Audi goes to the front of the Q
IN the land of the jumbo SUV, few are more jumbo than Audi's mighty Q7, writes William Scholes.
The first Q7, which hove into view in 2006, might have been sized just right for the US audience which was its main target but that meant it felt particularly super-sized on our puny Irish roads, as if something very large - Rathlin Island, say - had been put on wheels and wrapped in a fat suit.
But cars like the Q7 - the Volvo XC90, BMW X5 and Land Rover Discovery among them - are the answer to questions posed by a discerning section of the motoring public.
Three rows of seats means you can carry five adults and two children (or five adults you like and in the third row two you don't) and still have a reasonable boot; the elevated driving position means you get the clear view out that drivers and passengers increasingly crave; and premium nameplates mean you get the same high quality and image associated with the brands' more established products.
The Q7 was an undoubted hit for Audi, and the company thought long and hard before replacing it.
The recently-landed second generation Q7 is still massive, though a (slightly) lower stance and estate car-like proportions mean it disguises its bulk more effectively than the original car, if without the restraint and cool elegance of Volvo's benchmark XC90.
It is slightly smaller on the outside - it's lighter, too - but manages the trick of also managing to be larger on the inside than the car it has replaced.
The Q7 runs the Volvo close in the interior stakes, as one would expect from Audi.
If anything, the quality of the materials is superior even to the XC90 and no-one obsesses about the subtle arts of dial clicking, switch damping and knob twisting quite like Audi.
Every detail - from the texture of the leather on the steering wheel to the fillets of steel used to trim parts of the cabin - is exquisitely wrought.
Such are the stellar standards that the company has set itself, it can feel that the Q7 is simply home to a particularly well executed Audi interior.
Optional 'virtual dashboard' aside - which we have seen already in other Audi and Volkswagen models - there is no real wow factor; Volvo, on the other hand, has sufficiently rethought the XC90's cabin - including the palette of colours and large portrait-orientated touchscreen - to make it stand out.
Ultimately, whether the Q7 or XC90 interior gets your nod will be a matter of personal taste - both are superb - but suffice it to say that both easily best the BMW X5 and Land Rover's Discovery and Range Rover Sport offerings.
As with the Volvo, the middle bench in the Q7 is generously proportioned and more than up to the task of ferrying burly adults, as well as hosting three Isofix children's seats.
Access to the rear-most row of seats is easy, too, and the seats, while naturally smaller than those in the middle, offer tolerable adult accommodation for shorter journeys. My team of junior testers said they preferred the Volvo's airier and lighter-hued back seats.
Boot space is a healthy 295 litres with all seven seats in use, swelling to a ginormous 1,955 litres when they are all folded, with every combination of seat-to-luggage in between.
The Volvo, meanwhile, has a bigger seven-up boot, at 451 litres, though its maximum capacity of 1,868 litres is a little less than the Audi's.
On the move the Q7, as with its XC90 thorn in the side, strikes a really well-judged air of refinement, luxury and comfort. If you demand sportier dynamics from your large SUV, the BMW X5, Porsche Cayenne or Range Rover Sport offer a sharper drive.
Volvo has committed itself to using four-cylinder engines. In isolation this makes solid sense and, indeed, the XC90 has little to apologise about.
But compared to the Q7's mighty 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine, a layout Audi has by now perfected, the Volvo lacks a little in the effortless grunt and smoothness departments. The Audi's gearbox works more smoothly, too.
Taken together, it means the Q7 barrels along with a feeling of unflappable indestructibility, cocooning its occupants in leather-clad comfort; it's a lovely car in which to tackle long distances, especially in treacherous conditions.
Superb LED headlights - another area in which Audi leads the industry - are a huge plus point. The Q7 is laden with safety tech, but strong headlamps are, in my view, among the best of all safety aids.
The Q7, then, is enormously likeable.That it is lighter, more discreet and cheaper to run than the previous Q7 is a bonus.
Beautifully built, comfortable and luxurious, and blessed with a greater turn of speed than you might imagine, it slots right in at the top of the jumbo SUV class.
For me, however, it doesn't quite topple the XC90. Beside the slick Swede, the Audi looks slightly frumpy. Nor is its interior quite as useful or as well thought out.
The Volvo is possibly the best new car I've driven this year; that the Q7 runs it so close is quite an achievement.
At a glance
Audi Q7 3.0 TDI S line 272PS
Price: £54,540. As tested £63,390. Options included pearl effect paint £675, parking assist pack £1,150, heat/sound insulating glass £525, memory function for driver's electrically adjustable seat £350, matrix LED headlamps £950, technology pack £1,950, panoramic glass roof £1,700, rear side airbags £350, heated, folding and electrically adjustable mirrors £100, 3D sound system upgrade £1,100
Engine and transmission: 3.0-litre six-cylinder diesel turbo, eight-speed automatic gearbox, quattro four-wheel-drive; 268bhp, 443lb/ft
Performance: Top speed 145mph, 0-62mph in 6.5 seconds
Fuel consumption: 47.9mpg (EU combined); 39.8mpg (real world)
CO2, road tax, benefit in kind: 153g/km - £185 annually - 30 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (94/88/70/71)