Australians love their SUVs. They now account for one in every three vehicles sold in the country. More than 30,000 of them are being sold each month and rising, while traditional cars have been in decline for some years.
The Audi Q7 was one of the pioneers in the category. It’s been around for almost a decade, and has perhaps played a role in helping Audi in its attempt to catch BMW as the biggest-selling overall luxury car brand in Australia.
The Q7 is one of the original “Toorak Tractors” of Melbourne or, if you live in Sydney, the “Balmain Bulldozers”: huge cars for wealthy people with an offroad capacity that’ll never be used, unless you count as “offroad” your driveway covered in imported polished gravel.
But the boom in SUV sales is also about practicality. Weekends for families nowadays are a lot about bussing the kids around to their various activities. So naturally, you buy a bus – or as close to one as a standard driving licence will allow. Increasingly, too, you get great choice in how the car looks, and something that doesn’t handle like a decommissioned T-72.
There’s a major update to the Q7 coming in the next couple of years, but it’s not going to look terribly different. It will continue to be one of the most recognisable cars on Australian roads, and also one of the most visible, because it’s so damn big.
How big? Enough to have you watching your lane alignment carefully on minor roads, because you take up so much space, at just shy of 2 metres wide and a full five metres long.
Or big enough for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who are reportedly owners of a Q7, for them and their seemingly ever-growing family.
The A7 is also the choice for top-of-the-line SUV hire cars in Australian capital cities.
Some people say driving a car this size make them feel safer. For me the feeling was more that I was encroaching on other drivers’ space, especially on pokier two-lane highways.
But on the bigger freeway lanes it’s a supremely enjoyable cruise.
A few months ago I had the chance to take a Q7 on a weekend road trip to the Hunter Valley region 200km north of Sydney. I had myself and four other guys, including two visiting from overseas, and all our luggage and the stuff we needed for a big weekend – and we had plenty of room to spare once we dropped the two back seats to open up the giant boot. The model I had was the 3.0 litre TDI. Here’s what it was like.
Close-quarter handling is awesome
With a car this size, control is everything in close maneuvering. The accelerator has a very deep “pit”: as you press down, there’s a lot of give to let you control the speed precisely and comfortably, before it finally bites and the car accelerates.
The other thing that’s super-neat is the Audi parking system. The car recognises when you’re trying to park and brings up the the front-and-rear camera views monitor on the central dash. That’s nothing too unusual in a high-end car. But it also provides little yellow guidelines that show you where the car will go based on your current steering position. Move the wheel, and the little guide lines twist around, so you can confidently line up the car into the slot. This is important for the squeaky spots in old shopping centre car parks designed when cars weren’t the size of a bull elephant.
I used the guidelines but still wound up turning my head and looking with my eyes while parking, only shifting back to the monitor for the last few inches.
On the open road, it has rock-solid handling and a nice touch of grunt
The handling is solid, reassuring, even close to pedestrian. The Q7 isn’t, after all, what you buy when you want excitement. It’s a family car, and handles suitably reliably. But when you do get a chance to gun it, it’s fun. The turbo and injection kick in, and the Q7 takes off, a reassurance that your driving something with pedigree. It roars to 100km/h without missing a beat.
A couple of warnings. Because cruising is smooth, it can be easy to find yourself speeding. And with a car this size, you need to be decisive with the brake. There was also something I hadn’t experienced before: the speedometer was just a little difficult to read at 60km/h and 80km/h, though this is likely to pass once you’ve been driving it for a week or so.
Fuel consumption is remarkably low
I picked it up with a full tank, and on the right you can see how much I’d used on the drive to the Hunter Valley over 190km. It barely moved the dial. So after you shell out something a bit north of $100,000 for the Q7, the day-to-day running costs are very manageable.
An odd thing happens when you stop in traffic
This can be a little freaky at first. One of the ways the Q7 achieves such low fuel consumption is by switching the engine off when you’re stopped in traffic. Suddenly, you’re sitting in a silent, dead weight on the road. Release the brake to get moving again, and a shudder runs through the car as the engine comes to life as you prepare to move.
I found this a smidge annoying when you’re in stop-start traffic. And that happens quite a bit in Sydney. The function’s easy to switch off with a button on the dash.
Stylish electronics that, mercifully, work
One of the many ways Apple has changed the world is that people expect sophisticated electronic devices to just work, without having to read an instruction manual or fiddle about much. There are still cars – including in a Mercedes I was in recently – where you need to know the secrets of the system to get it to do what you want.
With the Q7 I was able to connect my phone quickly with Bluetooth which allowed me to listen to music and take calls easily without really having to figure out anything. The system on the central dash was easy to get around, including the smart parking technology mentioned above. The climate control is super-straightforward, and the controls for the seats are easy to find and adjust, and it allows you to have different preset driving setups for different drivers through a panel on the driver’s door.
Important bonus: the sound system is excellent, and there’s an option to upgrade it to a Bose system if you’re big on your music in the car. This is potentially a nice way to add some excitement to a car whose whole design and handling is about control and safety – not thrill.
Size is everything
Really, this is what the Q7 is about: capacity, with Audi engineering and design. It’s one of the biggest cars out there, capable of carrying seven people with the two rear seats up, or, if you’re on a weekend away, everything you could possibly need, with space for other people’s stuff as well.
It’s extremely comfortable and has occasional moments of Audi fun when you get the opportunity. But size really is everything with the Q7. If you don’t need the full size, there’s always its little brother, the Q5. If you want sporty, try the TT coupe or one of the RS series Audis. If you want something that’s easy to park in the city, buy something smaller.
If you want something big, that drives smoothly and whose controls will inspire confidence in the most timid of drivers, this has to be on your list.
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