FIRST DRIVE: Audi SQ7
Thor's got nothing on this...
The latest Audi Q7 is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s absolutely enormous, seats seven people and has more equipment than you could shake an equipment laden stick at, but on our first drive back in January we declared that, as good as it was, it lacked something. It was just a little bit bland, as if it could have been much more.
It is more now. So much more. That’s due, at least in part, to the shoehorning of the world’s most powerful production diesel engine under the bonnet. As well as a traditional engine there’s some high-tech electrical wizardry going on, all of which combines to create a 2.4-tonne monster than can rocket from zero to 62 mph in a supercar-worrying 4.9 seconds.
It’s the engine that provides most of the performance, obviously. It’s a 4.0-litre V8 diesel that is boosted by not one but two turbochargers. These operate in a pretty conventional way, but if you’ve no interest in how stuff works, head to the next paragraph. As the engine revs rise, the first turbo starts to spin and force extra air in to the engine. This smaller turbo works at low revs, but soon gets swamped by power demands so, as the revs rise further, gives up and lets the bigger second turbocharger do the work. The theory is that the lag you get with a single turbo is reduced, as the smaller turbine will work at lower revs and gets up to speed more quickly.
That wasn’t enough though, so Audi let its engineers get the really big toolbox out who then developed an electrically powered air compressor. Effectively an electric turbo, this reacts to throttle inputs almost instantly, using battery power to force air into the combustion chamber before either of the real turbos can get there, providing near instant power.
This is possible thanks to the second innovation in the SQ7 – a 48-volt electrical system. Bear with me again, this is going to get ever so slightly technical. Moving from a 12-volt system that is found in every car on sale to a 48V system doesn’t sound very exciting to anybody but an electrician, but it means that the SQ7 can cope with high-power requirements without the need for heavy wiring looms that prevent a loss of energy, and happily bypass the serious risk of catastrophic fire.
It’s the same reason that your house runs at 240V and not 60V. By switching up to 48V there’ll be useable power for all sorts of systems such as electric heating, mild hybrid power, autonomous driving and active suspension.
Active suspension isn’t a thing for the future, although it does remain an option on the SQ7. Naturally, the launch vehicles were fully loaded with extras, which includes active suspension, or rather an electro-mechanical anti-roll system – the same system that you’ll find on the Bentley Bentayga. It uses a couple of electric motors to engage and twist anti-roll bars when you’re taking to twisty roads, but decouples entirely when you’re just cruising along.
This ensures there’s virtually zero body roll in corners, something that’s quite handy when there’s that much metal above the wheels. Combine that with a sports-tuned four-wheel-drive system with torque vectoring, four-wheel steering and variable dampers and it starts to make the laws of physics seem rather redundant.
It clings to the road thanks to tyres close to a foot wide, shod on 21-inch wheels. You lose an inch on the standard wheels, or you can choose to upgrade to monster 22-inch rims. It’s only when you reach the largest size that ride quality starts to suffer.
When all those electronic bits work together, the SQ7 follows a line far more accurately than anything this side of a freight train, although the weighting on the steering is oddly inconsistent. The optional carbon-ceramic brakes are more than capable of bringing the juggernaut to a stop repeatedly, with no sign of fade, but I do wonder how standard steel discs would fare.
It might sound rather like the SQ7 is a hard-edged and seriously focussed sports car wrapped up in an SUV body, and there’s certainly an element of truth to that. However, turn the driving dynamics dial from Dynamic to Comfort and the car settles down to become an impressively luxurious cruiser. The exhaust that rumbles and growls enticingly under enthusiastic motoring fades away to a murmur, the suspension softens a little and the steering loses some of the heft you get when pushing on.
There’s no need to make any effort yourself when wafting, as the huge wave of torque from the V8 engine up front keeps things moving with little effort – there’s an astonishing 900Nm available, more than you’ll find in a BMW X5 M50d or Range Rover Sport SDV8. However, with two turbochargers and one electric compressor, there’s sometimes a hesitation under power where it feels like the compressor hands over to the small turbo, then in turn to the larger turbo.
That aside, you’re left to relax in one of the finest cabins on the market. The design and quality is second to none, while an extensive equipment list means the only options you’ll be looking at are those that make the Audi go even faster. You get the all-digital customisable instrument panel that works well, and there’s seemingly no end to the safety kit that’s fitted; I’ve yet to run out of road in the SQ7, but I imagine you’ll have to be going some to bend this Audi.
Add in the sixth and seventh seats to make the school run a breeze, something you don’t get as standard in the SQ7’s obvious rivals, and you get an astonishingly capable yet genuinely practical car.
It’s a behemoth that measures more than five metres in length, produces enough CO2 to ensure the car won’t be welcome at a Greenpeace meeting, and broadcasts your wealth in one of the least subtle ways possible. It ends up being awe-inspiring yet offensive at the same time, an answer to a question that nobody has had the nerve to ask.
And none of that matters. As unnecessary as the Audi SQ7 is, it ends up being spectacularly good. I’m just working out what the question is I need to ask to make the SQ7 the answer.
Motoring powered by FrontSeatDriver.co.uk