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Audi’s diesel bet: Will the Q7 resonate with Americans?

Rafay Ansar

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Americans traditionally have been about as receptive to diesels as we are to being governed by a foreign monarch. We buy into all of the preconceived notions that it’s a smelly, toxic and in general, an undesirable means of transportation. Maybe it’s OK for truckers--but not soccer practice or trips to the market.

Audi is betting heavily it can change all--or at least some--of those ideas with a diesel version of the Q7 crossover, scheduled to launch in the first part of next year. Powered by a 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 engine, the company is hawking the Q7 TDI as clean, reliable and fun to drive, while packaging it in the desirable skin of a luxury crossover.

The key figure: Audi says the relatively good-sized vehicle will get 25 mpg in real-world driving, bettering the government’s combined rating of 20 mpg, and it meets all U.S. emissions standards.

The obvious question: Will it find a place in the crowded and declining U.S. auto scene, where fuel economy is paramount and competition cutthroat?

Stay tuned. But Audi is projecting a modest market penetration, and it would be happy if 15 percent of all Q7s sold had a diesel engine, said Johan de Nysschen, executive vice president of Audi of America.

Consumers will pay more up front for the cars, and a Q7 TDI will likely sticker about $2,500 to $3,000 more than its gasoline-powered counterpart, said de Nysschen. Audi also is planning some special packages for the diesel models to heighten their appeal.

So far the Q7 is the only vehicle Audi has green-lighted for sale in the United States with a diesel powerplant, but de Nysschen said the engine could fit in a number of vehicles it sells here, including the A6, A5, A4 and Q5.

“It creates many opportunities where we could apply (it),” de Nysschen said.

The company will closely watch the launch of the Q7 and has started a publicity blitz to bring the technology into the collective consciousness of everyday Americans. Most notably, it’s staging a 4,800-mile trek across the country with Q7s and other diesel Audi vehicles brought over from Europe to push the technology literally onto the main streets and highways of this country.

We tagged along on the first stretch of the journey, which began in New York and wrapped up in Chicago, with stops in Washington and Cleveland. Ultimately, it will finish in Los Angeles after nearly two weeks of driving.

It’s still hard to tell whether Americans want diesel cars, understand the technology or view it as a viable alternative, but from a pure driving standpoint, Audi appears to have a solid performer in the Q7 TDI.

The engine is rated at 225 hp and a forceful 405 lb-ft of torque, which propels the crossover to a top speed of 130 mph and from 0 to 60 in 7.9 seconds. That’s not bad for a people-hauling crossover, likely to appeal to upscale suburban families and compete with the BMW X5 and Mercedes GL.

The low-end torque is obvious, peaking at 2,000 to 2,250 rpms, but we noticed it even before that, almost like a gravitational force that pulls the passengers back in their seats. It’s not the neck-snapping good time the R8 is, but that obviously is not what Audi is shooting for here. From an enthusiast’s perspective, the low-end torque is fantastic, adding a fun-to-drive factor that kept us awake through our two lengthy driving sessions. Passing is no problem, and the acceleration from launch is satisfying.

The question, however, is does that play with most Americans? Is 405 lb-ft of torque really needed to pick up groceries and ferry the kids to school? Remember, this is supposed to be a practical crossover--and it’s a different style of driving than most U.S. motorists are accustomed to.

The Q7 TDI handles well, and there’s enough room in the back for piles of gear for long road trips--and believe us, we tested this one. The quattro all-wheel-drive system handles a variety of conditions well and grips the highway in a reassuring manner. The six-speed Tiptronic automatic gearbox shifts smoothly, and drivers can opt to drop it into a sport mode.

Inside, the crossover is plenty comfortable; we spent two back-to-back days of morning-to-evening driving in the Q7 and seldom felt cramped or uncomfortable. The layout of the cockpit is intuitive, and the instrument panel employs a commonsense approach to displaying vital information.

Outside, it’s sleek, a bit understated, but good-looking. The lines flow back, the front end features elegant headlights and the back end is purposeful. In a nutshell, Audi fans will like the design.

Our driving experience was almost exclusively on the highways and was part of a fuel-economy competition, so it’s hard to tell whether the Q7 TDI will truly deliver the impressive rating in everyday use that Audi is promising. But early indications look good; we notched 26.7 mpg on the first day, when we were a bit throttle-happy. We followed that up with a sterling 29.8 mpg figure, though we seldom got above 65 mph and employed coasting and other tactics to save fuel and try to beat other drivers.

Bottom line: The Q7 TDI is technically sound, clean and provides above-average fun for a crossover. Perhaps it’s fitting that the vehicle is being marketed in an election year, as its success ultimately will be determined by the hearts and minds of everyday Americans.
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