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Battle of the German behemoth SUVs

By Alex Rae, 29 Dec 2019 Reviews

Audi Q8 Vs. Bmw X7

BMW and Audi both have brand-new, big-snouted SUVs that offer distinctly different takes on the formula. So can we name a winner, by a nose?

You’d be a genius if you could pick the next trend in SUVs. You’d also be rich, because our appetite for the car on stilts is unrivalled. The challenge is figuring out what that template looks like.

BMW had the original monocoque soft-roader thing nailed down before the Y2K bug was given oxygen, and since then, the Munich giant has penned almost every conceivable size and body style – not all of them successful. Now, it returns to the original formula, albeit upsized.

Enter the all-new X7, BMW’s first proper seven-seater. Its length extends over five metres to 5151mm and, importantly for a genuine seven-seater, its wheelbase extends to 3105mm. The only contender close to those proportions is the Mercedes-Benz GLS, measuring 3075mm between the wheels and 21mm shorter overall. But the Benz is a rival in dire need of a generational update – expected to land next year – which excludes it from competing in this test.

So if 5+2 accommodation is your non-negotiable prerequisite, the richly equipped X7 surely wins by default. See, Audi’s facelifted seven-seat Q7 – a contender even smaller than the GLS – hasn’t arrived yet, forfeiting Ingolstadt’s ability to compete on level terms. But for plenty of buyers, life’s big decisions are far from that clear-cut.

Which is where the all-new Q8 comes in, built upon the same MLB Evo platform as the Q7 and even sharing that model’s gaping grille which makes Hannibal Lecter look like a vegan. And despite a sleek ‘five-door coupe’ form, the five-seater’s wheelbase grows over the existing Q7 to 2995mm – even if it is by just 1mm.

A seven-seater it’s not, but these are the two newest, largest premium SUVs from Germany that provide distinctly different ways to spend almost $150K. It’s the battle of the bulging grilles, as well as a case of pros and cons.

We’ll start with the BMW X7, which boasts a price tag that undercuts its newest rival by almost $10,000. This is the entry-level 30d variant priced at $119,900, and it comes plump with gear.

Headlining safety is some of the Bavarian maker’s slickest technology, including AEB, adaptive cruise control with traffic follow assist, speed-sign recognition, and lane-keeping assist. It also comes with adaptive air suspension, soft-close doors, automatic split-fold tailgate, keyless entry and ignition, roof rails, ambient interior lighting, electric steering adjustment, panoramic sunroof and secondary sunroof for the third-row, four-zone climate control, heated front seats with electric adjustment and memory settings, electric second-row seat adjustment, wireless charging, head-up display and separate screens for the dash and infotainment.

In keeping with the legacy BMW series and capacity nomenclature, the 30d’s driveline comprises a 3.0-litre turbocharged diesel engine (as fitted to the X5 we tested last month against the Mercedes-Benz GLE and Volvo XC90) good for a hardy 195kW and 620Nm, fed through an eight-speed torque-converter automatic transmission to all four wheels. Our tester came with $23,150 of extras, bumping the price to $143,050.

For that, we see the $15,000 BMW Design Pure Excellence package (highlights include 22-inch alloy wheels, sports steering wheel, blue Merino leather upholstery, comfort seats, Alcantara headliner and Harman Kardon surround sound system); $4500 white and blue Merino leather trim (if the all-blue trim of the Excellence package doesn’t float your boat); $550 BMW display key; $1800 five-zone climate control; $800 ash trims; and $500 heated and cooled front cupholders.

Read more: BMW's luxury electric SUV push

Smaller than the X7, Audi’s sporty Q8 55 TFSI is also 180kg lighter than its rival but costs more, with a starting price of $128,900. It’s endowed with a 3.0-litre twin-scroll turbo-petrol V6 producing 250kW and 500Nm, and assisted by a 48-volt mild- hybrid system. Standard inclusions aren’t quite as luxe-focused as the X7, though safety technology is equally impressive, including AEB, adaptive cruise, collision avoidance, automatic high beam, lane-keep assist and a 360-degree camera.

Further inclusions are S Line trimmings, heated and ventilated electric front seats with memory function, Valcona leather upholstery, keyless entry and start, three-zone climate control, wireless charging, electric tailgate, three digital display screens, 21-inch alloys and adaptive dampers with steel coil springs.

Added to this tester is $9950 worth of kit: $2300 for metallic paint, an $1850 black exterior styling package, $400 of oak inlays, $900 for electric steering column adjustment and the $4500 dynamic steering package with four-wheel and variable-ratio steering bringing the total price up to $138,850.

That puts the Audi within five grand of the heavily optioned Beemer, which looks the more polished car. Inside, the X7’s vast cabin feels airy and sumptuous, the huge windscreen and long side windows creating a panoramic ambience. The view from second row is particularly dramatic when carving along a tree-lined road, as the huge sunroof and generous glasshouse envelop passengers with an IMAX movie-like experience.

Third-row passengers don’t miss out on much either, with surprisingly good legroom and their very own (but much smaller) sunroof. There are also two USB ports in each row for anyone who tires of the scenery. But while the seats are soft and very comfortable, we’ve found the electric folding mechanism to access the back row somewhat buggy on no fewer than three different examples.

Despite one less row to squeeze in, the Audi Q8 doesn’t feel larger in front or rear seats. Vision is less expansive up front and out of the side windows. A sunroof is a $3550 option, and the black-on-black trim of our test car, combined with the restrained interior design, makes it feel a bit austere.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard inclusions, which shame the BMW’s pay to play. It stops about there for competing against the Sumo-sized Bavarian SUV, though, as Audi’s smaller, darker cabin isn’t nearly as welcoming nor the seats as comfortable as in the X7.

Helping the Q8 win back points is its performance focus via the stirring V6 twin-scroll turbo, bringing an extra 55kW to flatten the X7 in a straight-line sprint. In fact, this big SUV will smoke a lot of hot hatches at the traffic lights grand prix.

A full one second faster to 100km/h from a standing start, the Audi only continues to pile on the advantage, measuring over three seconds faster to 140km/h. It also holds a useful upper hand in overtaking response, being nearly 1.5sec faster from 80-120km/h.

Read more: How the Q8 broke Audi's internal power limit

That doesn’t tell the whole story of the X7 though, as the oiler with its extra 120Nm of grunt over the V6 petrol is a rapid unit low down, lurching from a standing start like a wild pig. Equalling the Q8’s 2.8sec sprint up to 60km/h, it’s quick around the ’burbs, and managed to beat its own 0-100km/h claim by a tidy three-tenths. It also feels effortless to drive in comparison, which adds to refinement and makes good use of the ratios inside the ZF eight-speed auto.

The X7’s diesel continues to deliver at the refuelling stop, returning a frugal fuel consumption figure of 9.7L/100km compared to the petrol-gulping Audi’s 13.3L.

With such performance-car consumption, along with a weight advantage, it should come as no surprise that the Q8 is dynamically sharper. The steering feels more car-like with eager turn-in, aided by the ($4500 cost-option) four-wheel steering and variable-ratio rack, requiring almost one full turn less lock-to-lock than the X7. It helps the rear rotate around corners and makes low-speed manoeuvres easier to perform.

Add to that tremendous grip provided by the Quattro all-wheel drive system and the Q8 is capable of hanging on around corners while piling on the pace. The steering in Sport mode feels far tighter and more communicative, too, rather than simply reducing electrical assistance, and lends credibility to the notion that this SUV is a bit of a driver’s car.

That cohesion translates through the chassis, the adaptive dampers providing good body control in Comfort mode though turning too firm in Sport over anything but ultra-smooth roads. Riding on its 21-inch hoops, the Q8 benefits from relatively generous 285/45 profile rubber front and back that’s mostly compliant but busy over pitted bitumen.

Our X7 rides on dual-axle air suspension with an adjustable ride height of 40mm, but its larger 22-inch rims with lower-profile 275/40 front, 315/35 rear rubber want to work against the lofty suspension, and it can feel a touch wobbly on lumpy surfaces. Unlike the front and rear multi-link-equipped Audi, the BMW has a sophisticated multi-link arrangement in the back but adopts a conventional strut set-up for the front.

The X7 is less confident when turning into corners at pace and the tall body leans quickly over the nose, the weight pushing into understeer much earlier than the confidence-inspiring Q8. Combined with steering that is less direct and overly light, it’s not as engaging to drive.

Admittedly, the shortcomings in the X7 are evident only when punting through twisties, and the set-up is likely to satisfy most urban duties. The ride at low speed is superior to the Q8, with the air suspension effectively buffeting the brittle response from run-flat tyres underneath.

It’s clear that the Audi is the better driver’s car, but buying an SUV for performance pleasure should flag the question of why bother, when the cracking Audi RS4 Avant is only $15K more than this pricey crossover coupe with its relatively necessary options. But of course, presenting itself as a desirable and sporting SUV is exactly its proposition, and one the Audi excels at.

So where does that leave the X7? It’s perhaps the most refreshingly commonsensical new line of SUV that BMW has produced in recent times. Yes, it is huge, but it is so well packaged, easy to drive and well-suited for a large family of any maturity that it should surely be a prerequisite on their shopping list. Honours almost even, then.

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