- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

Consumers ought to suspect something is up when a European automaker advertises that “big can be beautiful.”

Usually a claim made by American car companies, “big can be beautiful” this year comes from Audi of Germany as it shows off its first sport utility vehicle, the 2007 Q7.

The five- to seven-passenger Q7, which looks like a lumbering, tall concept wagon driven right off an auto show stage, is truly big for Audi.

Stretching nearly 17 feet from bumper to bumper, the Q7 is just 2 inches shorter than a Cadillac Escalade SUV and ranks as Audi’s largest vehicle in the United States.

The Q7 feels — and is — heavy, too. With a 350-horsepower, 4.2-liter V-8, which is the only engine available early in the model year, this new SUV weighs more than 5,400 pounds, or 2.7 tons.

As for beautiful, well, that’s up to the beholder. The Q7’s immense front end and sizable dimensions can seem to overwhelm the vehicle’s careful craftsmanship, at least on the outside.

Still, the Q7 accomplishes what Audi officials wanted. The company no longer is left out of America’s popular SUV market. (Yes, even with higher gasoline prices, SUVs continue to sell. Through July this year, they accounted for 24 percent of all new vehicles sold in this country, or more than 2.3 million sales.)

The Q7 arrives at the higher end of the SUV segment, with a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $50,620 for a Q7 4.2. A V-6 model, the Q7 3.6 that follows the V-8, starts at $40,620.

Competitors include other luxury SUVs, such as the 2007 Cadillac Escalade, which starts at $54,945, and the 2006 BMW X5, which starts at $54,295. These prices are for V-8 competitors.

The Q7 replaces the Audi allroad, a previous attempt to turn a European wagon into a tallish, all-wheel-drive vehicle.

But sales of the allroad in the United States were less than impressive, and Audi’s Q7 became possible after Volkswagen’s Touareg SUV debuted in the 2004 model year.

Volkswagen AG owns both VW and Audi brands, and the Q7 uses a stretched version of the Touareg’s platform.

With optional air suspension, the ride was decidedly firm in the test Q7.

And with optional 20-inch wheels and tires on the tester, there was a good amount of unsprung weight — heaviness and activity — at the wheels.

The big tires also conveyed a lot of road noise, and the Q7’s considerable mass was noticeable in the curves, where weight shift was managed to some extent but passengers still could feel motion.

It was all enough to convince me that, indeed, Audi has joined the light-truck segment with its new SUV.

The heaviness of the Q7, though, conveyed a solidity that’s rarely so palpable in SUVs, and with standard quattro all-wheel-drive system, the Q7 never lost traction.

I was thankful to have the 350-horsepower V-8 in such a heavy SUV.

And the engine is tuned to deliver a smooth gust of low-end torque, right at startup. Peak torque is 325 foot-pounds at 3,500 rpm.

The only transmission is a six-speed automatic with shift-it-yourself Tiptronic and worked smoothly during the test drive.

Don’t look for great fuel economy. The tester didn’t even get the 14/19 miles per gallon that the federal government estimates, and Audi requires pricey premium gasoline for the Q7’s V-8.

The Q7 interior is pulled pretty much from the Audi A6 and A8 sedans. The seats are new and comfortable, but the fine dashboard design and gauges should be familiar to any Audi fan.

As with other Audi vehicles, the Q7 exuded craftsmanship. From the perfectly aligned stitching on the seats to the tactile feedback of the buttons on the dashboard, the Q7 gives the impression of quality.

The heaviness of the doors and the solid click as they close add to the impression that this isn’t a mainstream SUV. The Q7 was so quiet, in fact, that I rarely heard the V-8.

The third row is standard in Q7s with the V-8. But because the third row is close to the floor, passengers sit with their knees up near their chins.

The cargo floor is also up quite high once second- and third-row seats are folded flat. This helps explain why maximum cargo room in the Q7 is 72.5 cubic feet, or just 3.5 cubic feet greater than the smaller BMW X5.

Buyers who want all the latest electronic aids can spend a lot to get them on the Q7.

The tester had $14,620 worth of options, including rear-view camera that not only shows what’s behind the vehicle when it’s in reverse gear. It also shows via lines on a display screen on the dashboard where the vehicle will wind up if the steering wheel isn’t moved and the vehicle just continues to back up. The lines move when the steering wheel direction changes.

A huge, panorama sunroof is unique in the segment and wonderful for the airiness that it gives the interior.

Basically, it’s a three-piece sunroof that stretches back from the front seats for 5.6 feet.

And in a world first, the Q7 is offered with light-emitting diode side assist lights on the outside mirrors. They illuminate when another vehicle enters the Q7’s side blind spot.

But a Q7 driver needs to adjust to these warning lights. The first few times that they flashed at me as I was about ready to make a lane change, I froze behind the wheel.

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