BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Q7 represents Audi's first stab at a serious luxury 4x4 and although it has failed to ignite the market in quite the way the company hoped, as a starting point for the brand, it's done reasonable business and paved the way for other sports utility vehicles bearing the four rings. Make no mistake, the Q7 is a serious piece of automotive real estate and one that often feels too big for the city streets and, indeed, tight country lanes. It's also a vehicle that should really only be bought if you need its full seven-seat capacity as it can be rather compromised as a five-seater. Used examples are surprisingly common.
The Q7 represented a very overdue entry by Audi into the lucrative luxury 4x4 market. BMW's X5 and Mercedes-Benz's M-Class had been cleaning up for some years, making some very respectable numbers especially in the US. Latterly, Porsche and Volkswagen got in on the act but Audi had been noticeable by their absence. While it was true that the midsize Allroad was a fine vehicle and up to many of the dynamic demands typical owners of bigger 4x4s would place upon it, it was clearly not enough, either in times of size or image.
Cue the Q7. Lumbering into view in spy shots in late 2004, the Q7 certainly addressed the size and image questions. It landed on showroom floors in the UK in March 2006 and sales have been steady but not spectacular. At first there were just two engines, a 3.0-litre TDI diesel that did sterling service elsewhere in the Audi range but which was rather swamped by the Q7's bulk, and a punchy but thirsty 4.2-litre FSI petrol unit. A 3.6-litre FSI petrol engine arrived at the start of 2007, followed by a 4.2-litre TDI diesel, both better and/or more relevant units than the initial pair of powerplants.
A facelift in the Spring of 2009 saw alterations to the front end and LED tail light clusters introduced but more intriguing were the modifications made beneath the skin to save fuel. A kinetic energy recovery system was rolled out across the Q7 range and a Clean Diesel version of the 3.0 TDI engine used an AdBlue injection system to reduce harmful exhaust emissions.
In 2010, the engine range was trimmed back with petrol options limited to two versions of the 3.0-litre supercharged unit and diesel customers invited to choose either the latest 3.0 V6 TDI (standard or Clean Diesel) or the 4.2-litre V8 TDI. An eight-speed automatic gearbox was fitted to all models from this stage.
What You Get
If Audi had size as a key Q7 design criterion, they certainly succeeded in its fulfilment. It runs on a stretched version of the Volkswagen Touareg chassis and features a seven seat configuration, making it ideal for bigger families. If you can get away from the rugged mud plugging mentality and instead think of it as a multi-purpose estate car on growth hormone, you'll bond with the Q7 a whole lot quicker. Even its styling seems to distance it from off-roaders.
The coupe-like dipping roofline isn't standard 4x4 fare, nor are the resolutely horizontal shoulders. Audi even offer contrasting body colours in a bid to emphasise the car's shapely profile. One can't really underestimate the importance of this vehicle to Audi, a company that looks set to belatedly diversify into some previously profitable market niches. The Q7 also spawned the Q5, a smaller and less expensive model that aimed to bring the theme and the MPV-style interior trickery to a wider audience.
Audi claim 28 seating and loading configurations are available in the Q7 and the seats in the second row are adjustable for fore/aft movement. This allows Audi to not only lay claim to the most generous second row legroom in the class but also - with the second row slid forward and the rear folded - to also pinch first prize for luggage capacity, a huge 775 litres.
With a length of 5,086mm and a wheelbase of 3,002mm, the Q7 isn't the most nimble rock hopper, but it does feature variable ground clearance (from 180 to 240mm), hill descent assist and an off-road mode whereby the ESP stability control system backs off to allow for loose surfaces. There's also a trailer stabilisation system which reduces the risk of fishtailing via targeted brake intervention.
Let's not kid ourselves here though. The Q7's off-road aspirations aren't anything much greater than muddy tracks and wet grass. This is a car which has a sensibly tarmac-biased set-up, from its 60:40 torque split to its 18-inch alloy wheels. If you really want to bring the bling, 19 or 20-inch rims are also offered.
What to Look For
The first thing you need to take a look at on the Q7 is panel damage. Body repair is very expensive and the huge size and hard to see extremities make manoeuvring the car in city streets a rather nervous experience. Many will have scrapes to the front wheel arches and rear quarters as a result. The alloy wheels are fairly kerb resistant in normal sizes but bigger rims can be chipped and scraped in short order. Any off roading more arduous than a gentle track can also see the Q7 damaged. Alloys again get scored very quickly and the exhaust system is not shielded in the way more serious 4x4s are. The interiors are tough and well screwed together and there is very little cause for complaint with the engines. The air suspension system has thus far proven reliable too. One minor issue that has affected some Q7s is the loss of a plastic access panel that sits below the rear number plate.
(approx based on a '06 Q7 4.2 FSI petrol - Ex Vat) You'll need to spend around £280 on a replacement clutch assembly while brake pads are surprisingly pricey at around £135 for the front pair and £75 for the rears. Door mirrors are £145 per unit
On the Road
Four engines are available. The entry-level petrol unit is the six cylinder 3.6 FSI, developing 280bhp. This sits below a powerful 4.2-litre V8 petrol unit also featuring FSI direct injection which cranks out a healthy 350bhp with a peak torque figure pitched at 440Nm. Of perhaps greater relevance to the UK market is the 3.0-litre TDI diesel. This features a state-of-the-art common rail injection system with piezo inline injectors helping it to a peak power figure of 233bhp, a substantial torque rating of 500Nm and reasonable fuel economy. Undoubtedly the most impressive powerplant is the 4.2TDI diesel. Cranking out some 760Nm of torque, this engine is more muscular than many fully-fledged supercar units. Lamborghini Murcielago LP640, Ferrari 599GTB, Porsche Carrera GT, McLaren F1 - none of these can match the torque of the Audi.
The best part about this engine is that the vast reserves of torque allow it to run at low engine speeds while still generating all that muscle. In fact, you need barely exceed tickover as peak torque is available anywhere between 1,800 and 2,500rpm. Should you wish to extend it, the Q7 4.2TDI will bludgeon its way to a top speed of 146mph. The Q7 makes a superb motorway cruiser with its suspension set into cosseting 'Comfort' mode although the six-speed tiptronic gearbox is best locked into sixth gear on long journeys as it does seem rather keen to kick down a gear or two rather unnecessarily.
The Q7 is equipped as standard with quattro permanent four-wheel drive. Its Torsen centre differential directs power to all four wheels, on-road and off-road, which means fast-reacting power to whichever wheel can best deploy it and excellent lateral stability - the prerequisites for optimum driving dynamics and safety. The driver benefits - also thanks to virtually balanced axle load distribution - from even better agility and steering precision that remains practically free of torque steer. The chassis of the Audi Q7 contains numerous aluminium components - independent wheel suspension with double wishbones at the front and rear - also excels with its all-round qualities. Steel spring suspension and twin-tube shock absorbers are designed for sporty driving and superior comfort, even off-road. The tilted position of the rear spring and shock absorber unit reduces overall height and creates more room at the rear.
The Q7 can stand accused of being ugly, brash, wasteful and unnecessary and, by and large, those accusations stand up. If, however, you need to transport a big family and want something that can eat miles and don't mind paying for the privilege, it's hard to think of anything better. The Q7 is still on the steeper part of its depreciation curve and our tip would be to wait a while until you can net a sensibly priced used 4.2-litre TDI model.