What is it?
It’s the plug-in hybrid version of Audi’s new Q7 large SUV. It’s based on the standard-issue 3.0 TDI quattro model, using a V6 diesel engine under the nose (mounted longways, as is demanded by Audi’s bespoke MLB platform), from where it drives the front and rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic gearbox.
The hybrid conversion includes a new version of the transmission, into which is sandwiched a fairly punchy electric motor that’s good for 258lb ft. The electric motor’s battery pack is mounted above the independent rear suspension.
The Q7 e-tron also gets a clever heat pump system, which uses waste heat from the electronic systems to help warm the interior. Using this, instead of electrical energy from the battery pack when running in hybrid and EV modes, significantly reduces the drain on the battery and, says Audi, extends the car’s electric range. Audi claims to be the first car maker to use a heat pump on a production plug-in hybrid.
It also says there’s an EV-only range of 34 miles from the battery pack, plus, thanks to a substantial 75-litre fuel tank, another 835 miles’ range from the combustion engine. This car also gets Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, a digital instrument cluster that is configurable to show different screens and graphic displays.
But the big advance on this car is the way Audi’s Navigation Plus system and the in-car internet hot spot are both connected to the hybrid drivetrain’s management system. When the driver enters a new destination, the nav system uses route and live traffic information – via the web – to automatically switch the drivetrain between internal combustion, hybrid and pure EV modes depending on the driving conditions.
This ‘Predictive Efficiency’ programme switches between the powertrain modes in road distances of as little as 100ft or so. The driver is even advised when it’s a good idea to lift off the accelerator and allow the car to switch into coasting mode.
Elsewhere, adaptive air suspension and adaptive cruise control will be optional. The latter can allow a degree of autonomous driving, taking over braking, acceleration and steering on ‘well-paved roads’ at up to 40mph as long as the traffic is ‘slow-moving’.
What’s it like?
In one area, the Q7 e-tron offers a genuine breakthrough in automotive technology. Elsewhere it’s impressive but also a little disappointing.
The real breakthrough is the ‘Predictive Efficiency’ set-up. After our 100km, 90-minute test drive, Audi engineers showed us computer maps which revealed which mode the hybrid system had been using on the route.
This information showed the e-tron’s drivetrain switching between pure diesel power, hybrid, EV and ‘battery hold’ mode, which preserves battery power early in the journey because the sat-nav system ‘knows’ the route will eventually take the car along urban roads where the drivetrain will switch to pure EV mode.
There’s lots of talk about autonomy in cars, which most people interpret as the car driving itself. The Q7 e-tron introduces a system of autonomy where, for maximum efficiency, the car decides which powertrain mode to use.
The two areas where the Q7 e-tron really stands out are its engine and its cabin refinement. Even under full-bore acceleration, the V6 diesel never raises its voice above a distant, cultured hum.
Audi is claiming another world-first here. The engine sits on new mounts equipped with ‘electromagnetic oscillation coil actuators’, which counter the engine vibrations that would otherwise be fed into the car’s structure.
Cabin refinement is first rate, especially in terms of killing off wind noise. You also notice that voices from the rear seats come across to the front seat passengers completely clearly, which is rare even in bespoke executive cars. Full-bore performance can also be briskly satisfying, which is not surprising when there’s a 516lb ft torque peak with both engines engaged.
However, the Q7 e-tron has both an all wheel drive transmission and a biggish battery pack on board, meaning it weighs in at two and a half tonnes without passengers. As out test drive showed, having three substantial adults in the cabin means the e-tron isn’t always as roaringly rapid as the raw figures might suggest.
Rather less satisfactory were some aspects of the e-tron’s handling. It runs straight and fast on motorways and picks its way through narrow village streets with great ease. But on some of the fast, sweeping bends we encountered outside Madrid, it was less happy.
Set the car up for a long corner and the Q7 runs into it and allows noticeable body roll to build up. But once the driver unwinds the lock as the car exits the bend, the e-tron struggles to settle itself into the new trajectory.
As the direction of body roll reverses, the chassis takes a second or two to right itself, which it eventually does in a rather untidy, top-heavy manner. My instinct was that this must be at least partly caused by having a 225kg battery pack balanced so high up over the rear axle.
As you’d expect, the Q7’s interior is a masterclass in fit, finish and premium design. But the front of the cabin is snug rather than generously spacious and the digital instrument pack is tilted slightly downwards, away from the driver. It is also packed out with too many small displays and mini graphic clusters. Although the boot is claimed to offer a 650-litre volume (and there’s a good amount of floor area) it is quite shallow once the luggage cover is deployed.
Finally, the switch between braking gently using the electric motor in the transmission and full-on stopping power via the hydraulic system was hard to gauge, and bringing the wheel brakes in required more pedal force than was instinctive.
The test route covered 60 miles, with a mix of motorway, fast A-roads, a winding hill route and small villages. With a fully charged battery and the Predictive Assistance in charge, we covered 21 miles of it using the diesel engine at 51mpg and 39 miles on the battery, using 12.2 kWh of battery energy.
Should I buy one?Judging by the popularity of Mitsubishi’s Outlander PHEV crossover, there’s clearly a willing market for green-tinged SUVs. And in defence of the e-tron, it is greener than most, especially when equipped with the ground-breaking Predictive Assistance system.
What seems to be a real-world 34 miles of EV range would allow much of many people’s day-to-day driving to be completed on the battery alone. Longer journeys would probably seem that much shorter thanks to the cabin and engine refinement, and who could argue with a big SUV that switches to battery power when passing through towns and villages?
It’s not a car for driving enthusiasts, but in the wake of the diesel emissions scandal, the Q7 e-tron looks like the upmarket family car of the future. Its hefty price might well be a significant drag on sales, but Predictive Assistance looks like the future of day-to-day driving.
Audi Q7 e-tron
Location Madrid; On sale December 2015; Price £65,000 (est); Engine V6, 2967cc, diesel, plus electric motor; Power 369bhp (total); Torque 516lb ft (total); Kerb weight 2445kg; Gearbox 8-spd automatic; 0-62mph 6.0sec; Top speed 135mph; Economy 166.2mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 50g/km, 8%
What is it?