Until last year, Audi was content to watch from the sidelines as its competition launched sport utility vehicle (SUV) after SUV. The German automaker with the four horizontally interlocking rings got sick of BMW X5s, Mercedes Benz M-Classes and G-Classes, Volvo XC90s and Land Rovers/Range Rovers present on local streets, finally entering its first foray into SUV-dom - the Q7 - in June 2006. But can being late to the SUV party still give a good impression on the local landed gentry? A weekend with the Q7 hoped to change the general impression of latecomers as nuisances.

Like James Bond's Q

Regarding nomenclature, "Q" has been selected for all future Audi SUV-related products and "7" refers to the SUV's exact branding between the A6 and A8 sedans. And just like its namesake in the James Bond movies, this Q has enough gadgetry to wow the rich playboy or the busy elitist.
The Q7's interior mimics the A6's interior, giving a high-tech presentation without losing comfort, fit/finish, quality or warmth. The Multi Media Interface System (MMIS) must be dealt with to use the Q7's adjustable adaptive air suspension, climate controls and excellent 14-speaker Bose audio system. It isn't exactly simple, but it can be figured out without frequent consultation of the owner's manual.

Rear passengers also have ample gadgetry at their fingertips, with standard rear climate controls, aircon vents hidden in the b-pillars and three 12-volt outlets. Second-row seating is limited to four average Filipinos and seat comfort is generally great, but the third row is cramped - you can only fit small children or midgets in its small dimensions. The second and third rows fold flat to handle cargo, but during an airport trip to pick up five relatives toting bundles of pasalubong, this writer found out that the Q7 (with only the third row folded) can only handle a balikbayan box and three to four medium sized pieces of travel luggage without sacrificing rear view mirror vision.

Outside the cutting edge body styling is distinctly Audi (thanks to the familiar grille) but at certain angles - like the Q7's rear - the outside design relation between the Q7 and its Porsche Cayenne/Volkswagen Touareg cousins can be discerned, given that the aforementioned three SUVs are under the Volkswagen AG umbrella and are made in Slovakia. Much like its A6 sedan sibling the Q7 makes an impression on pedestrians and onlookers when viewed from the front, but the rear seems a bit plain, or even staid, in terms of styling.

Performance not exactly on "Q"

There's an obvious heft about the P 6.25 million 3.0L V6 24-valve DOHC TDI Quattro Q7. The doors are heavy, the driver's seat is firm and the controls require a heavy hand. Despite a tight turning circle, the Q7 felt a bit cumbersome within the city. Trips through Manila and the small suburbs of Quezon City (Cubao included) felt like piloting the Starship Enterprise - a given considering the heft (2395 kg gross vehicle weight) and dimensions of the vehicle.

Even with turbocharging, common rail diesel injection and fairly even gearing, the Q7's performance isn't exactly exceptional. The weight of the Q7 is evident in the 24-valve DOHC 3.0L's slight turbo lag, steep power curve (2250 rpm powerband entry), and fuel consumption (a tested 7.29 kilometers per liter on four days of mixed driving). However, partial boost occurs at 2500 rpm (with full boost at 3750-plus rpm), and the six-speed Tiptronic's manual mode makes downshifting for highway overtaking faster.

The 3.0L TDI Q7 handed to this writer comes with Audi's Quattro all wheel drive, which is surprisingly capable on dirt (read: hard earth and pebbly roads). But then again, owners (including a member of the Ayala family) aren't exactly the type that will throw this SUV off-road. Another bit of good news: the Q7 also has great handling for an SUV. You can throw the car at 80-84 kph on hard turns (with traction control off), and understeer at 85-95 kph. The aforementioned traction control only wakes up during extreme to moderate understeer, slowing down the SUV just enough for the driver to steer quickly out of danger. Also, steering is light and responsive but somewhat blunt.

The adaptive air suspension mentioned earlier in this story has speed-sensitive ride height adjustment (like the Porsche Cayenne) which lowers the vehicle at higher speeds to better stability, or raises the vehicle for off-road driving to improve road clearance. Either way, this writer felt that the Q7's ride felt floaty; you feel like you're boating over road disturbances. Not exactly giving confidence either are the Q7's brakes; they bite when pushed hard, but the age old lesson of keeping a car's (or even two car's worth of) distance from the vehicle in front of you applies especially to this behemoth.

Overall, Audi shows that with the Q7, even a latecomer can give a good impression. The German manufacturer realizes that if you're going to be late to the game, you'd better come to win. A top-notch interior, attractive features and handling vastly better than most large SUVs make Audi's first SUV foray fully personify (and perhaps upgrade) the phrase "better late than never".