Retro review: the bonkers Audi Q7 V12 TDI

This review originally appeared in Automagazine issue 184 (2008)

The day of Top Gear’s £96,290 V12 diesel Audi Q7 road test coincided with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the forecast of an economic depression in the US not seen since 1929. There could be a better time for Audi GmbH to launch the world’s most powerful diesel SUV.

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The cornerstone here is that word “diesel.” As we revealed in the October issue, the success of the R10 in the American Le Mans series is a great strategic move to sweeten the US market with this still-foreign fuel source. Audi is about to launch a series of diesel vehicles in a country addicted to gasoline, and has pushed the Q7 V12 TDI over the edge. This is a car built with the American market in mind, now equipped with an engine born from an American racing series, ready to prove to a skeptical nation that black stuff is the new black, so to speak.

And, boy, is it a good deal. The Q7 has been around for a few years, though its price, exclusivity and size ensure it remains a relatively rare sight on UK roads. The transition of Audi’s R10 TDI racing engine to a road car, while an exercise in technology swapping rather than simple change, came at a time when the car’s status as a vulgar SUV of the day was in decline. Now it’s back up there, partly because of the price and the size of the motor, but also because of what that motor does.

The 6.0-liter V12 produces 500 hp and 737 pound-feet of torque. That’s 1,000Nm in today’s money, almost as much as the race car that has won Le Mans the last three years on the trot. That means you have a seven-seater, five-meter-long SUV that weighs 2.7 tonnes empty and will hit 62mph in 5.5 seconds with a top speed limited to 155mph. For reasons not only of ethics and economics, but also of simple physics, this car should not happen. But it’s right here.

The advantage of diesel is that all this torque is available from 1,750 rpm. Acceleration is near instantaneous in the Q7 and completely belies the car’s large dimensions and curb weight. A light push from the throttle is still enough, but give it a good kick, and once the transmission has negotiated a good kick, you and the other 2.7 tons involved will be whipped toward the horizon with the kind of belligerent vigor normally reserved for the salt flats and land speed records.

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The refinement at any speed is simply amazing. Step on the accelerator and the V12’s rumble briefly rises to a furious crescendo; but take a step back and serenity and civility are immediately restored. Whether that’s a good thing or not, it’s certainly more impressive and scarier to be crushed in the leather couch of a luxurious V12 SUV than it is in the bucket seat of a V12 supercar. It’s so unlikely, so supernatural, so… untrue.

And it will be because it is. There’s no denying that the Q7 V12 TDI is a ridiculous undertaking. The more modest Q7 is a very difficult car to justify building or buying, but still, it’s nothing short of insane. If you want epic performance from a car, you want a sports car that handles well and handles rounded corners. The Q7 doesn’t. It just can’t. And if you want a seven-seater SUV, then you probably have three or more kids, and you sure don’t want to show them how 420mm fiber-reinforced ceramic discs can slow you down a cheeky ton in the blink of an eye. Remarkable eye, the Q7 V12 TDI is. Sensitive, this is not the case.

But hey, we’re not Americans, and maybe that’s what makes the difference. Here is a nation for which common sense is largely gone. The one whose dependence on oil brings it into conflict with a new country every two weeks. And who (hopefully) now thinks diesel is cool. And out there in the Big Country, where you get a V8 pickup just for passing the test, the Q7 isn’t an SUV at all. More of a small sedan. And it manages 25 mpg, just like a Range Rover diesel V8, and well ahead of the local gas SUV average. If Audi needs a diesel flagship in the US, that’s a great way to go.

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However, there is a small problem to overcome. If the Q7 costs £96,290 in the UK when it goes on sale next January, how much will it cost across the pond? Diesel might provide America with a belt-tightening device, but Germany’s ultra-premium SUVs won’t be at the top of many shopping lists. As part of a much larger picture, especially for the US market, the Q7 V12 TDI is a master class from Audi’s engineering genius. But as yet another diesel in an ever-expanding catalogue, it sounds like a sick joke these days.

Verdict: You could strike a deal with some rich but strict Americans, but expect plenty of blank stares around these parts.

6.0 liter V12 diesel
500 hp, all-wheel drive
0-62mph in 5.5 seconds, top speed 155mph

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