They were outdoorsy machines designed for people who would break a station wagon and needed something less bare-bones than a surplus Jeep or a serious expedition vehicle from Toyota or Land Rover. Open-air-loving clans took to them and turned Jeep Wagoneers and Ford Broncos into icons. But in the posher suburbs, big sedans still ruled the roads — Mercedes, Lexus, BMW, Cadillac, and Lincoln.
Then in the late '90s, Lincoln had a brilliant insight: Let's upscale the SUV. The Ford Expedition became the Lincoln Navigator. Cadillac turned the Chevy Suburban into the Escalade. Sales and profits followed, and soon all luxury brands needed a large-and-in-charge SUV.
Audi got to the party with the Q7 in 2005, which in retrospect was not great timing, as gas prices in the US were beginning to rise at that time. US sales peaked at 20,000 in 2007, and then plunged to 8,000 in 2010. But sales have steadily recovered amid the SUV revival in the US, and Audi unveiled the second-generation Q7 in 2015.
Audi lent us a 2017 $69,000 Q7, and we drove it in one of its natural environments, suburban New Jersey, for a week. Here's what we thought.
The Q7 is large but not ginormous. It wears its full-size SUV scale gracefully.
Look, it's dwarfed by that tour bus!
That doesn't mean the Q7 can't hold some territory. Properly defined as a crossover, this is an SUV that handles much like a car and can deal with lousy Northeastern roads and heavy traffic.
The design is typical Audi: dignified minimalism. Nothing stands out, but every inch of the Q7 — and there are many inches — is well-balanced. This is the state-of-the-art for modern large SUV styling.
From another angle.
The four-ring Audi badge is prominent but not obnoxious.
The headlights are intricately engineered but don't fall down on the job of guiding the Q7 through dark nights. Or the Lincoln Tunnel.
Inside, the Q7 has a high but not towering driving position and is a cocoon of rich, black leather. The seats are widely adjustable and moderately bolstered, and up front they feature lumbar supports.
Comfortable but not smushy — and heated!
Detailing is subdued but always luxurious.
Audi has the best interiors in the business right now, and the Q7's is no exception. The driver has everything he or she needs close by; the main digital instrument screen can be customized and reconfigured; and the leather-wrapped steering wheel has exactly the correct number of controls. Information overload isn't a problem.
The main instrument cluster, with its well-organized readouts and gauges. The entire screen can transform to show only navigation.
A closer look at the steering-wheel controls. The wheel is heated, which is now one of my must-have features in luxury cars.
The front of the cabin is bisected by a large central console, complete with a pair of cup holders.
The transmission is an 8-speed Tiptronic, and it can be switched over to auto-manual mode for sportier driving. Unlike some other 8-speeds we've sampled, the Audi unit performed well. A rotating controller and a trackpad manage the infotainment system.
Interior lights and the moonroof are operated via this panel above the driver and front-seat passenger.
The rear seats are quite roomy, and second-row passengers get their own set of climate controls.
Not a dark and cavernous place, thanks to Audi's use of abundant glass, including ...
... a two-panel panoramic sunroof, which lets in massive amounts of light and allows for late-night road-trip stargazing.
The third row obviously isn't quite as roomy and the second, but for many families this could be where shorter kids sit.
The climate readouts are cleverly and compactly displayed right on the control knobs.
Audi's center-mounted infotainment screen allows access to one of the best systems in the business.
You get everything from a backing camera. It can provide a bird's-eye view ...
... and vehicle-customization features.
A trackpad, input knob, and two switches manage it all deftly. (It does take a bit of getting used to.)
Under the armrest you'll find a pair of USB ports and an AUX port.
The Bose audio system fills the cabin with deep, resonant sounds. It's right up there with some of the best audio offerings from other manufacturers. At this point in the game, you have to have great audio in a big luxury vehicle like the Q7. This Bose setup has 19 speakers and cranks out 558 watts. Boom!
The front-facing camera is tucked discretely beneath the badge on the front grille.
Under the hood is a 3.0-liter, supercharged V6 that makes 333 horsepower. Audi says it will do zero to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds and top out at 130 mph. That's real quick for a vehicle of this size, and a testament to how much weight — about 700 pounds — the Q7 has shed since the previous generation. ("Quattro" is Audi's excellent all-wheel-drive system.)
The engine is torque-y enough to rate a towing capacity of almost 8,000 pounds.
It's also nicely adorned in classic held-back Audi fashion.
We didn't subject the Q7 to anything too severe as far as off-road testing. But the 2017 Q7 has seen the hardcore off-road stuff dialed back, to conserve weight and deliver good fuel economy (19 city/25 highway/21 combined). Most customers aren't going to be fording rivers in this guy, anyway.
Bottom line? You aren't going to find a better full-size luxury SUV. But if you need true off-road capability, you should look elsewhere. Otherwise, Audi has held up the Q7's reputation nicely with this machine.
My family of five is a stern judge of seven-passenger luxury SUVs, and they adored the Q7. But they also liked the Q3 and the Q5.
Audi has really done a fine job of pleasing everyone with its premium SUV lineup. The luxury is there, the comfort is there, the roominess and versatility are there, the power and handling are there, the infotainment and ergonomics are there, and then there's an intangible Audi thing, which has always made these SUVs winners in the suburbs of New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
OK, it's a large vehicle. That might not sit so well with some folks. The gas mileage is, well, pretty good, but far from Prius-level. You're dealing an environmental step up here over a Cadillac Escalade or less luxurious large SUV, but the Q7 isn't a world-saver by any stretch.
But it will make family life much, much easier, as seven-passenger SUVs tend to. It will do so in quiet style. And for that reason, the Q7 has accomplished its mission perfectly.