Frankfurt Auto ShowNot content with watching its German competitors reap the benefits of having large utility vehicles in their lineups, Audi AG finally enters the lucrative market with the 7-passenger Q7, set to go on sale in Europe next month.

More than just a beefed-up station wagon (like the A6-based Allroad Quattro), the ’06 model Q7 rides on a 118.2-in. (300.2 cm) wheelbase version of the capable unibody chassis underpinning the current Volkswagen Touareg and Porsche Cayenne cross/utility vehicles.

2006 Audi Q7

“On the road, it excels with the performance and driving dynamics of a sports car; off-road, it redefines the benchmark in its category,” Audi says of the new Q7.

Given its smaller platform-mates tip the scales at more than 5,000 lbs. (2,269 kg), the Q7 will never be confused with an A3 Sportback.

But with a 6.6-in. (16.7-cm) increase in wheelbase over the Touareg/Cayenne, Audi engineers were able to add a third row of seats to the vehicle’s interior, which results in a 200.2-in. (508.6-cm) overall length – substantially more than most of its competitors (Touareg, Cayenne, BMW X5, Mercedes M-Class and Land Rover LR3).

Only the car-like Mercedes R-Class outstretches the Q7, yet it doesn’t have the expected off-road prowess of the VW-derived Audi.

The Q7’s height and width are close to the Touareg’s at 68.4 ins. (173.7 cm) and 78.1 ins. (198.3 cm), respectively.

To make use of the added space, Audi claims no less than 28 loading configurations for the CUV, along with the most second-row legroom in the luxury SUV class. Additionally, second- and third-row seating can be folded flat to make room for 71.9 cu.-ft. (2,035 L) of storage space, with 27.4 cu.-ft. (775 L) available with just the third row lowered, also the most in its class, Audi says.

Initially, the Q7 will be powered by Audi’s venerable 4.2L V-8 gasoline engine, which for ’06, gets FSI direct fuel injection and now is rated at 350 hp and 325 ft.-lbs. (440 Nm) of torque. An optional 3L 6-cyl. turbodiesel, rated at 233 hp and 369 ft.-lbs. (500 Nm) of torque, also will be available in Europe when the CUV goes on sale this fall. A 4.2L twin-turbodiesel reportedly will be available next year in Europe.

Audi’s 4.2L V-8 and 3.2L V-6 gas engines likely will be powering North American Q7s when they go on sale next year. It is uncertain whether a diesel variant will be made available for the U.S.

All Q7s will feature Audi’s 6-speed tiptronic automatic transmission and 18-in. alloy wheels, with 19-in. and 20-in. wheels available on all models.

Audi Q7 has room for seven passengers.

Similar to the new RS4 sports sedan, and reportedly all ’06 model Audis, the Q7 rides on the auto maker’s quattro all-wheel drive system featuring the latest-generation Torsen center differential, which allows for more spirited and balanced driving due to its standard 40:60 front/rear torque split (vs. 50:50 in ’05 models).

Although the Q7 shares numerous components with its siblings, Audi chose to reduce weight and keep costs down by doing without the low-range transfer case, locking rear differential and active anti-roll bars found on the more aggressive VW and Porsche.

Supporting the weight of the all-new CUV will be independent, double wishbone front and rear suspensions, steel coil springs, twin-tube shock absorbers and numerous aluminum components. An adaptive air suspension system will be optional and can vary ride height from 7.1 ins. (18 cm) to 9.5 ins. (24 cm), Audi says.

In addition to its power, panache and versatility, Audi has packed the Q7 with all of its latest electronics, including standard roll stabilization programming and the Audi Multi Media Interface control system sourced from the A6 and A8 sedans.

Also standard will be Audi’s Electronic Stability Program, which is endowed with new functions for the CUV, including hill decent assist and off-road capabilities, along with a trailer stabilization function that uses selective brake intervention to limit “fishtailing” when towing.

Blind-spot recognition and lane departure warning technology also will be optional on the Q7, as will a new advanced parking guidance system integrating a rearview camera.

The Q7 will make its public debut at the Frankfurt auto show in September. Pricing for the U.S. has yet to be announced, but Audi says a 3L diesel model will start at E48,900 ($59,497) in Germany when it goes on sale Sept. 12. Deliveries won’t begin until first-quarter 2006.

msutton@primediabusiness.com