- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

It may be, as a company official asserted, that the luxury sport utility market is “dying for a good Audi.”

Regardless of whether that proves to be true, there’s no question that Audi — as well as its dealers and some customers — has been dying for an SUV.

Until now, the German manufacturer focused strictly on cars, while Mercedes-Benz, BMW and even iconic Porsche entered the SUV fray. The closest Audi had was the now-discontinued All-Road — a sort of jacked-up all-wheel-drive station wagon.

So there is excitement over the introduction of its first SUV, the 2007 Q7.

It is not, strictly speaking, a sport utility vehicle. Though it is classified as a truck, it is car-based, with a unit body instead of a trucklike body-on-frame construction.

That makes it more of what currently is regarded as a crossover vehicle. By adopting that configuration, Audi is in the mainstream of current automotive philosophy.

Car-based crossovers have been gaining in popularity because they tend to handle and ride better, and deliver better fuel economy, than truck-based SUVs.

In the luxury segment, for example, Mercedes-Benz started the wheels rolling in 1998 with its ML320, which was a truck with genuine off-road capabilities. Japan’s Lexus followed with its RX 300, which was car-based and focused on luxury rather than off-road prowess.

It soon eclipsed the M-Class in sales, forcing Mercedes to redesign its SUV in 2006 to be more of a luxurious crossover.

The new Audi Q7 is in tune with that trend. Its competitors include the Lexus RX 330, the Mercedes M-Class and G-Class, Porsche Cayenne, Acura MDX, Infiniti FX, Volvo XC90, BMW M5 and Volkswagen Touareg.

But the Q7 aims at the sporting end of the segment, which is why the first models offered for sale came only with V-8 engines. A six was to be added later.

The Q7’s design belies some traditional SUV concepts. Instead of a tall, imposing look, the Q7 looks more like a four-door sport wagon.

It also has a relatively low step-in height for ease of entry and exit. To make certain the Q7 was fully competitive in this class, Audi designed it with a third row of seats, to carry up to seven persons. Most of its competitors, with the exception of the Acura MDX, have seating for five.

It’s likely that the Q7 will be used mostly as a four- or five-passenger vehicle because the two third-row seats are Lilliputian, suitable mainly for small children and pumpkins. Moreover, it takes athletic ability to crawl back there.

The second row is fine for the outboard passengers, with plenty of head and knee room, but the center seat is an uncomfortable perch with limited head room and no place for feet other than those that are midget-sized.

So with true comfort for four, and a 350-horsepower V-8 engine linked to a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode, the Q7 comports itself more as a sports touring machine than a conventional SUV.

Aided by Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive system, the Q7 carves corners like a competent sports sedan. Quattro is a mechanical system that needs no computer help as it transfers power to the wheels that need it.

Though it’s no slug, the Q7’s engine must move more than 5,500 pounds, so its acceleration time of seven seconds to 60 mph is respectable, not remarkable.

There are two versions of the Q7: the 4.2 and the 4.2 Premium, distinguished by the level of equipment. The test car was the former, which has a base price of $50,620. But it also had a load of options that brought its suggested delivered price to $66,620.

A notable option was a technology package that included a rear-view camera with a parking warning system and a keyless remote starting system. It also included Audi’s unique “side assist” feature, which flashes lights on the outside rearview mirrors when cars approach from behind on either side.

The feature is extremely useful for drivers who have blind spots to the rear because they don’t know how to properly adjust their mirrors.

The test car also had an optional adaptive cruise-control system that maintains a distance from the car ahead all the way down to low speeds and a stop before disengaging.

An optional air suspension system, navigation system, a panoramic sunroof, Sirius satellite radio and 20-inch alloy wheels also were on the test car.

A DVD-based entertainment system, with two independent screens mounted on the backs of the front seats, is available as a dealer-installed option.

The units are removable, so a person watching a movie could take one out of the car and continue watching at home. But the units stick out of the front seatbacks and look clumsy and intrusive.

The Q7 does not stint on luxury. Audi long has had a reputation for designing some of the finest vehicle interiors, and the Q7 is no exception, with abundant and tasteful use of wood and other quality materials.


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