Saturday 21 May 2011

Driven #31:- Audi Q7 3.0TDi

I love big cars. I'm absolutely thrilled if I get the chance to thread an Elise or a Noble along my favourite countryside party-route, and I get considerable joy from small cars in big cities. Feeling vulnerable is kind of exciting. But at the end of the day, when I just want to trundle home, or if I want to cross continents without furrowing my brow, I want a big car to do it with.

But there's probably an optimum size. In the BMW range, for example; I prefer the M5 to the M3. It's just more me; probably because it's bigger. They could even have built an M7 if they wanted, which wouldn't have been better; it would have been too big. It may well even have been rubbish.

And it was with thought of the relative values of bigness in my mind that I found myself at the helm of an Audi Q7; a car bigger than the likelihood of me being disappointed by my next pay-cheque.
I say “at the helm”, for it is the truth. Rarely has a vehicle been more ocean-liner-esque, certainly not on this side of the Atlantic since, say, 1965. Way over five meters from prow to stern, there are many decks, various restaurants and an array of different theatrical productions every night in the Lido hall. Call her the SS Tired Analogy. Terrible journalism be damned, this is a very, very large car indeed, even by worldwide standards. 

Here I would like to take an opportunity to smack Audis research and development department upside the chops for how they chose to style the Q7. I can't quite put my finger on where the problem lies, I think it's just that there's too damn much of it. The proportions are actually excellent and there's some nice detailing; the headlamps are especially Jetsons'ey, the traditional Audi LOOK AT ME grille is present and correct. Yet somehow the ensemble comes over as far more crass and self-congratulatory than any of its rivals; even the BMW X5 and Mercedes ML are quite restrained by comparison. Additionally, for a while I've been unable to rid myself of the notion that it looks a little bit like a colossal Chrysler PT Cruiser.

Mounting this sucker calls for crampons, pitons and an oxygen cylinder. Once installed on your lofty perch you may feel the urge for a slab of Kendal Mint Cake or some restorative whiskey to celebrate your climbing achievement, and while knocking this back you have time to survey the cave-like interior. Architecturally the Q7 proffers a bigger version of more-or-less the same dashboard you get in any Audi from the A4 upwards, and this is a bit of a mixed blessing.

It's good because the current Audi dashboard design is broadly heralded as one of the best in the industry. The build is first-rate; I spent a good few miles prodding various bits of real-estate trying to provoke a squeak or rattle but to no avail. The various opening compartments are damped with a joyous, bank-vault precision, and the layout still looks modern and fresh after being churned out for over five years. The screen graphics are crisp and attractive and the ergonomics, for the most part, are foolproof, even though it scores a solid fifteen out of ten on button-count.

But it's bad, too, because it's just so normal. To call it ordinary would be churlish, it's built too nicely for that to be said, but it offers nothing particular to set it apart from the other cars in the Audi range. It's like an admission that the Q7 is “just a car”, something that, from the outside, it seems desperate to not be seen as. True, the familiarity of the driving environment means that anyone who's spent time in any recent Audi will instantly feel at home, but it also acknowledges that it's likely to end up being driven just like any other Ingolstadt product. Also, and it’s a minor point, the steering column stalks are thoroughly loathsome. Audi column stalks look and feel like they haven’t advanced at all in the last fifteen years. Certainly the stalks in my ’98 A4 feel closely related, as do the units in the ’04 Golf I drove yesterday. They just don’t feel nice enough for a car as expensive as this one.

Still, the whole is functional enough and objectively quite pleasant. Avionics duties are handled via Audi's proprietary MMI interface, the four-ring rival to BMWs I-Drive. Your personal view of the two systems is undoubtably based on which you're more familiar with. Personally, though, I find the directional joystick system of the BMW more intuitive than the twist 'n press setup of the Audi, where you always have to be aware which of the four corner buttons to press to access your desired sub-menu. There are a total of six buttons to choose from excluding the Joystick itself, the BMW system achieves the same content with only two.

Time to hit the road, and after a modicum of trial and error I had dialled up my end destination on the satnav; but the charming lady on the radio suggested that the series of roads from Macclesfield back to civilization were all hopelessly jammed up. My watch seemed to be running rather fast, every half a mile or so another quarter of an hour had wound past. It looked like the Q7 might be my home for a while longer.

Just as well, then, that the Q7 is a very comfortable place to sit for a prolonged period of time. The seats, multi-adjustable and heated, articulate sufficiently to support even my oddball proportions. The climate control system works well, seeming unflustered by the direct, and distinctly un-English, sunshine that the North was enjoying. The Bose-labled Hi-Fi system, once I had reset the previous occupants slightly infantile tone settings, was very good, too.

After two hours of crawling along back-roads I suddenly emerged onto the M6 for the motorway journey home, and then immediately pulled off into a service station for artery-choking KFC intake. After taking in vital resources, and disposing of that which was no longer wanted, it was time to begin a more objective assessment of life behind the Ships Wheel.

It immediately hit me was that this was the first Audi I had driven in a long time that seemed to ride properly. Of course, should comfort not be your thing, you can sabotage all this good work by adjusting the settings; you can also adjust the ride height for serious hard-core speed-bump evasion. But left in straight-forward comfort mode, the Q7 seemed to hover about eighteen inches above the deck, with only expansion joints occasionally breaking through the serenity.

Turn down the radio, though, and the truth emerges that there is quite a lot of road noise underpinning things, as you’d expect from 20” steamroller-style rims. Swings and roundabouts, then, because mechanical refinement and noise levels from the 3.0 litre turbodiesel, were excellent. So far it was shaping up as a great way to cover distances in comfort.

But what if you want more than just that? I mean, for effortless high-speed distance covering, we have trains. These days they even run on time occasionally, and a train ticket still costs marginally less than the £50+K required for admission to a new Q7. Sometimes you want to be an actual driver, and there the colossal German runs out of ideas pretty quickly. Sadly, there's very little to be fun to from the drivers seat.

From the moment I pulled off the driveway I was immediately aware of a lack of sensation, as if I was driving an air car. No suprises, of course, that it doesn’t feel like a Caterham, but it’s a shame that the car could offer absolutely no involvement to the driver whatsoever. In actual fact, for me, it could have almost been dangerous. I’m used to cars giving me information, a running report on whether I’m taking too many driving liberties; it’s always useful to know. On the Q7, whether you trickle round a corner or attempt to take it flat out, the steering feels exactly the same. There is no warning that you’re stretching things way beyond the capability of the car.

I didn’t even do that, to be honest. Didn’t feel like a good idea. I did over-correct the steering a few times, though, it’s so light and woolly, and woe betide me if I allowed anything to distract me even slightly from the job at hand, be it the sat-nav, road signs, anything; full concentration was needed lest I absent-mindedly drift towards the other lane. Over time, of course, I would have learnt to adapt. But I didn’t want to have to.

It's a shame, because that V6 diesel offers just about the best soundtrack I've experienced in a DERV fuelled car. At the crack of the throttle a deep, throaty burble erupts from deep in the bowels, a muscular, almost marine growl, quite at odds with the sadly modest performance actually available. The TDi engine felt like it had just about enough power, nothing more, though the power it does have is well suited to sustained cruising at a higher speed than strictly necessary. My biggest worry is far, far more serious than that. My concern is, and it seems well born out, that no matter how “Christian” your driving, how well-behaved you try to be, how courteously you act, when driving the Audi Q7;-


Its either the fact that the damn thing looks self consciously expensive, or too assertive or the fact that those stupid daytime running LEDs are too showy, or just latent jealousy in my fellow man, but the Q7 seems to be a magnet to two-fingered salutes, being cut-up or spat at. After the second time I was flicked the bird, following a friendly flash of the headlamps to allow a chap into traffic but which was misinterpreted to mean some kind of what-the-hell-are-you-doing declaration of contempt, I rapidly started to feel embarrassed, even ashamed to be in this car. The Q7 was designed specifically to show itself off, like a peacock fanning its feathers.

I don't like the conclusion I've arrived at. This is Audi's conventional car flagship, a distillation of the marques long history, and it has some extremely positive attributes. It's just a tragedy that (in my view, anyway) these positives live in the shadow of that overwrought styling and the sad truth that it'll be bought as a statement, rather than as a machine.