Choosing a car to drive up to the inaugural Kalahari Desert Speedweek wasn’t easy. At first I wanted to commandeer something super exotic, you know, like a McLaren MP4-12C or Jaguar XKR-S in order to set a blistering speed down the five-kilometer desert drag strip.
But then I remembered that I would need to schlep along four day’s worth of camping gear. And a photographer. And a filmmaker. And a friend of a friend who would be covering the event for Red Bulletin Magazine. And all their expensive glassware. Clearly I needed something more practical, less self-indulgent.
Whatever I chose also needed to be fairly light on gas but still have enough muscle in reserve to be reasonably entertaining if I did actually feel like getting my Malcolm Campbell on out in the Kalahari. So after much ponderment and scouring of spec sheets, I eventually settled on an Audi Q7 3.0 TDI. Because on paper it just seemed to check all the right boxes.
It looked pretty damn awesome when it arrived at our offices too. I’ve always been a bit out to lunch about the general appearance of the Q7 but the optional (R25 870) Off-Road Styling Package does make a tangible difference. Tastefully offset by that Glacier White paint, its black plastic wheel arch and doorsill moldings give this Audi a new sense of purpose.
Yeah, it no longer comes across as an expensive shopping trolley for spoiled Sandton housewives but a proper, let’s-go-get-our-tyres-dirty adventurer.
Other neat visual upgrades included a pair of R11 860 Xenon Plus headlamps (according to Audi’s Super Bowl commercial, bright enough to turn vampires to ash) and an attractive set of 20-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels (a further R18 500). Personally I wouldn’t go any bigger than this if you plan on straying off the asphalt, as the ride will go to pot.
Now for such a behemoth of a car, I was surprised at how touch-and-go the interior space was. In fact at one stage it looked like we wouldn’t get everything crammed inside the Audi’s 775-litre luggage compartment. Fortunately, with only four slender gents to worry about, we were able to store some of the troublesome camera cases on the middle of the rear bench.
Even so, a plethora of rucksacks stacked to the white roof liner, my rearward vision was pretty much obscured for the most of the trip. With limited rear legroom further adding to our spatial woes, I had to slide my driver’s chair more forward than I would have liked too. Compromise – not something I thought I’d be faced with inside a big Q7.
Luckily, once we threaded our way through the city and onto the highway towards Upington, the Audi’s road manners more than made up for its questionable appetite for bags and equipment. When it comes to gobbling up three-digit distances, this is the machine you want to do it in.
Now there are two reasons for this and the first can be attributed to that delightfully smooth 3.0-litre TDI engine. Around town this blown V6 mill tends to display a little too much turbo lag for my liking but with the revs up in higher gears, well, it fires the two-ton Q7 along at speed and with ease. In fact there’s so much torque on tap that it’s all too easy to test the speed limit. But on these middle-of-nowhere roads, who cares a damn?
Complementing all this effortless pull was the optional (R23 200) Adaptive Air Suspension. It may be expensive but it sure gives this Audi an incredible ride. Seriously, no matter how rough the surface gets, these trick pneumatics make you feel like you’re rolling atop some luxuriant Vegas waterbed – in a good way of course.
Heck, you can even tweak the system to suit real-time driving conditions. Initiated through a menu built into the Audi MMI (Multimedia Interface) system, you can switch between comfort, dynamic, automatic, off-road or lift. The latter two dial in some serious elevation (up to 240mm), so they’re only available below certain speeds.
Being stuck inside a car for nearly 12-hours gives you plenty of time to play with all its toys. And the Q7 has lots of them. Like I mentioned before, ours came equipped with the R22 200 MMI system. And even though its starting show its age when stacked up against some of the newer digital interface systems (particularly in the ergonomics front), a logical menu and easy-to-read display still make it a joy to use.
For the money you also score a good satellite navigation system, excellent sound plus Bluetooth audio streaming to broadcast all those tunes stored on your mobile phone. Want you don’t get is a USB port. Yep, for reasons I cannot fathom, Audi continue torturing us with their ridiculous SD slots. Ask the photographers, Ingolstadt, they’re designed for cameras, not cars.
To make up for this stupidity, obviously, the engineers grafted in a mass of 12v power outlet points. I counted four in total but there could have been more lurking in there. Now these are extremely handy because it means that everybody (if they have the right adaptor that is) can keep their mobile phone fully juiced throughout the journey. Yep, no more do you have to fight over who gets a measly 30-minutes of charge time on the lone cigarette lighter – quite a nice feature to have inside a big tourer.
Yet perhaps the most impressive feature of the Q7 3.0 TDI was its surprisingly low fuel consumption. When we eventually arrived at the Speedweek basecamp in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the night, the onboard computer read exactly 10.0l/100km. That’s 1.4l/100km more than what Audi claims but nothing short of exceptional when you consider we were weighed down with four men, a trunkful of junk, and travelling, mostly, at speeds too high to print on this website.
So as I watched it tick cool in the sepia-lit bivouac, all dusty and covered in a billion bug spatters, it became clear that the Audi Q7 3.0 TDI was definitely the right car to have chosen for this adventure. Even more so when, over the course of the next few days, we used its wide window apertures and softest suspension settings to record some killer video footage of what has to be one of South Africa’s coolest motoring events. It also went on to set a maximum speed of 197km/h down the strip, faster than what some of the so-called ‘sports cars’ could manage – what a champ!
If you want more power then you should probably look at the considerably dearer 3.0 TSI or 4.2 TDI models. Personally, however, I can’t really see the point. I’d be happy to forgo the extra kilowatts for the lower price tag. And in fact I could still bolt on the must-have Off-Road Styling Package and Adaptive Air Suspension system without reaching the R750k mark. So this is why the 3.0 TDI gets my vote as the pick of the Q7 range. As a semi-affordable all-rounder, it has its bigger brothers beat.
The Facts: Audi Q7 3.0 TDI
Engine: 2967cc V6 turbodiesel
Power: 184kW from 3800 – 4400rpm
Torque: 550Nm from 1750 – 2750rpm
Top Speed: 215km/h (claimed)
0-100km/h: 7.9 seconds (claimed)
Fuel Consumption: 8.6l/100km (claimed combined), 10.0l/100km (achieved)
Pricing: From R692 000 (R804 030 as tested)
Reasonable fuel consumption
Brisk performance & comfortable ride
Not as spacious as I was expecting
Lack of USB ports frustrates
Long and expensive options list
[Pictures: Halden Krog]