Sometimes there is a replacement for displacement

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(July 28, 2018) Audi’s Q7 is the brand’s largest SUV, and nearly the same size as the Volkswagen Atlas. The two are so close in size that you wonder why they sit on different platforms. Consider: The Atlas is 198.3 inches long, 78.3 inches wide (not including the exterior mirrors), 70 inches high, and sits on a 117.3-inch wheelbase. The Q7 is 199.6 inches long, 77.5 inches wide, 68.5 inches tall, and sits on a 117.9-inch wheelbase. The two are nearly identical, yet the Audi feels smaller thanks to its more chiseled styling and seemingly cozier interior.

However, what really sets the two apart is what’s under the hood. No, the Audi doesn’t come with a standard V6 while the Atlas uses VW’s workhorse 2.0-liter turbo.

The Q7 has a turbocharged four engine mated to an eight-speed automatic, just like the VW. Yet the VW, which weighs 4,300 pounds to the Audi’s 4,700 pounds, isn’t available with all-wheel drive when the 2.0-liter four is specified. Is it because the VW’s version of this motor only produces 235 hp and 258 lb.-ft. of torque, while the Audi engine pumps out 252 hp and 273 lb.-ft.?

That could be part of it, especially as the Atlas would gain a bit of weight if fitted with all-wheel drive, but it is only a small part of the reason.

Most Audi’s (the A3 and TT being the exceptions) have longitudinally mounted powertrains that send torque straight back to a center differential located within the transmission housing. It splits drive to the front and rear wheels. Smaller and lighter than a conventional transfer case, the quattro system’s center differential design also is more efficient, and sends about 60% of the torque to the rear wheels in dry conditions.

When wheel slip is detected, the unit juggles the power to the appropriate axle(s) on a real-time basis. (Audi’s quattro with “ultra” technology, on the other hand, drives the front wheels alone under most conditions, and uses two clutches — one on the gearbox and one on the rear axle — to engage drive to the rear when all-wheel drive is needed. It’s the more fuel efficient of the two designs, and the more costly.) This design is an integral part of the Audi philosophy, and readily adapted to the 2.0-liter engine.

The Atlas, on the other hand, would require a separate differential to detect wheel slip and send excess torque to the rear wheels. It can be done — the Atlas V6 uses just such a system — but would have to be heavier, more robust, and would affect the fuel economy of the big SUV. In addition, it would require more power from the 2.0-liter, in line with the Q7’s output, and remove an important reason for up-selling folks into the V6.

This decision gives the Q7 buyer more choices in that he doesn’t have to opt for the V6 in order to get all-wheel drive, but he must give up some fuel efficiency to do so. The front-drive Atlas, which is lighter due to its lack of all-wheel drive, is EPA rated at 22 city/27 highway/24 combined compared to the Q7 quattro’s 19 city/25 highway/21 combined. It may not seem like much, but it was simple to get the EPA numbers in the Atlas, while the Q7 came up a couple of mpg short of its rating on the road.

Another problem with the Q7, and one it shares with the A4 tested earlier is its glitchy pre-sense collision warning system. This time the unit spit out a warning and applied the brakes while I was backing out of my driveway. A look at the image projected by the rearview camera showed no obstructions, and — after putting the vehicle in park — a walk around the back of the Q7 showed nothing that should have caused the system to react.

It’s a great idea — a system that provides a warning and assistance should you be headed for a low-speed collision with an object that is in your path as you reverse — but one that is tough to trust when it throws off the occasional false alarm.

Other than this, the Q7 proved to be a solid, luxurious, good handling and nice riding large SUV that drove “smaller” than its dimensions might suggest. The 2.0-liter four and eight-speed automatic worked together seamlessly, and provided brisk acceleration — 0-60 mph in a tick over seven seconds — while keeping noise levels to a minimum. It may not be your first choice for throwing into a corner, but it acquits itself well under lateral load and can be balanced on the throttle thanks to the quattro system’s rear bias.

Another advantage of the Q7 2.0-liter quattro is its price: $49,900, plus a $975 destination charge. Strip out the Premium Plus package that contains the pre-sense rear unit ($4,000) and the Driver Assist package ($2,400), consider ditching the Vision package (though the LED lights and Topview monitor are a plus), and you can pare the $62,100 bottom line for our test vehicle down to a more palatable $53,700.

At that price it’s decent value without the excess baggage of pretentiousness, and that — along with its handling balance — makes it worth the price.

The Virtual Driver