As we start out on our trek, the in-dash temperature gauge reads three degrees. On I-75 between Toledo and Cincinnati it begins to snow, and for 100 miles or so the conditions are quite treacherous, but the Q7 turns out to be a master of sure-footedness and splendid isolation. At the push of a button, the full-length blind that covers the three-piece sunroof whirs back, letting in plenty of daylight. The in-dash CD changer swallows a handful of our favorite discs, and the impressive Bose sound system turns the cabin into a concert hall on wheels.
The seats are cushy, comfy, and contoured to hug most shapes, and they lack novelties such as active side bolsters. The DVD-controlled navigation system is a gem, rendering Rand McNally superfluous. But the center console is shorter than that of an A6 or an A8, so the MMI controls sit farther back in the Q7, creating a conflict of interest between your right hand and the center armrest.
Every time we stopped, onlookers commented on the sumptuous cabin, the fine surfaces, and the generous equipment. Nobody noticed the foot-operated parking brake, which is a step backward from the push-button device fitted to the A6 and the A8. Sadly, ride comfort isn't up to the standard experienced in the sedans, either. On poorly maintained, frost-bitten roads, the optional twenty-inch tires fitted to our car weren't compliant enough at any speed. Expansion joints in particular kept sending rhythmic shockwaves through the cabin, making up for the absence of an optional massage function. In addition, our Q7 produced more road noise, suspension thump, and engine hum than expected.
The brakes are sufficiently potent, but despite the latest-generation ABS with intermittent pad swipe, the rotors collected an overdose of salt and spray on the long, cruise-controlled straights. As a result, pedal effort increased gradually, and the response suffered. On the credit side, the Audi has good directional stability and reassuring steering feel.
Without extras, the Q7 is relatively unremarkable. Yes, it's built like a rock (sorry, Chevrolet), it beats any Mercedes-Benz for surface quality, and it has a truly versatile cabin, with no fewer than twenty-eight different rear-seat and cargo-deck combinations. But it takes a long, deep reach into the options bag before the Q7 begins to feel really special. You need, for instance, adaptive air suspension, which features antidive, antiroll, and antisquat technology; maintains a constant vehicle height no matter the load; lowers the body at highway speeds by up to 1.4 inches to reduce drag and fuel consumption; and lets you choose from six different modes: dynamic, automatic, and comfort, as well as lift, kneel, and off-road. Lift boosts ground clearance by 1.4 inches to 9.4, kneel lowers the rear suspension to facilitate loading and unloading, and off-road adds an extra inch of clearance to protect the car's undercarriage. The ride quality is improved, too, bettering a BMW X5 with the sport package but lacking the suppleness of a Mercedes-Benz ML500.
Another innovation worth considering is ACC plus. This state-of-the-art active cruise control can be engaged between 0 and 90 mph, and it brings the Q7 to a complete stop should traffic conditions require. Another novelty is the collision alert feature, which warns the driver by sounding a gong and then applying the brakes briefly, all of which should wake up even the dopiest wheelman. Other options include an advanced parking system that adds a rear-view camera to the familiar mix of lights and beeps. Night vision is still not part of the package, but you can specify bi-xenon headlamps with daytime running lights and dynamic cornering lights. Side assist is yet another available feature. Designed to eliminate blind spots, it flashes a yellow light integrated into the side-view mirrors whenever a vehicle approaches from behind and the driver attempts a lane change.
After the drab scenery around Dayton and Cincinnati in Ohio, Kentucky comes as a bit of a (positive) culture shock. Affluence rules wherever the pastures are dotted with horses instead of cattle, but on this trip we're less interested in horsepower than in the strength of alcohol-after all, this is whiskey country, and the final section of our route takes us on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. This tourist attraction includes the Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, and Wild Turkey distilleries. Plus, of course, Heaven Hill.