SCOTTSDALE, AZ – When the ’07 Audi Q7 arrives in U.S. showrooms in June, it will be a red-letter day for cross/utility vehicles.

Not only will the event mark Audi AG’s first serious entry in the market’s most dynamic segment, it will herald significant advancements in refinement and function – the attributes that define utility vehicles.

That Volkswagen AG’s luxury brand is the best-kept secret in mainstream America won’t help sell the Q7. Audi has enjoyed steady sales gains this decade, but through the first quarter, its share of the U.S. market trails all its main competitors except niche-volume Porsche AG.

Related document: Ward's U.S. Light Vehicle Sales by Brand and Group, March 2006

Instead, the auto maker hopes to use the Q7 to build the brand. Audi is aiming for about 35,000 annual sales to start, but its long-term volume target is closer to 50,000.

Audi is counting on the Q7’s styling to differentiate itself enough to achieve those numbers.

The Q7 boasts Audi’s new face, which is dominated by a grille so large as to appear disproportionate to the rest of the vehicle. Standing nearly perpendicular to the road, the grille towers 19 ins. (48 cm) from the bottom of the front fascia to a point just below the crest of its distinctive creased hood.

Despite its luxury-brand pedigree, the Q7 is a capable vehicle in all but the most hostile off-road environments. Equipped with Audi’s trademark Quattro all-wheel-drive system, the Q7 also features a new-generation transfer case from BorgWarner Inc. and a central, self-locking Torsen differential.

A brief sojourn off the Arizona blacktop reveals responsive steering and the benefits of a stance tall enough to accommodate a fording depth of just over 20 ins. (51 cm).

The Q7’s base engine is a trusty 280-hp 3.6L FSI V-6, while a stout 350-hp 4.2L FSI V-8 is optional. Both employ Audi’s excellent direct-injection gasoline technology, known as Fuel Straight Injection, which helped the auto maker win a Ward’s 10 Best Engines award in 2005 for the V-6 and this year for the 2L FSI turbocharged I-4.

The V-6 and V-8, respectively, generate maximum torque of 265 lb.-ft. (360 Nm) at 2,500 to 5,000 rpm, and 325 lb.-ft. (440 Nm) at 3,500 rpm.

The test vehicle’s V-8 displays adequate tip-in response, though not exhilarating. At low revs, it seems lazy and is louder than expected – laboring, no doubt, under the strain of its 5,467-lb. (2,487-kg) curb weight.

Still, the Q7 is unquestionably an Audi, feeling extremely nimble. The independent suspension, with its double wishbone front and 4-link rear setup, transmits just enough feedback to maintain a close connection with road or trail.

At cruising speed, the Q7 stays remarkably flat on winding pavement. And the adaptive capability of its 4-corner air suspension helps keep the Q7 horizontal on an undulating stretch of desert sand.

The "dynamic roll stabilization" feature of Audi's air suspension system increases damping forces in response to steering input and body lean.

Surprisingly slippery with a drag coefficient of 0.37, the Q7 largely is impervious to wind noise.

Based on the Audi A6 sedan architecture, the unibody Q7 stretches 200.2 ins. (509 cm) – 12 ins. (30 cm) longer than its platform-mates, the Porsche Cayenne and Volkswagen Touareg.

But the larger footprint enables the Audi to accommodate one of the most functional and comfortable interiors in the segment.

The front-seat bolsters offer the right balance of give and take for a long haul. And the 6-passenger Q7 – it also comes in 5- and 7-passenger configurations – boasts a stylish console with cupholders that grab like locking pliers.

Third-row seating boasts a superior folding mechanism from Faurecia SA.

Many systems claim fingertip ease, but the Q7 delivers with matchless precision. With the single flip of an accessible lever and a gentle push, its third-row headrests collapse before the seatbacks neatly fold flat.

The result is a cargo compartment with the elegant fit and finish expected of an Audi interior. Total luggage capacity is 144 cu.-ft. (4.1 cu.-m).

Audi even advances the technology used to access the Q7’s cargo area. Its power tailgate, which comes standard on models equipped with the V-8, can be programmed to open to a predetermined height.

This ensures the activation button to close the hatch is never out of reach.

The Q7’s top selling points, however, are buried in the logarithms of its electronic driving aids. The Q7 has a cutting-edge system for every driving scenario.

The time required to dream up such technologies may explain Audi’s belated entry in the rapidly maturing CUV market.

The Q7’s “side-assist” system from Hella KGaA Hueck & Co., an industry first, detects vehicles approaching from the rear at distances up to 165 ft. (50 m) away. It then determines their speed and activates a flashing light if conditions are unsafe for a lane change.

The lights are mounted neatly on the edges of the Q7’s side-view mirrors. A little too neatly, because they are sometimes difficult to see from the driver’s seat – a compromise to satisfy regulators wary of driver distraction.

However, a slight turn of the head accomplishes the task, which is a far sight easier than the full head-swivel required to check blind spots the traditional way.

Considering that unsafe lane changes are among the most common causes of accidents, such minimal effort is tolerable. And this technology seamlessly complements the Q7’s adaptive cruise control system.

A first for Audi, the Q7’s ACC is so sensitive it can be used in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It can even bring the vehicle to a stop.

Approaching a queue of traffic, feet off the pedals, the Q7 decelerates smoothly from near-highway speeds. Resisting the overwhelming urge to brake, the driver subconsciously braces for an impact that never comes.

Instead, the vehicle’s 6-speed automatic transmission gently downshifts until it rolls to a quiet stop on its own. The driver can reactivate the system with the flip of a switch.

Next year, Audi expects to offer a camera-based lane-departure warning system that tracks the Q7’s direction of travel, relative to the road. When the system determines the vehicle is off-line, most likely because the driver is dozing, the steering wheel will vibrate as a warning.

But the ’07 Q7 features another twist on camera-based technology. Its rear-camera system is integrated with graphics that appear on a display screen and function as back-up guides.

Other driver-assist technologies include a hill-descent mode that limits off-road downhill speeds to 12 mph (19 km/h), an anti-rollover system and electronic stability control (ESC).

Aware, perhaps, that too many technologies take the edge off driving pleasure, the Q7’s ESC system features a manually activated mode that enables limited wheel-slip for more challenging off-road situations.

A remaining question is whether its price will be out of reach. The Q7’s $49,900 starting sticker exceeds that of competitors such as the Cayenne, Volvo XC90, BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz M-Class, according to a Ward’s segmentation.

With the establishment of the Q7 nameplate, Audi incurred the legal wrath of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., which features the QX56 SUV and Q45 sedan in its Infiniti brand’s showroom. But a court ruling upheld Audi’s claim, by virtue of its quattro technology.

How will Audi spell success in the future? With a ‘Q.’

’07 Audi Q7
Vehicle type Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5- or 7-passenger cross/utility vehicle
Engine 4.2L (4,163 cc) DOHC V-8, aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net) 350 hp @ 6,800 rpm
Torque 325 lb.-ft. (440 Nm) @ 3,500 rpm
Compression ratio 12.5:1
Bore x stroke (mm) 84.5 x 92.8
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 118.2 ins. (300 cm)
Overall length 200.2 ins. (509 cm)
Overall width 78.1 ins. (198 cm)
Overall height 68.4 ins. (174 cm)
Curb weight 5,269 lbs. (2,390 kg)
EPA fuel economy, city/highway (mpg) 17/23
Market competition BMW X5, GMC Yukon, Lexus LX 470, Land Rover Range Rover, Lincoln Navigator, Mercedes M-Class, Porsche Cayenne

emayne@wardsauto.com