combustion engine through electrification of ancillary systems is key to meeting ever-more stringent emissions standards.

It’s certainly fundamental to fuel-supping efficiency here. Despite its size and performance, Audi’s believe that its hottest family hauler can consume a medium car-like 7.4 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres (and emit 194 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre) wasn’t equalled on test – I saw closer to 10L/km – but it’s a big improvement over the V12 (11L/100km cited, more like 17L/100km on test and 300g/km).

However, the primary reason for going 48V is that nothing less will run up the supercharger (and a trick active suspension system). This much electrical power is dangerous in the wrong hands; you certainly wouldn’t want an owner laying hands on it. For that reason the lithium-ion battery pack is beneath the boot floor, so there’s no chance of accidentally hooking it up with intention to kick start the neighbour’s car and instead managing to immolate the neighbourhood.

Experience

Finding a straight piece of tarmac and flooring the throttle is a sharp stick awakening for a very angry beast.

Traditional turbos, activated by exhaust gases, need the engine to reach a certain rotation per minute level to begin increasing airflow pressure in the combustion chamber and thus to boost output. This delay in boost is called turbo lag – something the SQ7 doesn’t seem to have.

The stomp to the legal limit from a standing start is incredible; strongly reminiscent of the instant thrust normally experienced with electric vehicles. Take that Tesla! This is a true phwoar-by-four and, assuredly, will serve as a rude 2030kg surprise to any street racing hoon who thinks a big SUV will be easy fodder for his STi in a traffic light GP.

Look beyond the automotive Usain Bolt impersonation and you’ll find it’s also a competent distance runner.

In theory, it has achieved the top rung of the eight-speed transmission by 100kmh but you’ll have to be the world’s best clairvoyant to tell exactly when it has undertaken most of those cog-to-cog transitions, such is the smoothness involved.

Also running with ultra-coolness is the tachometer. It basically has the cruisiest job in the car. At 100kmh, it barely ticks up 1000rpm. At 100-plus kmh … still 1000rpm. At even higher … well, by then you’ll wonder if the needle is painted on, cos it has hardly moved.

Such is the size and relaxed nature of the torque wave. On turbo boost alone, Audi cites a whopping 2.4 bar of relative pressure. Because of all this hefty, you need to constantly watch your speed. Even when in easy-going mode there is still a lot of anger in this heart.

For the most part, just a toe twitch will do to get it up to legal – and just another wiggle will elicit very rapid overtaking. And although it unleashes a great soundtrack, a deep rumble comparable to a petrol V8, when booted hard, on soft throttle the aural indicators are much more subdued.

Audi is keen to enforce that the SQ7 will also set the standard for monster truck madness going through the bends, too, but whether it has the measure of Porsche’s barometer is questionable, because it straight way doesn’t feel so driver-oriented, mainly in respect to steering feel – not unusual for Quattro cars, sadly – but also in general ambience.

Audi’s approach to sorting out the handling is even higher-tech than Porsche’s, but is it any better? It would be fun to put the two cars together.

In general issue form, the Q7 has already shown to be less unwieldy as its predecessor and assuredly, with those serious 21-inch tyres and stiffer suspension, the SQ7 should be better to biff through bends. However, it seems the key tech for performing proper tricks requires the optional active roll stabilisation system, which networks the adaptive shock absorbers, air springs, differentials and all-wheel steering to provide, says Audi, “outstanding handling in any situation”.

A system that can exert up to 1200Nm of force on the front and rear stabiliser bars – each one independently – to counter body-roll during cornering or relax to improve ride comfort on poor surfaces is certainly nothing to be sniffed at. Overseas tests of cars with and without it might become a hand of God element for those who discover, too late, they are charging in too hard.

Given this, and given how owners are going to exploit the performance, it would have seemed more prudent for the system to have been made standard. Instead, it only comes in a $16,000 Performance Package that also adds the four-wheel steer, a trick Quattro Sports rear differential and red brake callipers. The most expensive option on our test car is also factory-fitted fare, so thus demands you have to buy before you can try.

Well, take the plunge. It’s no easy task to teach an elephant to tap dance because – well, two tonnes: You can’t beat the laws of physics and Audi hasn’t been able to wholly disguise the model’s bulk. But they’ve had a damn good try. Plump for the sportiest Dynamic setting and it certainly corners and sidesteps with security.

In terms of ride quality, think in graduations of firmness, which might not suit the family bus ethos but, again, is typical Audi S, a designation that always puts playfulness first. If you want something on air suspension that feels as though it is flying above the ground, this isn’t the best choice. Ruts and ripple impact a lot less in soft than in hard, but you’re never wholly oblivious.

Lane-keep assistant should be an invaluable assist; but Audi’s is such an annoyance that you might do, as I did, and turn it off. The problem is that it has been over-zealously tuned to the point where there’s tugging at the wheel the moment it even sniffs a white line, even when you’re actually steering well clear. Unless manually switched off, the system remains active even when the Dynamic setting is selected. Not clever.

As for off-roading? Well, there’s clearly some notional aptitude this, given that it has constant all-wheel drive, off-road modes and ability to raise the ground. Then again, this time around there’s no low-range transfer case and Audi itself makes a point that it mainly shaved so much weight out of this machine because the modular-longitudinal MLB Evo platform, which will underpin the group’s other large SUVs, is a platform foremost designed for road-going use. Also, look at it: Would you REALLY take something this shiny into the muck?

Verdict

The performance sports utility sector makes good profit, but also makes little sense.

It’s valid to ask what’s the exact point of a high-performance seven seater sports utility anyway. There are so many obvious flaws.

For instance, at least a proper sports car at this money can be exercised on a circuit. But you’d be brave to take this machine to a track day. And real off-road tracks are also out of the question.

Really, then, it exists either to win a race that has no official sanction, the school run Grand Prix, and to satisfy people who used to buy sports cars and now want to sit higher and more comfortably while having their midlife crises.

The technical side of things is impressive. What irks a little, though, is that the SQ7 is patently incomplete without that expensive Performance Package. Audi NZ indicates the majority of customers have been happy to pay, yet it seems to me a model that trades so heavily on its sporty characteristics should have the driver-focused kit included as part of the deal.

It’s a wild, crazy ride.