Sign 'n' Drive: We Help Audi Sign Off on its Flagship SUV's Final Development Drive
Getting the new Q7 right is a bigger deal than usual. That's because this model is "the mother car" for the VW Group's new MLB Evo platform. That means its mechanical and electronic bones will underpin a squadron of vehicles, including the next-generation Audi A4/A5 (watch for the A4 this fall at Frankfurt) and A8 and the VW Touareg, Porsche Cayenne, and Bentley Bentayga SUVs. This mission is so critical that Audi's technical development boss Ulrich Hackenberg and his senior management team have schlepped down to the world's oldest desert — the Namib in southwestern Africa — to verify that everything's tickety-boo. (That's Oshiwambo for "good enough for J.D. Power.")
This final drive includes a 200-plus-mile trek over rough gravel roads threading through a landscape that could largely pass for Arizona's Sonoran Desert, minus the cacti and plus several more exotic species, including oryx, springbok, ostriches, jackals, and at least one frightening 6-foot-long black spitting cobra. Toward the end of this drive, I strap in with Hackenberg, who is generally pleased with the results. "We made a previous drive four weeks ago, and we found some things we had to improve," he says. "Now it is done and the car has much better performance than it had before. There were some squeaks and rattles and some vibration from the powertrain — that's all fixed now, so I'm quite happy."
Most of the trip is spent driving with the various engineering honchos riding shotgun and imparting great wisdom. For example, we've already reported on the Q7's dramatic weight loss (U.S.-spec Q7s should be 600-plus pounds lighter). The mass came from all over, but vehicle-tech development boss Michael Neumayer boils it down this way: The original VW Touareg platform was pretty grossly overengineered. The company played it safe with its first large, off-road-capable, modern SUV, and extremely conservative safety factors added a lot of pounds.
From my very first stint at the wheel, the Q7 looks and feels nimbler than before, and its rigid chassis and suspension impress by soaking up bumps that look and sound harsher than they feel. Throughout the day, the few rattles and squeaks I detect are traced to water bottles, walkie-talkies, or cellphones. These vehicles all have the air suspension that will be optional in the U.S. (Steel springs are standard globally, and an inch-lower sport air suspension may be offered stateside.) They are also shod with special rock-resistant 255/55R19 General Grabbers. Tires and tire pressures, by the way, are the only meaningful differentiators in the Q7's global chassis tuning. Suspension boss Horst Glaser is rightfully proud of his team's ride-quality achievement in spite of the rising unsprung weight that comes with larger standard wheel sizes despite lightening the brakes — especially in back where simpler sliding calipers replace four-piston fixed units. The sprung weight of the suspension drops at both ends, with the front losing 44 pounds and the rear losing 88. He also explains that the optional electric rear steering (available on mid- and top-level trims) steers up to 5 degrees opposite the front wheels at speeds up to 25 mph to improve maneuverability and to shrink the turning circle by 3.3 feet to 36.4 feet. At higher speeds the rear wheels steer with the fronts up to 2.5 degrees to improve stability. He says the system greatly improves performance in an emergency double-lane change, dramatically stabilizing the sharp turn back into the lane.
Twin radar units in the front corners work with the range-finding windshield-mount camera to increase the maximum adaptive cruise control set speeds to 155 mph. The next A8 will replace the radar units with a single laser.Perhaps the most illuminating co-pilot is Ricky Hudi, the head of Audi's electrics/electronics group. He expresses his utter frustration with America's luddite lawmakers for outlawing his super-cool and ultra-safe Matrix LED headlight system, which uses the Q7's high-tech forward-looking camera to maintain high-beam illumination as much as possible while "throwing shade" at vehicles ahead in the same or opposite lanes so as not to blind anyone. He urges us to write our congressional reps to demand an update of our 1950s-era lighting regulations. He enthuses about the high-tech windshield-mounted camera that makes this all possible. Developed with Israel's Mobileye, this single camera manages to determine the size and distance of objects ahead by recording images every few milliseconds, comparing the size of objects in the images, and knowing the distance covered in the time between frames (via info from the vehicle's data bus). This camera will be a vital element of redundancy in Audi's much ballyhooed autonomous drive systems.
Hudi is especially proud of his ultra-big (12.3-inch), ultra-bright (850 candela/square meter brightness — double that of a typical smartphone), extra-high-def (1,440 x 540 resolution), fast refreshing (60 frames per second) "virtual cockpit" instrument-panel display. Not even noonday Namibian desert sunlight streaming through my panoramic sunroof washes out the Google Earth satellite image of this stark scenery. Viewing it on the cluster display allows me to lower the center one, affording my rear-seat passengers a better view of the epic red Sossusvlei dunes, some of the world's tallest. The voice commands are now more conversational and are processed onboard — not in the cloud — so they even work this far away from a 4G LTE connection.
Crisp lines of ambient lighting accent the cockpit, and the color of these lines and of the gentle flood lighting can be set independently. (I've selected a Christmassy light green for the lines and red for the floods.)
Hudi reserves special enthusiasm for discussing Audi's direct relationship with silicon providers such as Nvidia rather than leaving such relationships to the Tier-1 suppliers. He predicts that within two years it will be the automotive sector — not the mobile device sector — driving innovation and increased processing power. The Q7's is up to 740 gigaflops (billion floating-point operations per second, or three-quarters as fast as the world's greatest supercomputer back in 2000). It's not even autonomous, though with two radar units assisting that high-tech camera, it now provides adaptive cruise up to 155 mph (up from the previous 124). Processing all the various sensor and communications inputs required for full autonomy will vastly outpace the computational power required by the smartphone/tablet crowd. Our six test vehicles all run 3.0-liter TFSI (largely carryover from the former S-Line model) or TDI (output increased from 240 hp/406 lb-ft to 272/443) V-6s, but engine honcho Stefan Knirsch assures me I'll be suitably impressed with the 252-hp, 273-lb-ft, 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder that will follow the V-6s to market by six months or so. That engine won't get a towing package (the others can handle up to 7,700 pounds), but it will improve fuel consumption notably and lower the price to lure Acura MDX owners and to better align with Volvo's seven-seat XC90. Speaking of which, Volvo's top-line plug-in hybrid T8 model will be answered by a Q7 e-tron variant boasting 373 hp and 516 lb-ft from its V-6 TDI, 126-hp electric motor, and 17.3-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery. Audi mounts the motor to the engine, ahead of its traditional Quattro AWD system, rather than powering the rear axle purely via electricity. This model is not yet confirmed for the U.S., but we expect to see it eventually.
A short run into the deep sand of the Sossusvlei dunes with tires aired down to 13 psi reveals great traction from the lightened Quattro drive system. It normally splits torque 40-60 front-rear, but traction loss at either end can send 70 percent of the torque forward or 85 percent to the rear. The 2.0-inch lower center of gravity lessens the fear of toppling over when traversing a steeply angled dune. Our time with the car uncovers two failures. Two vehicles experienced a "vehicle lights fault," which we're told was caused by an out-of-adjustment switch that confirms closure of the clamshell rear hatch. (When it's open, the bumper lamps must provide rear illumination, and our cars weren't sure if it was open or closed.) And after Time Inc.'s Sue Callaway and I spent 40 minutes experiencing all 900 watts of glorious 14-speaker Bose 3D sound, the system developed a case of the hiccups, cutting out on about every other backbeat. We didn't get an explanation for that problem, but we had fun helping ferret it out (Meerkat it out?).
Standard equipment will include a power third-row seat and power hatch. With the optional air suspension, a button lowers the lift-in height (which is 1.8 inches lower than before, even on steel-spring Q7s). That power trailer-hitch switch is Euro-only.Drives of this nature are useless for assessing things such as wind and road noise or on-road handling, but I can vouch for the Q7's road isolation and seat comfort (supreme in rows one and two, geometrically feasible if not comfortable in row three if row two scoots the full 4.3 inches forward). Visibility is great, and the touchpad and rotary-push knob HMI remains wonderful. This will be an easy vehicle to love. It feels far more agile and carlike than before, and it should easily outperform its Volvo competition at the stoplights and its BMW/Mercedes rivals at the pump. Oh, and if you buy one and your lights work perfectly and your stereo never misses a beat, you're welcome.
The camera inside the fourth Audi ring serves the night-vision system, which provides pedestrian and larger animal detection. A dedicated washer nozzle keeps it clean. The lower one serves the around-view parking assist function.
|2016 Audi Q7|
|BASE PRICE||$50,000-$54,500 (est)*|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINES||2.0L/252-hp/273-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4; 3.0L 333-hp/325-lb-ft supercharged DOHC 24-valve V-6; 3.0L 272-hp/443-lb-ft turbodiesel DOHC 24-valve V-6|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,500-4,550 lb (mfr)*|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||198.9 x 77.5 x 68.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.3-6.5 sec (mfr est)*|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||Not yet rated|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||First quarter 2016*|