Highway beauty, off-road beast
It is that time of year when the new car dealers present their 2016 models. Naturally, then, it is time for Automotives to get behind the steering wheels of the freshly introduced, upgraded and redesigned models and have a whale of a time tootling around the roadways (and sometimes off them) and tell you about the experience. Today we look at the redesigned second generation Audi Q7 luxury SUV and new-look Toyota Hilux pick-up, the latest iteration of a renowned workhorse.
Panama City, Panama, is a hell of a long way from Kingston, Jamaica, to go for a car drive. But that is where the Latin America and Caribbean regional presentation of the redesigned Audi Q7 was held two weeks ago.
Added to the almost two-hour flight was another two hours of driving planned along the Pan-American Highway to Rio Hato, then an off-road circuit of a track prepared to put the Q7 through its off-road paces.
But then, it is a hell of lot of car.
Some personal perspective is in order. Where motor vehicles are concerned, I am a practical sort of fellow. They should carry the required number of passengers to their destination in maximum safety and best fuel efficiency for as low a purchase price as possible. While no price for the Jamaican market was given at the regional launch (that should be sorted out soon enough, at the local launch next month although, frankly, the Q7 is one of those items which those who can truly afford it don't need to ask the cost), certainly the vehicle is not in line with my ride philosophy.
Even with that mismatch between driver and vehicle, the Q7 is a clear winner. It is stupendously easy to operate (which is much of the point of luxury) - from the two points at which to move the middle seats forward to access the third row to the power tailgate, which has two ways of opening and closing (including from the key fob). Then there are three points from which to lay that third row flat.
All this is electronic, of course, and it must be noted that how the middle seats tumble forward and fold makes getting into the last row a breeze.
With those features at the back end of the Audi Q7, it is only to be expected that from the driver's seat it will be tech heaven - and it is, but not uncomfortably so as to be overwhelming. The neat feature is a touchpad which is within reach of the fingers when the wrist is rested on the shifter. The many features it controls, from driving mode to the entertainment system, show up on the screen which rises silently from the dashboard.
Even up front there are options to do things - so the driving mode (dynamic, comfort, off-road, etc) can be controlled from the dashboard, which has remarkably little protrusions. Same for the infotainment system, as there is significant cross-pollination between the touchpad and the steering wheel controls.
Looking for the parking brake? Don't feel for a foot pedal or reach out for one of those rods with finger grooves. It is engaged and disengaged with the forward or back motion of a lever that looks like the chrome version of a power window switch on a vehicle of lesser breeding (which is most rides, truth be told).
The cabin is laden with luxury and, apart from the ride height, gives a feeling of secure snugness, even while being spacious. The third-row passengers are not second-class citizens.
And how does all of this hi-tech opulence drive? Extremely well. I experienced it as a passenger first, Stephen Hector of Sandals (most of the other people on the jaunt are Spanish speakers and it is two to an Audi) taking us out of the city, on to the dual carriageway, Pan-American Highway. I am happy - it does not hurt that in Panama City they drive on the right and I was still being caught looking the wrong way for oncoming traffic.
Entering the roundabouts the wrong way for us lefties? Forget it. I would have put a dent - literally - into the launch budget.
Being a passenger was a joy. The SUV curse of body roll has been eliminated by the Quattro system, so I wasn't feeling woozy, even after an hour cruising with occasional bursts of acceleration from Hector's right foot and turn off the highway up the hills to Cerro Campana (much like heading up to Irish Town from Gordon Town Road, fog and all).
After the vehicle turnaround and driver changeover, it is back down the hill and yours truly was ready to tootle along on the left, but a word from Hector set me on the right side of the road. It had rained and there was a chance to try out the hill-descent feature, which provides braking independent of the driver - and there would be a much better opportunity on the off-road track.
Once back on the highway, it was time to let the Q7 out within the limits set by the chaperones in lead and chase vehicles. It is a joy to drive, nimble and powerful. Hector and I were in a three-litre diesel version and, in dynamic mode, it answers the call of the right foot very enthusiastically. I go past a trailer tossing up a spray with supreme confidence; the vaunted handling lived up to its billing. I did not have cause to go in a full circle, but how the Q7 handled the highway's occasional turns was an indication of gripping something special in the palms.
The hosts had said it was possible to drive to Alaska from Panama City and, at the Rio Hato stop, with planned fuel, food and rest stops and Hector as alternating driver, I would have gone for it.
Still, the off-road track waited, a near 40-degree bank, downhill in mud, up a bit, then the real mud downhill and up a few areas that looked liked raised, oversize cobbestones and down a very steep decline (and I am afraid of heights, OK) into a water pit, then grass, more mud and back to the start, with many a sharp turns along the way.
Hector went first and his grin said volumes. I was 'kinning teeth' too, although I got stuck and had to be urged to stop riding the brake and allow the hill descent to work the first time around. We both took a second trip around the steering, this time in a three-litre diesel like we had driven down (the first mud run had been in a smaller gas-engine version) and the difference was palpable. I got stuck again, but when I was instructed to put the Q7 in manual and floor it, the mud flew and so did we. And yeah, I let the descent feature work the second time around. On one of the turns, the tight turning radius showed up as I slipped towards a rope, yet a twist to the left and rope and bonnet did not meet.
It was a hell of a long way to go to drive a vehicle. But what a helluva ride.