Tiny bits of gravel crunch and pop under our tires as we roll across a hard-packed dirt path, just outside of Ingolstadt. Traffic is bad, really bad; a midweek holiday and long weekend have conspired to pack Germany's usually efficient autobahn tighter than an Oktoberfest biergarten. So we're taking backroads on the return to Munich, which doesn't really explain why we're on a mostly deserted bike path -- or what happens next.
At a shaded T-intersection, we slow to a stop to check for pedestrians and pedalers. A well-dressed gentlemen Schwinns in from the left, posture stiffening as he catches sight of us. With a baleful glare and all the bile he can muster, the man spits out, "Prick!" as he zooms by.
Hey, mein freund, don't blame me, the nav lady said it was okay.
Audi's U.S. P.R. flack, who shall remain nameless because he's, ahem, cackling in the seat behind me, tells me that our bike path jihad probably wasn't the only issue. Dieter's dander likely was up because much of the German population despises the Q7.
Turns out that, to a country obsessed with engineering and efficiency, the Audi Q7 represents all that is wrong with the rest of the world. No matter how smoothly styled or LED illuminated, the porpoise-proportioned, seven-passenger, V-8-powered, gas-sucking SUV screams supersize fatuosity auf Deutsch.
Perhaps that explains why Audi is completely reformulating its Q7 petrol powertrain strategy for 2011. Bid aufwiedersehen to the 4.2-liter V-8 and 3.6-liter V-6 engines; all gas-powered Q7s will now come equipped with an all-new supercharged, direct-injection V-6 engine in either a high- or low-output configuration mated to a slick new eight-speed Tiptronic transmission.
This new strategy simply reeks of clever engineering. Though two engine outputs are on offer, they are the result of two different states of tune applied to the same engine. This one hardware/two output approach saves Audi vast sums of money, which it clearly dumped into powertrain development.
Based on the modular V-6 Audi uses worldwide, the new engine is known as the 3.0 TFSI -- or three-liter, turbocharged fuel-stratified injection. That's a bit of a misnomer since it isn't a turbocharger buried in the six-cylinder's 90-degree V-angle, but a Roots-type supercharger and intercooler. Audi aficionados will already recognize the high-output version of this engine as the same 333-horsepower supercharged V-6 found in the 2010 Audi S4 and S5 Cabriolet. Though it's down some 17 horsepower to the 4.2-liter V-8 it replaces in the Q7, the high-output 3.0 TFSI makes the same amount of torque (325 pound-feet) and is substantially lighter and more efficient -- to the tune of 22 mpg combined on the EU fuel-economy cycle. For a seven-passenger SUV, that is a pretty bold claim, so we'll have to wait for our own EPA numbers when Q7s arrive this fall. To ensure it remains distinct as the 4.2-liter V-8 replacement, the high-output Q7 will have a "supercharged" badge applied on the lower front fender and will feature the S-line exterior package (front and rear bumper treatments and side sills) as standard. Entry level Q7s get a lower-output version of the 3.0 TFSI making 272 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. That is eight fewer ponies but 29 more pound-feet of torque than the naturally aspirated 3.6-liter VR6 engine it replaces, also with far better fuel economy, says Audi.
To further improve efficiency, all Q7s will receive the same eight-speed Tiptronic found on the A8. Gear ratio spread has been increased to 7.25:1 over the eight forward gears, which Audi claims minimizes jumps in engine rpm and keeps it closer to optimum running speed at all times. To reduce fuel consumption at idle, start/stop function has been added as well, though it's not clear if this feature or the paddle shifters will make it to the U.S. Transmission weight has been reduced by 24.2 pounds, and the engine has been made more thermally efficient -- meaning it reaches optimum operating temperature faster. Audi claims these improvements alone result in 4-percent-better fuel economy and much better acceleration times. For the high-output Q7, Audi quotes a time of 6.9 seconds to 100 km (62 mph); for the base model, add one second. Impressive stuff for drastically smaller engines churning through two extra gears.
But what is it like to drive? Well, our route was laden with traffic and enraged pedestrians shouting expletives in foreign tongues, which means it was surprisingly similar to conditions in L.A. Handling is not appreciably better or worse than the Q7 we lived with for a year; dynamically the Q7 is an elephant in ballet shoes. Unwieldy looking, but surprisingly light on its feet. In Munich city traffic it drives small, easily squeezing through narrow country lanes and urban byways.
Neither engine is wanting for more zip. The premium Q7 might better squirt from light to light due to its torque advantage, but you don't feel a huge difference due to the smooth, but always-working, eight-speed transmission. Bounce off the gas pedal in fast-flowing traffic and you're often changing down or up faster than either the digital readout or your brain can follow. Gears one to six feel shorter than normal, while seven and eight are quite obviously nosebleed overdrives; rarely do you see eighth anywhere but on the freeway. Flooring it at roughly 70 mph sends the transmission quickly down to fifth with a bit of a kick; enough to bring bemused smiles to those who grew up with four-speed autos.
So is it a good powertrain combo? More yes than no. If Audi's efficiency claims can be backed up, these engines are just what the doctor ordered in this Brave Green World. The low-output 3.0 TFSI is just powerful enough, while the premium version will keep the absolutely corrupted satisfied. The transmission upshifts smoothly through all eight gears, so there is no problem during acceleration, but there is a bit of delay in response when coming down. Then there's the excess of it all. With such aggressive weight reduction and engine efficiency technology implemented, was it really necessary to add two extra cogs to a perfectly fine six-speed? These are the thoughts your brain will ask but not necessarily have time to answer as the eight-speed drops to the right gear.
Questions still remain. Though we found the performance of the base engine fine for stop-and-go and bike-path traffic, we never got to ring it out either in protracted full-speed/load conditions. Likewise, we'd love to be able to put Audi's impressive fuel-economy claims to the test. Looks like we'll have to wait for another shot when the cars come to this side of pond. One thing is clear: Although the German consumer may hate the Q7, Audi certainly does not. For 2011, it has chosen to make it a rolling showcase of its latest technology.
| 2011 Audi Q7 3.0T |
| Base price || $50,000-62,000 (est) |
| Vehicle layout || Front-engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door, SUV |
| Engine || 3.0L/272-333-hp/295-325-lb-ft supercharged DOHC 24-valve V-6 |
| Transmission || 8-speed automatic |
| Curb weight || 5000 lb (est) |
| Wheelbase || 118.2 in |
| Length x width x height || 200.7 x 78.1 x 68.4 in |
| 0-60 mph || 6.9-7.9 sec (mfr est) |
| EPA city/hwy fuel econ || Not yet rated |
| On sale || 40483.0 |