SOSSUSVLEI, Namibia — The navigation system on our 2016 Audi Q7 says we’re some 5,000 miles from the company’s headquarters in Ingolstadt, Germany. With typical German thoroughness, it tries to map out a route. “Route guidance begins now. Caution: Road block near Lake Chad and again near Orange-Senqu.”
Yes, we’re a long way from home. Far from anywhere, really. Over the course of two days, we count only 23 other vehicles — 22 pickups and one courageous Volkswagen Polo. There aren’t really any towns, hardly any accommodations, and only two eateries. Water? If you don’t bring it, you’re in trouble. Noontime highs are around 110 degrees.
A slimmer Plain Jane
Dramatic as our surroundings are, the 2016 Audi Q7 looks rather ordinary. You know when someone loses a lot of weight but still wears drab, old clothes, making it hard to tell any change at all? Well, the Audi Q7 shed some 700 pounds on a diet of aluminum, high-strength steel, titanium, magnesium, and man-made fibers, but still looks for all the world like a boring family crossover.
“After two and a half years, I am slowly beginning to like it” is the not-quite-ringing endorsement from one of Audi’s own bigwigs.
If only the cabin functioned with as much elegance. The gear selector, when pushed forward all the way, no longer selects park but reverse. The “park” button is integrated in the joystick like in a BMW and will, like a BMW, frustrate many new owners. The touchpad in the center console has approximately doubled in size compared with the one in the A6 and A8, but the click-wheel controller is correspondingly smaller and tougher to access. Operating the multi-function steering wheel and the three column stalks will, to some users, be a science of its own. Part of the problem is that truly breakthrough technologies are being reserved for next year’s A8, leaving this cabin as a kind of in-between solution.
On the bright side, voice control is no longer a frustrating guessing game. The 2016 Audi Q7 can cope with straight talk like, “Where is the next filling station?” “I would like to speak to Fred,” or “Take me to a burger place.” Unfortunately, burgers in the Namibian desert still wear their fur coats.
Hitting the desert trails
We set off after breakfast, driving in a convoy led by Audi R&D chief Ulrich Hackenberg. The days were filled with driving, talking, taking notes, and stopping to swap cars. We drove both gas and diesel versions of the 2016 Audi Q7. The gas engine is Audi’s familiar supercharged 3.0-liter V-6, tuned to be smoother and more efficient. Putting out 333 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque, it helps the five-seat version of the Q7 sprint to 62 mph in 6.1 seconds before topping out at 155 mph. It also returns 31 mpg combined on the (often optimistic) European cycle. It’s a responsive and smooth engine, perfect for gunning around a city. Out here in the sticks, however, we prefer the Caterpillar-like character of the diesel. The 3.0-liter puts down 443 lb-ft of torque, along with 272 hp, and sips diesel as if it were espresso: 41 mpg, combined, on the European cycle. Even on the rough and rocky desert trails of Namibia, the on-board computer didn’t dip below 20 mpg. At the same time, the Q7 TDI requires only 6.3 seconds to reach 62 mph and runs out of speed at 146 mph.
Both engines rely on an eight-speed automatic to send power to the axles. The normal torque split is a mildly tail-happy 40:60, but if conditions require it, the front end can take up to 70 percent of torque while the rear can cope with up to 85 percent. The center differential is supported by ABS and stability control, which keep the big crossover in line by ever so slightly decelerating the wheels closest to the apex.
Soon enough, Audi will also roll out a 252-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder, an entry-level diesel, and a brawny twin-turbo 4.0-liter, 408-hp diesel. Perhaps the most interesting engine will be the V-6 diesel hybrid that musters a combined 373 hp. It scores the equivalent of 138 mpg on the European cycle. In the land of springboks, oryx, and impalas, fuel is much easier to source than a socket, so testing the hybrid must wait until summer.
Svelte and smooth
With a lower curb weight — around 4,350 pounds — lower center of gravity, and redesigned suspension, the Q7 feels positively transformed. In tight bends it still carries too much mass and inertia, but overall, it turns in with notably more verve, corners with less body roll, and holds the road with greater determination. Stability control can never be fully disabled, but we’re still able to get loose on the dusty, unpaved roads and charge through 50-mph corners with a tad of opposite lock, transitioning smoothly from mild understeer to mild oversteer.
Actual Q7 buyers will be happy to know the big SUV still tracks straight as an arrow at high speeds and rides very well even over a surface that Hackenberg describes as “golf balls embedded in liquid soap.” An optional air suspension improves the ride further and can lower the car by 1.2 inches at speed or raise it up by 2.4 inches for traversing the toughest terrain. LP-size steel brake rotors are totally up to the job of slowing the SUV. (The upcoming S Q7 will offer carbon-ceramic rotors.)
First-world tech in tough terrain
The Namibian outback is not an ideal part of the world to check out driver aids. Lane-keeping assist does not matter where there are no clearly defined lanes, cross-traffic alerts aren’t needed, and there aren’t any crowded shopping malls in which we could try out the automated parking.
The neatest semi-autonomous technology on the 2016 Audi Q7 may be its predictive efficiency assistant. Adaptive cruise control works with Google Maps and traffic-sign recognition technology to avoid unnecessary acceleration and braking maneuvers. Cool, but keep in mind that accessing all that data can cost a whole lot more than gasoline unless you have a flat-rate plan.
Switching between differently equipped vehicles, three extras emerged as particularly desirable: the adaptive LED headlights (which may not be legal for the U.S. market), the top-of-the-line 18-way seats, and the head-up display.
Done and dusted
We returned at dusk, shaken and stirred, faces dusted with the Namib desert’s finest red sand. The cars appeared to be in better shape, and the TDI still had more than half a tank after our 220-mile loop. But the team leader reported three casualties. In addition to broken air-conditioning, a front axle had suffered from playing Evil Knievel in the dunes, and a flooded ford dislodged an underbody protection panel.
After this rough journey, we have full appreciation of the 2016 Audi Q7’s merits. Merits such as more shoulder room and 31.4 cubic feet of luggage space behind the rear seat in five-passenger models, good all-round visibility (further enhanced by an available set of six surround-view cameras), and adjustable rear seats.
Then there’s the dramatic loss of weight and the effect it has on vehicle dynamics. The Audi Q7 has cushiest and quietest ride in its segment and no longer loses interest at the first sight of a corner. Together with the exquisite creature comforts, these talents qualify the Q7 as a truly cossetting long-distance cruiser.
Having said all that, the 2016 Audi Q7 is not an easy car to fall in love with. It doesn’t look great, and its fully loaded instrument panel is a bit of an overkill exercise. Before buying one, cross-shop a few of those siblings from other brands, specifically the less expensive 2016 Touareg and purportedly prettier and sportier 2017 Cayenne. But if you need lots of space, occasionally leave the beaten track, or just want a supremely cozy big crossover, the 2016 Audi Q7 is a perfectly worthwhile option.
2016 Audi Q7 Specifications
|3.0L supercharged DOHC 24-valve V-6/333 hp @ 5,500-6,500 rpm, 325 lb-ft @ 2,900-5,300 rpm; 3.0L turbodiesel DOHC
24-valve V-6/272 hp @ 3,250-4,250 rpm, 443 lb-ft @ 1,500-3,000 rpm
|4-door, 5- or 7-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
|25-38/33-44 mpg city/hwy
|L x W x H:
|198.9 x 77.5 x 68.5 in