2007 Audi Q7

Even if you hadn't spotted the tall, white wooden-barrel storage buildings that are fenced in like a high-security prison, it's easy to detect the proximity of a distillery. The perfumed air, pregnant with sweet and seductive scents, can make you dizzy in just a few deep breaths. Better still, attend a tasting session to find out why even devoted fans of Scotch whiskey can be coaxed into swapping their Famous Grouse for Wild Turkey.

On an entertaining, zigzag course that meanders through some of the prettiest landscapes south of the Ohio River, the Q7 had ample opportunity to prove its dynamic virtues. Here, where the pavement is relatively smooth, the fat twenty-inch Bridgestones earned an advanced degree in roadholding. Although traction is never an issue, it's nice to have an extra bit of grip during tight corners. Through shadowy forests where the first snow of the winter had no trouble hanging on in subfreezing temperatures, we sampled the benefits of the new, rear-biased Quattro system, which splits the torque 40/60 instead of evenly. On the slippery stuff, it took only a moderate torque boost to kick out the fat rear summer tires and induce a supersize portion of power oversteer. This attitude not only enhances the entertainment value, it also helps keep terminal understeer at bay. In addition, it takes a larger percentage of the propulsion duties away from the front axle, which in turn has a direct effect on the steering. Shock and wind-up are never an issue, and you rarely need an interpreter to translate messages from the helm.

The Q7 has been fitted with Audi's latest-generation stability control system, which has been endowed with several new features. During emergency stops, for instance, the ABS sensors will automatically switch on the hazard lights. On steep descents, the brake assistant maintains a constant speed. By dialing in the off-road mode, different algorithms will adjust to the conditions that prevail off the beaten track.

After a two-hour chase along the Tennessee border, the Q7's four discs shone like silver plates, but the brakes could do with a bit more initial bite and pedal feel as well as more servo assistance over the last few yards before coming to a stop.

Like the Cayenne, the Q7 drives more like a high-roof car than a low-roof SUV. It looks big and it weighs too much, but there is an effortlessness behind that faade. Yet the overall impression is of both overkill and underachievement, leaving us thinking that less would be more. We had hoped that Audi, if anyone, would rewrite the SUV playbook, or at least chapters of it. We anticipated some kind of revolution beneath these proportions-especially because the Q7 shares only fifteen percent of its parts with the Touareg/Cayenne. What progress we see is relatively two-dimensional: you get more space, more equipment, and more versatility rather than more ingenuity, more risk, more differentiation, and more brilliance.

The Q7 may be the new leader of the pack, but the pack still follows uncomfortably close to its heels. It is much closer to SUV heaven than to the hell of live-axle trucks, but it is not quite the aged-straight, single-barrel, gold-medal stuff we sip in our dreams.

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