Drivers intuitively understand that the most fuel-efficient cars are the smallest ones. Where does that leave families who need some space for carrying people and their belongings? And especially, what about families who live in an environment where the roads more closely resemble those from a Jeep advertisement than a Corvette ad?
A late winter family ski trip to Canaan Valley in the heart of the West Virginia mountains provided a clue with our clean-diesel three-row SUV. The Audi Q7 TDI carries as many as seven people, or in our case, five people and a ski weekend’s worth of stuff.
With Quattro all-wheel-drive the Q7 confidently tracked up the mountains and through the fresh snow without a hint of slippage, while the seat heaters — front and even rear seats — plus steering wheel heater preserved cabin comfort. The expansive panoramic sunroof provided an excellent view of Seneca Rocks as we paralleled the south fork of the Potomac River, which is a glorified stream that deep in the mountains.
These are the true kinds of capabilities many families have willingly tolerated reduced fuel economy in the low teens, or worse, since Suburbans began appearing in, well, suburbia 20 years ago. But with $4 gas looming again (maybe permanently this time), some families may be wondering if they have no choice but to switch to a cramped all-wheel-drive sedan or wagon, or maybe a spacious but less-capable minivan.
Audi reminds us that there are green alternatives. The EPA rates the all-wheel-drive, 5,500-pound Q7 large SUV at 17 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway, with a combined rating of 20 mpg. In a mix of suburban errand running and fully loaded mountain highway driving, the tested Q7 averaged 21.6 mpg, or a little better than we’d have likely seen from a minivan in the same conditions.
But it did this while delivering all-weather security unmatched by any minivan, including the Toyota Sienna that survives as the only one to still offer AWD as an option. The EPA rates Toyota’s minivan at 16 mpg city and 21 mpg highway.
Of course, the TDI burns diesel fuel rather than gasoline, so it costs a little more to fill up, however today’s price gap seems to be narrowing as regular unleaded gasoline prices have risen. The on-board trip computer displayed a range of nearly 600 miles between fill-ups, so Q7 TDI drivers also gain the advantage of spending less time at the gas station.
The powerplant is a 225-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6 diesel with twin turbochargers. That might not sound like an abundance of power for a vehicle the size of the Q7, but the engine’s muscle car-like 406 lb.-ft. of torque contributes to sprightly acceleration and capable mountain climbing.
It is also worth reminding drivers who travel elevations to ski mountains higher than 3,000 to 4,000 feet, that the twin turbochargers have the effect of preserving power even at very high altitudes, where normally aspirated engines wheeze and call for an oxygen mask.
All this capability and efficiency does have a price; the Q7’s base price is $50,900. Comfort has a price too, as the Prestige option package with many of the Q7’s indulgent features adds a flat $12,000. To the consumers who are thinking of spending $50,000 on a premium family hauler, the Q7 TDI shows that they needn’t wince at the gas pump until the kids move out.
The company has also announced that it will proliferate its diesel technology to other, less-expensive models such as the Q5, so the Q7 TDI for now serves as a green technology showcase that demonstrates how it is possible to preserve the capability and comfort drivers want while reducing fuel consumption. — Dan Carney, Motor Matters
Manufacturer photo: The Audi Q7 Quattro provides premium SUV buyers with a new level of environmental conscientiousness with its efficient 3.0 TDI clean diesel engine. Using a combination of direct injection and turbocharging, the 3.0-liter diesel engine delivers 225 hp and a remarkable 406 lb.-ft. of torque. The Q7 3.0 TDI clean diesel delivers 17/25 mpg and is the only clean diesel in its segment with an eight-speed transmission.
Copyright, AutoWriters Associates Inc., 2011