I am once again barreling down Route 1 north of San Francisco. Dive bombing hairpins. Rotating the chassis with throttle. Aggressively straight-lining S-curves. The manufacturers of performance cars like Alfa’s 4C or VW’s GTI love to test here because it highlights handling under extreme conditions.
Except this feels weird. This is no car. This is a 5,000-pound, mid-size Audi Q7 SUV.
Volkswagen Group oversees a diverse portfolio including VW, Audi, Porsche, and Lamborghini — with performance DNA running through them all. Last year, I did back-to-back test programs through San Diego’s formidable Cuyamaca Mountains. First in a hot hatch 292-horsepower VW Golf R, then in a 4,600-pound Porsche Cayenne family SUV. The SUV didn’t suck.
Inside every Cayenne, of course, there is a $100k 911 track star trying to get out. The Q7 is no Porsche, but at $20k less than its Stuttgart cousin, the biggest Audi of them all represents a brand of fit, versatile athletes. With its 2017 model, the Q7 is finally on its own MLB platform — independent of the skeleton once shared with the Cayenne and VW Touareg — and free to do whatever it wants. Which is just about everything.
So technically capable is Q7 that it might have been designed by Q, James Bond’s legendary guru of gadgets.
At scenic overlooks along the coastal highway I was as inclined to ogle the 3D Google Earth rendering in the 12.3-inch “virtual cockpit” display as I was to look out the window at Mother Nature’s original. Powered by a quad-core processor from Silicon Valley icon Nvidia (just ask your video-game playing kid), the map image is mind-boggling in its rendering of the road ahead. It’s the best tech show this side of Tesla’s 17-inch “iPad” display, plus — thanks to a Google partnership — it suffers none of Tesla’s screen lag.
It’s the same display I’ve drooled over in the Audi TT coupe, yet the bigger Q7 twins the driver display with an 8.3-inch screen that rises from the dash — powered by a second Nvidia chip.
Google Earth in stereo! (I paired them to show different fields of view — one close, one wide.) Everything I need to attack the asphalt is in technicolor before me: Map, arrows for next turns, speed limits along the route.
I should have paid more attention to that “55 mph speed limit” icon.
A California state trooper nailed me doing 67 over a Route 1 brow. California is notorious for handing out speeding citations the size of your mortgage payment, but this officer let me off. Perhaps it was the holiday season. Or he was impressed seeing a three-row SUV destroying Route 1’s twisties. Whatever. Thanks, officer. To avoid further trouble, I activated Adaptive Cruise Control.
“Bond, this isn’t your average Adaptive Cruise Control.”
“Of course not. Show me how it works, Q.”
The cruise stalk sticks out of the steering column to the southwest. Together with two shifter paddles, turning and light stalks, the column looks like a mechanical porcupine. A very smart porcupine. Add wheel-mounted cockpit controls and the vehicle is at your fingertips.
I set adaptive cruise at 60 mph and was back on my way. Mind you, I have never used ACC on anything other than an interstate, much less a Pacific two-lane with more twists than an Agatha Christie novel. But where your average adaptive cruise monitors vehicles in front of you, the Audi system uses GPS toread the road. As I steered, Q7 approached a hairpin — waaaay too fast, I thought — then suddenly assisted me in braking for the curve. Nail the exit and the system smoothly accelerated again before backing off the throttle as I headed down a steep downhill sweeper. Whoa.
My mind flooded with thoughts: Is this the glorious future of self-driving cars? Or an Orwellian dystopia where government uses GPS to enforce strict speed limits? And . . . if this nimble Q7 is so @#!!** high-tech, how come it couldn’t detect that cop’s radar a few miles back?!
Q also automatically brakes for pedestrians, has lane-keep assist, and automatic high beams and Apple Car Play and Android Auto and . . . .
And so does the 2016 North American SUV of the Year nominee Honda Pilot. At $20 grand less.
The truth is that digital technology is no longer the slam dunk for luxury brands that it once was. Smart phone tech is cheap and flooding mainstream vehicle consoles. Sure the new Q7 boasts WOW! features that save you from turning in front of an oncoming car, but they will surely be in mainstream utes in a couple of years.
Nor do engines and trannies separate first-class from coach anymore. Witness the Ford Explorer’s twin-turbo V6 with 365 ponies that goes toe-to-toe with the Q7’s 330-horsepower V-6 unit. Or the Pilot’s 9-speed, fuel-sipping tranny versus the Audi’s 8-speed box.
Nor are luxury interiors exclusive penthouses anymore. The $47,300 Pilot Elite in my driveway recently matches the $72,750 Audi with heated-leather steering wheel, heated-and-cooled leather seats, full moon roof. Indeed, the Honda’s more ergonomically-friendly console will have Audi soccer moms’ teeth gnashing with envy. Where Audi over-engineers the console with a laborious rotary dial and redundant touch pad to access the screen, the Pilot efficiently offers a touchscreen, more storage space and an ingenious, sliding console door where the ladies can keep a handbag for easy access.
The Pilot’s one-button third-row seat access shames Q’s difficult, two-step process. And Audi’s rear versatility is positively pedestrian compared to the Ford Explorer’s kick-me-to-open, configurable rear hatch.
No, the big investment in luxury nowadays is in chassis and style.
You crave the Audi’s hatchback-like handling even if it gets you through 5 p.m. Oakland County traffic in the same time as the common, perfectly-adequate, AWD Pilot. Dude, the Q7 has rear-wheel steering and goes zero-60 in 5.7! And that 3D virtual cockpit is so Star Wars! The Honda’s exterior is elegant, but the Audi looks like it was sculpted by Rodin himself — its creased corners echoing that Audi TT you crave if you didn’t have three rows of rugrats to get to soccer practice.
The Q7 is Bond’s SUV. The Honda Pilot is a family ute. Rolex vs. Timex. Image matters. You don’t know why a Q7 should handle like a Q3, but you admire it for trying.
I can’t wait until Audi makes a pickup truck . . . and invites us out on Route 1 to push its limits.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com.
’17 Audi Q7
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, seven-passenger SUV
Price: $55,750 ($72,750 as tested)
Power plant: 3.0-liter, supercharged V-6
Power: 333 horsepower, 325 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.7 seconds (manufacturer); 130 mph top speed; 7,700 pound towing capacity
Weight: 4,938 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy 19 city/25 highway/21 combined
Highs: Sculpted good looks; Driver-centric virtual cockpit
Lows: Cluttered console; Balky third-row seat entry