What is it?
This is the second-generation Audi Q7 in pre-production form. We’ve been invited to Namibia to join Audi development boss Ulrich Hackenberg and a team of Ingolstadt engineers on their last validation drive in extreme conditions on a mixture of course-chip bitumen, gravel roads, rocky trails and sandy tracks before the SUV heads into UK showrooms at a starting price of £50,340.
Departing in every area of construction from its predecessor, the new Q7 is the first model to be based around Audi’s new, second-generation MLB platform. The multi-material structure is also earmarked to underpin upcoming successor models to the second-generation Porsche Cayenne and Volkswagen Touareg as well as the eagerly awaited Bentley Bentayga and a whole new generation of Audi models, including next year’s all-new A4.
Audi says the new platform offers far greater modularity than the older MLB structure and is key to a significant 325kg reduction in kerb weight over the first-generation Q7 thanks to the use of of hot formed steel and aluminium within the body, a heavily revised suspension featuring a greater number of aluminium components and the adoption of aluminium doors.
Up close, the new Q7 appears to be a fair bit smaller and generally less imposing than its predecessor, almost like high-riding estate with oversized wheel houses. These impressions are backed up by the dimensions. At 5050mm in length, 1970mm in width and 1741mm in height, the new Q7 is 370mm shorter and 15mm narrower than the outgoing model while sharing the same height.
The wheelbase has also been reduced, but only by 10mm at 2990mm, while the tracks are increased by 29mm and 11mm respectively front and rear to 1679mm and 1691mm.
You won’t have any trouble distinguishing Ingolstadt’s flagship SUV from its many competitors. Key styling cues, such as the bold single-frame grille, have been retained, although the surfacing treatment is now tauter than before, giving the new Q7 a more athletic look. Numerous crease lines within the flanks also give the impression that it sits closer to the ground.
A series of new aerodynamic refinements, including extensive underbody cladding to smooth air flow and a grille with flaps that automatically close to reduce wind turbulence when engine bay cooling is not required, have also netted the new Q7 a impressive drag co-efficient of 0.32.
The changes inside are even more far reaching than those outside. As part of Audi’s effort to provide the Q7, which goes under the internal codename AU536, with a more upmarket positioning, it gains a high, contemporarily styled dashboard with an optional 12.3in digital instrument panel offering various displays, minimal switchgear and a retractable 8.3in infotainment monitor.
It is combined with a prominent centre console that houses a stubby gear lever and newly designed MMI multimedia controller, among other switchgear. The cars may be billed as pilot production prototypes but the quality throughout is outstanding, with leather, metal and soft plastic surfaces.
A generous amount of seat adjustment provides the new Q7 with a wide range of driving positions. Visibility is excellent, helped by the repositioning of the exterior mirrors from the front quarter window to arms attached to the doors. On first acquaintance the dashboard appears to sit too low and the centre console too high, almost as if Audi’s designers wanted to give it a sportscar-style feel.
Before we set off, though, we climb into the rear of the new Audi and discover added space all round. Despite the subtle reduction in external dimensions, the new Q7 offers greater rear accommodation with worthwhile improvements in both leg and head room.
All models destined for the UK will come as standard with a third row of seats, providing seating for up to seven in all. Getting into the two rearmost seats is made easier than before by a second row that now tilts further forward. There is sufficient room for adults under six feet tall, and as we would discover later, the seats offer enough comfort for them not to be restricted to short-journey use.
With seven occupants there are a nominal 295 litres of luggage space, or 770 litres when the third row of seats is automatically folded away into the somewhat high-set floor of the boot via a button. With the second row of seats folded away, there are 1955 litres of capacity on offer.
What’s it like?
We head off on a 300-mile loop through the Namib Desert in a Q7 3.0 TDI – the model Audi expects to garner the majority of sales. With 268bhp and generous 442lb ft on tap, it is authoritatively brisk with plenty of low-end urge and a nice smooth nature. There is excellent throttle response and sufficient flexibility through the mid-range to endow the new Audi with effortless performance up to and beyond UK speed limits.
Audi claims a 0-62mph time of 6.5sec and a 145mph top speed. Subjectively, it feels quicker. You sense the wholesale reduction in weight almost immediately out on the open road. Overall, the new Q7 feels significantly more fleet-footed and a lot more eager than its predecessor on the run.
The standard eight-speed gearbox, sourced from German transmission specialist ZF, comes with a range of revised ratios which allow the engine to operate at lower revs than in the previous model. This brings improved economy and reduced emissions without sacrificing overall accelerative ability or in-gear performance in any way.
Official figures point to 47.9mpg and a CO2 rating of 153g/km. As part of the focus on weight, Audi has once again decided not to offer the Q7 with the low-range transfer case.
Running at typical motorway speeds with little more than 2000rpm showing on the rev counter along arrow-straight desert roads, the engine is superbly isolated from the cabin and remarkably free of vibration for a diesel.
A noticeable reduction in wind buffeting around the repositioned exterior mirrors and excellent insulation of road noise completes an impressive performance on refinement and acoustic qualities for the big new Audi. Front and rear occupants can converse at all times without ever having to raise their voices.
Another significant improvement is the ride, which is much more controlled and offers outstanding rolling refinement across a wider range of speeds in Comfort mode than before. With aluminium now used within the front suspension strut towers and other areas of the floorpan, the second-generation Q7 benefits greatly from an overall increase in structural rigidity.
Riding on the optional air springs fitted to each of the various prototypes we drove in Namibia, the new Audi swallowed most bumps and transverse ridges with tremendous conviction. It also isolates road shock with far greater authority than the old Q7, bringing a polished smoothness to its on-road character even in the worst of driving conditions.
Switching into Dynamic mode brings noticeably firmer damping and a reduction in wheel travel, although happily the inherent control and compliance provided by the reworked underpinnings remains part and parcel of the driving experience.
Along with the giant strides made in ride quality, the new Q7 also handles with impressive poise, helped by a 50mm reduction in the centre of gravity and a thoroughly redesigned suspension set-up boasting greater adjustment in terms of camber control. With a direct nature to its electro-mechanical steering and outstanding body control, the big Audi is sufficient wieldy to engage the driver over challenging roads in its sportier mode.
A new four-wheel steering system, which will come as an option on models bound for the UK, provides up to five degrees of opposite turn at low speeds for a one-metre reduction in the turning circle over the first-generation Q7, along with greater manoeuvrability around town.
At higher speeds, the system offers up to two degrees of parallel turn to improve stability. Spearing along at high speeds on the gravel roads outside Geluk proves the worth of the new system, which greatly enhances longitudinal consistency over the bumpy surface.
Given the conditions and the fact that the prototypes were running on all-terrain tyres, the grip levels also proved outstanding. In normal conditions the torque sensing quattro four-wheel drive system apportions the drive in a 40% front, 60% rear split, but it has been programmed to send up to 85% to the rear when required.
Heading off-road over rocks and sand, the Q7 made a pretty decent account of itself. But without the ground clearance and low-range gearing of some rivals, it is clearly focused more towards on-road driving than the rough stuff. Hackenberg hints that an off-road package will be offered at some point.
Should I buy one?
Smooth, quiet, spacious, reasonably quick, economical and engaging to drive, the new Q7 is noticeably improved in every area. But with the luxury SUV ranks already crowded with a whole armada of rivals, and with new arrivals such as the Jaguar F-Pace not far off, the new Audi is clearly going to have its work cut out emulating the outstanding success of its predecessor, which has so far hauled in over 500,000 sales in the 10 years it has been on sale.
Even so, those that do opt for the big Audi will undoubtedly find it to be a very capable car, even in the harshest of driving conditions.
Audi Q7 3.0 TDI
Location Namibia; On sale August; Price £50,340; Engine V6, 2967cc, turbodiesel; Power 268bhp at 3250rpm; Torque 442lb ft at 1500rpm; Gearbox 8-spd automatic; Kerb weight 2060kg; Top speed 145mph; Economy 47.9mpg; 0-62mph 6.5sec; CO2 emissions and tax band 153g/km, 28%
What is it?