From early December to mid-March, Hell freezes over. If the Devil lived here, he would have to put on his parka, gloves, hat, and snow boots-like the other 266 inhabitants of this hamlet hidden twenty miles northwest of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The center of Hell Township consists of a general store, an ice cream parlor that's closed in winter, and a bar and grill. The dominant colors of these dwellings are yellow and red, the most popular symbols are licking flames, and the best-selling memorabilia are Satan T-shirts, mugs, and caps. Overall, however, winter in this place seems more like purgatory than the underworld.
Heaven, on the other hand, is a slice of paradise. Located on the outskirts of picturesque Bardstown, Kentucky, it's home to the Heaven Hill distillery. Founded in 1935 after the repeal of Prohibition, Heaven Hill is the largest independent, family-owned producer of distilled spirits in the United States. Geographically, Heaven and Hell are closer than you might think. The distance between the little village on Hell Creek and the home of both Evan Williams and Elijah Craig bourbon whiskey is about 400 miles.
Our transport is a brand-new SUV that will attempt to make an impact on an already crowded market when it goes on sale in June. The Q7 is the biggest let's-call-it-crossover made in Europe, but the real surprise is that it's made by Audi, a German company renowned for advanced engineering and a range of all-wheel-drive luxury sedans. Audi hopes that the market is craving a mud crawler made in Ingolstadt and firmly believes that it can add a new dimension to the SUV game. The Q7 is priced competitively, with a base price of $50,620 in V-8 form.
If the response to the vehicle during our drive is anything to go by, the Q7 will do a better job of putting Audi on Americans' radar screens than all of its current passenger-car models combined. People not only want to know what it is but also what it costs and whether it has enough grunt to keep up with the other civilian tanks from Detroit and Tokyo. It certainly has the requisite size, measuring 200 inches in length and with a 118-inch wheelbase, which exceeds the related Volkswagen Touareg's by a substantial 5.8 inches. Its width and height are about on par with the Porsche Cayenne, and even though the Q7 eschews a low-range transfer case, the curb weight of the 4.2-liter model is a sumo-esque 5269 pounds. The designers under Walter de'Silva sculpted a tall and imposing bridgehead-style front end, but the drag coefficient is rated at a surprisingly slick 0.34. By SUV standards, the Q7 is quite elegant and wagonlike in its proportions. By Audi standards, however, it is disturbingly ornamental and quite conservative in its engineering.
Externally, the Q7 comes across as the King Kong edition of the A6 Avant, but inside it is pure luxury limo. The cabin design mixes A6 and A8 elements with Audi's usual fine materials and faultless craftsmanship. The instrument panel and switchgear are upper-class Audi, and the MMI system is also a carryover. The key difference between this and other European SUVs is the business-class packaging in row two and the bigger-than-average cargo deck. By adjusting the asymmetrically split bench, it is easy to accommodate even the longest set of legs. The third row, however, is restricted to those who stand less than five feet, three inches tall. The wide, deep, and flat cargo area holds 144.1 cubic feet of luggage with the rear seats folded flat, 27.4 cubic feet in five-person configuration, and 10.9 cubic feet with all three rows erect.
Initially, the Q7 will be available only with the new 4.2-liter FSI V-8, which delivers 345 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque. The newish 276-hp, 3.6-liter V-6 from the Volkswagen Passat won't be available until fall. We drove the V-8, which likely will be the bigger seller in America.
As we start out on our trek, the in-dash temperature gauge reads three degrees. On I-75 between Toledo and Cincinnati it begins to snow, and for 100 miles or so the conditions are quite treacherous, but the Q7 turns out to be a master of sure-footedness and splendid isolation. At the push of a button, the full-length blind that covers the three-piece sunroof whirs back, letting in plenty of daylight. The in-dash CD changer swallows a handful of our favorite discs, and the impressive Bose sound system turns the cabin into a concert hall on wheels.
The seats are cushy, comfy, and contoured to hug most shapes, and they lack novelties such as active side bolsters. The DVD-controlled navigation system is a gem, rendering Rand McNally superfluous. But the center console is shorter than that of an A6 or an A8, so the MMI controls sit farther back in the Q7, creating a conflict of interest between your right hand and the center armrest.
Every time we stopped, onlookers commented on the sumptuous cabin, the fine surfaces, and the generous equipment. Nobody noticed the foot-operated parking brake, which is a step backward from the push-button device fitted to the A6 and the A8. Sadly, ride comfort isn't up to the standard experienced in the sedans, either. On poorly maintained, frost-bitten roads, the optional twenty-inch tires fitted to our car weren't compliant enough at any speed. Expansion joints in particular kept sending rhythmic shockwaves through the cabin, making up for the absence of an optional massage function. In addition, our Q7 produced more road noise, suspension thump, and engine hum than expected.
The brakes are sufficiently potent, but despite the latest-generation ABS with intermittent pad swipe, the rotors collected an overdose of salt and spray on the long, cruise-controlled straights. As a result, pedal effort increased gradually, and the response suffered. On the credit side, the Audi has good directional stability and reassuring steering feel.
Without extras, the Q7 is relatively unremarkable. Yes, it's built like a rock (sorry, Chevrolet), it beats any Mercedes-Benz for surface quality, and it has a truly versatile cabin, with no fewer than twenty-eight different rear-seat and cargo-deck combinations. But it takes a long, deep reach into the options bag before the Q7 begins to feel really special. You need, for instance, adaptive air suspension, which features antidive, antiroll, and antisquat technology; maintains a constant vehicle height no matter the load; lowers the body at highway speeds by up to 1.4 inches to reduce drag and fuel consumption; and lets you choose from six different modes: dynamic, automatic, and comfort, as well as lift, kneel, and off-road. Lift boosts ground clearance by 1.4 inches to 9.4, kneel lowers the rear suspension to facilitate loading and unloading, and off-road adds an extra inch of clearance to protect the car's undercarriage. The ride quality is improved, too, bettering a BMW X5 with the sport package but lacking the suppleness of a Mercedes-Benz ML500.
Another innovation worth considering is ACC plus. This state-of-the-art active cruise control can be engaged between 0 and 90 mph, and it brings the Q7 to a complete stop should traffic conditions require. Another novelty is the collision alert feature, which warns the driver by sounding a gong and then applying the brakes briefly, all of which should wake up even the dopiest wheelman. Other options include an advanced parking system that adds a rear-view camera to the familiar mix of lights and beeps. Night vision is still not part of the package, but you can specify bi-xenon headlamps with daytime running lights and dynamic cornering lights. Side assist is yet another available feature. Designed to eliminate blind spots, it flashes a yellow light integrated into the side-view mirrors whenever a vehicle approaches from behind and the driver attempts a lane change.
After the drab scenery around Dayton and Cincinnati in Ohio, Kentucky comes as a bit of a (positive) culture shock. Affluence rules wherever the pastures are dotted with horses instead of cattle, but on this trip we're less interested in horsepower than in the strength of alcohol-after all, this is whiskey country, and the final section of our route takes us on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. This tourist attraction includes the Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, and Wild Turkey distilleries. Plus, of course, Heaven Hill.
Even if you hadn't spotted the tall, white wooden-barrel storage buildings that are fenced in like a high-security prison, it's easy to detect the proximity of a distillery. The perfumed air, pregnant with sweet and seductive scents, can make you dizzy in just a few deep breaths. Better still, attend a tasting session to find out why even devoted fans of Scotch whiskey can be coaxed into swapping their Famous Grouse for Wild Turkey.
On an entertaining, zigzag course that meanders through some of the prettiest landscapes south of the Ohio River, the Q7 had ample opportunity to prove its dynamic virtues. Here, where the pavement is relatively smooth, the fat twenty-inch Bridgestones earned an advanced degree in roadholding. Although traction is never an issue, it's nice to have an extra bit of grip during tight corners. Through shadowy forests where the first snow of the winter had no trouble hanging on in subfreezing temperatures, we sampled the benefits of the new, rear-biased Quattro system, which splits the torque 40/60 instead of evenly. On the slippery stuff, it took only a moderate torque boost to kick out the fat rear summer tires and induce a supersize portion of power oversteer. This attitude not only enhances the entertainment value, it also helps keep terminal understeer at bay. In addition, it takes a larger percentage of the propulsion duties away from the front axle, which in turn has a direct effect on the steering. Shock and wind-up are never an issue, and you rarely need an interpreter to translate messages from the helm.
The Q7 has been fitted with Audi's latest-generation stability control system, which has been endowed with several new features. During emergency stops, for instance, the ABS sensors will automatically switch on the hazard lights. On steep descents, the brake assistant maintains a constant speed. By dialing in the off-road mode, different algorithms will adjust to the conditions that prevail off the beaten track.
After a two-hour chase along the Tennessee border, the Q7's four discs shone like silver plates, but the brakes could do with a bit more initial bite and pedal feel as well as more servo assistance over the last few yards before coming to a stop.
Like the Cayenne, the Q7 drives more like a high-roof car than a low-roof SUV. It looks big and it weighs too much, but there is an effortlessness behind that faade. Yet the overall impression is of both overkill and underachievement, leaving us thinking that less would be more. We had hoped that Audi, if anyone, would rewrite the SUV playbook, or at least chapters of it. We anticipated some kind of revolution beneath these proportions-especially because the Q7 shares only fifteen percent of its parts with the Touareg/Cayenne. What progress we see is relatively two-dimensional: you get more space, more equipment, and more versatility rather than more ingenuity, more risk, more differentiation, and more brilliance.
The Q7 may be the new leader of the pack, but the pack still follows uncomfortably close to its heels. It is much closer to SUV heaven than to the hell of live-axle trucks, but it is not quite the aged-straight, single-barrel, gold-medal stuff we sip in our dreams.