It was not great timing for Audi, launching an important new model while Volkswagen is embroiled in one of the biggest scandals in its history.
Not surprisingly, any questions about Dieselgate were met by Audi’s local MD, Paul Sansom, with a polite “no comment”. While it remains to be seen exactly what impact the scandal will have on the VW brands, Audi will be hoping its surge in global sales will continue. According to Sansom, the company’s global sales were up 3.5% for the year to the end of July. Unfortunately that is not quite the same in SA, with sales down 21.1%, but that might be in part because many are waiting for the arrival of the new A4 early in 2016.
Sanson says that the local operation is dialling down its pursuit of being the number one premium brand in SA in terms of sales. “We have been too aggressive,” he says. Instead, he wants to look after his dealers, customers and residual values. “We are not chasing number one, instead we are planning to be the best,” he says. One of the models it wants to be seen as the best is the new Q7. The first generation was definitely a love it or hate vehicle with 4,800 being sold in SA since its launch in 2006.
It was big and imposing and DJs and musicians around the world loved its attitude and fitted big bling wheels. Others just loved it for its space and the commanding driving position as well as its great interior. It also boasted great engines, including the superb V12 TDi which sadly has been discontinued in the new model. Sanson says the new generation has lofty ambitions to compete with the BMW X5 and Range Rover.
It is also the first to come off a new platform that will spawn the new Bentley Bentayga, new Volkswagen Touareg and the next generation Porsche Cayenne. It offers the new “Q” design language, which will also begin to filter down into other Audi models. The design is certainly less imposing than the first generation, with that high bonnet making way for something more edgy and executive.
The side profile is also more mainstream and at the rear you get plenty of neat crease lines, symmetry and a generally upmarket look, complemented further by LED taillights. It all looks less like an extrovert SUV and more like a large station wagon. This probably fits well with the positioning of the vehicle in the market. According to Sansom, the post-1994 generation rushed out to acquire automotive symbols of wealth, mainly BMW and Mercedes.
The second generation that has come through are, he says, seeking subtlety and sophistication. That is not to say that the designers back in Ingolstadt designed the Q7 for South Africans; Sansom just thinks it is the right vehicle to arrive at a time when Audi and its rivals are changing their strategies to apply more to this new generation of buyers. Under the skin the Q7 has also changed dramatically.
It has shed a massive 325kg in weight and also gets updated engines. At launch there is only the 3.0l TDI available, but in January that will be joined by a 2.0T FSI petrol motor. Both retain the eight-speed Tiptronic gearbox, with Audi interestingly not choosing to go the dual clutch DSG transmission route in the interest of channelling torque through its tried and tested box.
Drive Select, which allows you to switch between driving modes, is standard as is the legendary quattro four-wheel drive system, which can split a maximum of 70% of the torque to the front or 85% to the rear. In normal driving it splits the torque 60:40. Air suspension is also available as is all-wheel steering. There is also the option of a clever trailer assist system, which allows computers to guide the car and its trailer into a space while you only have to manage the accelerator and brake. The interior is also all new, with a huge dashboard dominated by air vents which appear to span a large part of it and which allow for 35% more air circulation.
The centre console is also much wider, in part to accommodate a bigger touchpad which allows you to input text for the satellite navigation, searching through your phone book and other features. The favourite buttons are also incorporated into the touchpad. That pad links to a new infotainment system, dubbed MIB II, which is odd because the first generation was not called MIB.
The Q7 has the option of the Virtual Cockpit display which first debuted on the TT coupe and which will be in the new A4. It allows you to change the screen in the instrument binnacle to show standard instrumentation or a full width satellite navigation map with the other information appearing in smaller formats. You can also opt for a head-up display. You can also specify an optional third row of seats.
Given that this is the flagship and with a retail price of R924, 000 it is surprising that many of the toys are optional, so you are likely to find that the specification you want will see you spending over a bar. The launch route took us to the recently established Dinokeng Reserve near Hammanskraal, a series of farms where the fences have been removed to allow game to roam freely.
Off the beaten track the Q7 performed really well. Flick the air suspension into off-road mode and it was a little bouncy on occasion and the steering required more input than expected but it showed that it has the ability to do a bit of discovering. In town or on the highways the engine proved superb with instant response, a great level of torque and decent performance.
As Lerato remarked after driving it overseas, the driving position is very different, with you sitting more in the car than being elevated in a typical SUV style. It was most apparent when driving off-road and I kept having to lean forward to see any obstacles. The new Q7 is radically different to the original.
It fits more into the mainstream and aims to compete squarely with the BMW X5 and upcoming Mercedes GLE rather than standing out. It might be too subtle for some who loved the first generation but it has a level of sophistication that will appeal to many more.
*This article first appeared on Business Day Motor News.