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Audi Q7, 2006 Volkswagen Golf R32, 2007 Mercedes-Benz SL Class, Volkswagen Concept Cars - Dispatches

The latest dispatches from around the world

Jun 18, 2006
Epcp_0606_01_z+dispatch+bentley_interior Photo 1/1   |   Audi Q7, 2006 Volkswagen Golf R32, 2007 Mercedes-Benz SL Class, Volkswagen Concept Cars - Dispatches

If you're not familiar with Audi's Q7 concept, just try and imagine what would happen if an A6 Avant (that's a wagon to you noobs) and a Volkswagen Eurovan had a baby. The ensuing offspring would combine the utility of a passenger van with the athletic aura of a sportwagon.

To this end, I suppose, Audi refers to the Q7 as a "crossover vehicle." I don't like that term, though, and neither should you. Therefore, we won't mention "crossover" ever again. Audi also calls the Q7 a third-generation SUV, neither a rustic off-roader nor a second-gen SUV built more for comfort than dirt. For all intents and purposes, the Q7 is a brave new machine. Although it's a bit late to the party, Audi took its time designing the Q7 and did it right, building a very enjoyable car.

2017 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class
$86,950 Base Model (MSRP) 20/28 MPG Fuel Economy

Although the world could probably do without another vehicle like this, Audi has gone to extensive lengths to make the Q7 the best of its class. Hell, you might even say they overdid it. When I mentioned the probability that most people will not need the standard Quattro driveline, I was summarily stabbed with multiple eye-knives.

"The Q7 will always have Quattro," said Frank van Meel, Q7 project leader. "The concept dictated a level of performance we could only achieve with specific hardware. Even if it isn't necessarily visible, the driver can rest assured the Q7 will perform when needed."

That sounds expensive to me. With a base MSRP of $49,000 the Q7 ain't cheap. However, what will sell the Q7 is the copious amount of luxury, style and performance it brings to the SUV table. It could easily become the new standard in executive transport, a car capable of picking up the CEO at the airport and shuttling him to a mountain retreat. The thing is, I'd bet a great many Q7s end up in the hands of the quintessential soccer-moms, people whose off-road adventures include traversing the Chuck E. Cheese parking lot or running to the local market. And that's OK too.

It's clear Audi designed the Q7 with the U.S. market in mind (clear because that's what they said). I say this because there's no less than 10 cup holders situated throughout the cabin. And because Europeans (Germans especially) hate the thought of drinking and driving, these holders are superbly positioned, including the unit in the door that is perfect for a 16-oz water or large diet coke. The Q7's cabin includes a bunch of hidden storage compartments both fore and aft perfect for Gameboys, Malibu Barbies, ski boots... whatever. Audi says there are some 28 different loading configurations, from simply folding down the all the seats for 72 cubic feet of storage to increasing people capacity to seven. The Q7 is most comfortable in a two-plus-two configuration with the third row seats laid flat. The seat backs are equipped with rails and a cool crossbar that makes it possible to elegantly secure rear cargo. The rear passengers get their own climate control, a sizable center armrest (storage, drinks, toys) and fold-down trays integrated into the backs of the front seats. The Q7 is one of those cars that actually make you look forward to being a passenger.

But that's not to say the Q7 isn't a hoot to drive. The driver's controls are modeled after the Audi A6, which is to say they're near perfect. Audi's ergonomics are the best in world-easy to read and easy to use. Even the highly advanced MMI (optional) driver information system manages to make Luddites feel welcome.

Unbeknownst to me, Arizona does not adhere to daylight savings time. Therefore I overslept and the party started without me. There's always a big rush as journalists jostle for keys, typically going for the models with the biggest engines and brightest paint. When I got there, all that remained was a single, gunmetal gray Q7 with a diesel engine. Whatever.

Although Audi has done great work with its TDI series, I wasn't prepared for this level of goodness. The 3.0-liter V6 is both amazingly quiet and very torquey. Despite its rather hefty 5000-pound curb weight the TDI Q7 felt nimble and light. And even more surprising is that there's no diesel smell (actually there's no smell at all). The TDI's goodness was amplified when we managed to get into the standard 4.2-liter FSI gasoline model. Yeah, it sounded better but it is outgunned by the TDI's 370 lb-ft. Off the line, a TDI-equipped Q7 would spank a comparably equipped 350 bhp/325 lb-ft gas version, at least to 65 mph.

As I write these words, Audi and its European colleagues are working on a solution to current U.S. restrictions on diesel fuel particulates. Given Audi's current technological push toward furthering diesel technology (think of the R10 racecar), perhaps they know something we don't. Gasoline is currently cheaper than diesel but the TDI-engined Q7 gets better mileage. Personally, I'd go with the TDI. It's a rockin' engine that'll completely change your perceptions on oil-burners.

I spent the remainder of the day in a 4.2-liter Q7, the only flavor we currently get. It was a Premium Package model equipped with a panoramic sunroof, navigation system, adaptive air suspension, rear view camera and stylish 20-inch wheels. I can't remember his exact words but Morrissey said something to the effect that when luxury becomes a necessity, you're screwed (or words to that effect). I guess I'm screwed then, because I cannot fathom driving a Q7 with anything less. With a commanding view of the road, the Q7 would be the perfect conveyance for long-distance touring. It cruises like a velvet-lined bank vault, which is to say it feels both solid and quiet. The panoramic sunroof lends a terrarium-like impression so maybe the bank vault analogy needs reworking. The six-speed Tiptronic gearbox quickly chooses the highest gear and urgent upshifts are not its forte. Then again, it is a heavy car and it sometimes feels that way, at least with the gas motor. Yes, you can put it in the manual select mode for greater control, but that would mean less time to concentrate on both the XM and Sirius channels.

We spent some 90 miles on the highway, enough distance to realize the Q7 seems impervious to crosswinds and passing trucks. The steering is good and well weighted, although its on-center feel is somewhat vague. Then again, it's a Quattro driveline-that's part of the deal. As we turned into the off-road park, we raised the air suspension to full height only to have it automatically reset itself as our speeds exceeded 55 mph-in the dirt. Drift it, jump it, slide it... the Q7 doesn't care. It'll do just about everything within reason.

I suppose that's the big question: What will customers expect from the Q7 and what is "within reason"?

If you need a luxurious, capable and unique SUV for an active lifestyle, the Audi Q7 is it.

First Drive
2006 Volkswagen Golf R32
The Return Of The Gentleman's GTI
After production ceased on Volkswagen's riveting Mk IV R32 in 2004, many wondered if the hot hatch would resurface with the next platform. Considering the Golf V's superior handling characteristics, it would be quite the machine. For Europe, the wait is over and Mk V R32s are already spanking the roadways. It's a different story here, as Stateside fans will have to play a game of wait-and-see. Some speculations alluded to skipping the 3.2-liter altogether in favor of an R36 model powered by the 280-bhp, 3.6-liter V6 currently housed in the Passat, but this does not seem likely, at least not anytime soon.

Meanwhile, we jumped at the chance to drive the new R32 in the outskirts of East Berlin and instantly fell in love. Because of rain and patchy snow that fell prior to our arrival our test mules were fitted with winter tires, but that didn't stop us from pushing the limits on the tighter sections or on a brand-new section of autobahn. The tires and wet surfaces kept us from testing the car's claimed 155-mph top speed, but we did come safely within range.

This is a much more refined R32, outshining its predecessor in every respect. No longer do you have to invest a grand or so just to get the suspension up to snuff. The Mk V's MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension is simply brilliant. While slightly larger and a tad heavier, the car dances circles around its former self. And thanks to better airflow, the equally superb narrow-angle VR6 gets 10 extra horses, now providing an impressive 250 bhp.

As standard, power is transferred to all four wheels via a manual six-speed tranny. Our test model was equipped with the optional DSG (direct shift gearbox) with paddles. As we stated on many prior occasions, it's hard to imagine a better-engineered package. Upshifts are quick and effortless, as are rev-matched downshifts. The option has proven popular with the R32, as well as with the GTI and Jetta GLI, accounting for more than half of sales. The 4Motion system and its latest generation Haldex was invaluable along our drive route, of which portions were wet, covered in snow and ice or all three. The setup works in perfect harmony with traction control and anti-lock braking, as well as with the car's other driver assist programs.

Never once did I worry about losing traction around serpentine corners at speeds higher than most would feel comfortable. Our baggage stowed in the rear inevitably took the brunt. The tighter suspension is a bit bumpy and jostled by even the smallest road inaccuracies, but this is the price many are willing to pay for track-worthy performance straight out of the box. Just bear in mind that as comfortable as its sport seats are (and they are quite nice), long drives may leave you with a sore backside. If we get the car in America, chances are it will sit nearly an inch taller and will ride slightly softer. Can't get around U.S. safety standards. Somehow this doesn't stop BMW, whose M cars manage to maintain an ideal ride height with a perfect tire and fender gap.

The rest of the running gear consists of 18-inch alloy wheels and high-performance 225/40-series tires. Gut-wrenching braking power is sure to bring the car back to legal speed via large vented discs. As a distinguishing feature, the calipers are painted blue as opposed to the red units found on the GTI. Aside from the obvious R32 badges, additional features that help set the car apart from other Golf derivatives include a unique grille with two tandem bars in the upper section and an additional large intake at each bottom side. The lower third of the bumper is also wonderfully color-coordinated with the exterior. The dead giveaway, however, are the center-mounted twin stainless-steel exhaust pipes protruding from the rear diffuser like giant pea shooters.

If the GTI 2.0T is the affordable performance hatch, the better performing, premium priced R32 with its plush standard amenities and limited production status make it the quintessential alternative, the gentleman's GTI. Bragging rights begin at 32,200 euro.

First Drive
2007 Mercedes-Benz SL Class
Minor Facelift, New Engines, New Transmission
The R230 SL Class has received its first makeover. Slight cosmetic revisions, new optional equipment and new drivetrain combinations have been implemented for the 2007 model year.

The line's big seller, SL500, receives a new 5.5-liter V8 with two overhead cams per cylinder bank (previously one) and four valves per cylinder (previously three). The manufacturer claims fuel economy has remained unchanged despite the fact that the engine pushes a half-liter more displacement and makes more power, 80 bhp and 50 lb-ft of torque more than the outgoing V8. A base SL350 will also be offered with an all-new, 272-bhp V6 powerplant. Both the V6 and V8 engines will be linked to a seven-speed automatic (7G-TRONIC) transmission. An available sport option places paddle shifters on the steering wheel to allow the driver more active control over his gearing.The SL600's current biturbo V12 (sohc 36-valve) has been enhanced to produce 17 bhp and 22 lb-ft more than the outgoing engine. It will remain linked to the current five-speed automatic (apparently the seven-speed isn't yet quite up to the task of harnessing 612 lb-ft of torque). AMG models, too, will retain a five-speed, though the nifty paddle shifters will still be offered across the model range. The gear changes aren't as snappy as, say, Ferrari's F1 tranny, but they are a welcomed addition nonetheless. Next-generation Active Body Control will be offered as standard equipment on all models, except on the SL350 where it will be an option.

The cosmetic revisions are very subtle and include a revised front grille (three slats instead of four), reshaped airdam and chrome bezels around the foglamps. The taillamps now have white center inserts, and there are various upgraded trim bits and a wider range of interior customization, including upgraded materials, new interior colors, and new trim options (including, believe it or not, stone interior trim on certain models).

Regardless of which engine or what option packages you choose, this is the ultimate touring roadster. I say touring because it doesn't feel like a true, hardcore sports car. The ride is firm but fairly gentle for comfort. AMG suspensions are noticeably stiffer, but still not terribly hard when compared to something like a Porsche 911. This relative softness, coupled with the SL's considerable size and weight (about 4,200 pounds unladen), not to mention its massive power output-regardless of engine choice-can make things scary on tight, winding roads.

On less technical sections, or while just cruising, though, the driving is sublime. As far as fit, finish, quality and overall luxury Mercedes-Benz really has mastered its art, particularly on high-end models like this. They are an embodiment of tasteful, understated opulence. And the car is absolutely rock-solid; with the top up certain persons may not even know it's not a hard-top coupe. It truly is the ber-roadster.

Every time I go on one of these trips I come back convinced I'll never do anything that cool again, whether it's the location, the car, the drive route itself, or maybe just some strange and exotic location stamped into my passport. But every time, it seems, something comes up that one-ups my previous "coolest-ever" experience.

So there we are in Palma de Mallorca, primed to drive the newly facelifted SL range. As it turns out, we wouldn't get to drive the new car-at least, not until we drove the classics, which had already been ferried out to our location. One example-and in most cases, more than one-was available of every historical iteration of the SL: W113, R107, R129, and of course, W198s I and II.

I paired with Road & Track's Andy Bornhop, and we drove a 1957 300SLS "O'Shea" roadster from the staging area at Palma's airport to our first coffee stop. Well, he drove it. Despite Bornhop's merciless prodding and badgering, I was too terrified to take the wheel. (Keep in mind these cars came directly from the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart, and some of the early examples are worth upwards of a half-million dollars.)

When the chance came to get in the 300SL Gullwing, though, I couldn't say no. This car is a genuine automotive icon, and our example was absolutely pristine, with an original red leather interior and maybe a thousand clicks on the odometer.

In the last eight years I've driven a lot of new vehicles, but in my lifetime only a handful of older cars you could truly consider to be vintage. This one trumps them all, new and old. Naturally, it was nothing like a modern SL; the steering wheel was huge, the steering itself slow, the cockpit noisy, the throttle vague, and the brakes, well, let's just say braking technology has come a long, long way in the last 50 years. The first time I really had to hit the binders I ended up halfway inside a traffic circle, amidst a phalanx of angry, horn-honking Spanish drivers. I managed to avoid contact-or maybe it was contact that avoided me-and the three of us (Bornhop, 300SL and myself) made it back unscathed.

It has to be the coolest car-much less the coolest Benz-I've ever driven. SL65 AMG who?

Concept
Rolls-Royce 101EX

Rolls-Royce unveiled a new experimental car, 101EX, at the Geneva auto show. It has been hand built to explore a potential design direction for a future coupe model. According to chief designer Ian Cameron: "It is a very modern car, a 21st century design that respectfully nods to the past but focuses indisputably on the future." The four-seat 101EX uses the same lightweight aluminum construction that was developed for the Phantom, although the body is shorter by 240mm. Twin coach doors add to the car's rakish good looks and streamlined coupe profile. Inside, the cosseting interior has been designed for elegance and maximum comfort for all four occupants. Machined aluminum, fine leather, and rosewood and red oak veneers are used throughout. Slimline bucket seats offer outstanding comfort for front passengers, while the exceptionally spacious rear seat delivers intimate comfort for two. Privacy is assured by the unique sweeping C-pillars. The design team has also experimented with interior lighting on 101EX. For example, the car features a "starlight headliner" made up of hundreds of fiber optic cables to give the impression of a star-filled night sky. Currently, this is a design study only and there are no concrete plans to develop a production version of 101EX.

Concept
Volkswagen Concept A

Lately, Volkswagen buzz has centered around two things: its new lively and witty TV ad campaigns for the GTI and for its highly publicized Concept A. At its private introduction in Berlin, Germany, Volkswagen chief Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard made a rock star entrance driving the car through a man-made lake amid walls of massive ice blocks, thundering music and fireworks before parking on a stage constructed for the event inside an old Berlin train station. Set before a group of roughly 300 journalists, it was an impressive display likened to a Hollywood-style production. Bold and visually dynamic, Volkswagen says the Concept A will evolve into a production model as early as 2008 and will be positioned below the Touareg. The production version should look very similar to the concept, sporting a somewhat coupe-like silhouette, a more masculine version of VW's corporate face, broad shoulders and a nifty rear hatch with a split window/fold-down gate. It will likely feature a tall ride height with lots of suspension travel. Something similar to the concept's giant 20-inch free-floating-spoke wheels may also see production. Chances are it won't get the cool suicide door treatment or the missing B-pillar. The Concept A rests on an all-wheel drive platform and is powered by a 1.4-liter TSI twin-charger engine. The production model should get all-wheel drive as well, but power will likely come from VW's 2.0-liter turbo. Unlike the traditional approach to naming a new vehicle typically by one or all of the board members, the new car will bear a name chosen by the public. "The customers will decide the name of their future car," said Bernhard. Does this mean it won't be named after a nomadic North African tribe in the Sahara desert?

Seat Time
2006 Bentley Continental Flying Spur
British Heritage, German Refinement; Can It Get Any Better?
Life is good behind the wheel of a Bentley Flying Spur. It's a mood-altering experience. Bad day at the office? No matter. Just step into the sumptuous interior of an F-Spur and at once your crummy day is somehow better. Take a nice leisurely drive and you'll forget about the day entirely. Fact is, this car has the uncanny ability to do many wondrous things-cradling its passengers in complete luxury at speeds more characteristic of a Porsche Turbo or Ferrari F430 listed among them.

Unlike other ultra-luxo brands, Bentley has captured a widening audience. Rich, poor, young and old, everyone seems fascinated by its appeal. During our recent test drive, the car garnered more attention than any other single vehicle we've tested in recent memory. Even the magazine's somewhat jaded administrative staff solicited impromptu rides, or at least a closer look: "What a beautiful car, take me for a ride?" and "Oh, I noticed you're driving the Bentley. Free for lunch?"

Becoming instantly popular is something the Flying Spur owner will have to get used to. Like winning the lottery, soon everyone will want to be your friend. Then again, with a $165,000 sticker you just may have to win the lottery to afford one. Still, providing a high-end luxury sedan sandwiched between the less expensive S-Class and 7 Series and the pricier R.R. Phantom and the Maybach is part of the car's overwhelming success. Since its world debut in 2005 at Geneva, the F.S. has completely sold out. If you want one, you'll likely have to wait for the 2007 model due later this year.

Designed simultaneously alongside the Continental GT, the Spur shares similar styling and is virtually identical from the front half. However, the foot-longer sedan, with its two additional doors, provides a spacious rear seat and a sizeable trunk, complete with the Phaeton's elaborate hinge setup. As with the front, rear passengers ride in complete comfort, surrounded in soft, hand-sewn leather upholstery throughout, including the headliner. The car we tested featured the standard bench seat, which offered plenty of leg, head and elbow room. Although it was equipped with fully adjustable front and rear heated and cooled seats, separate climate controls and other luxury features, at this price point the car should come with dual monitors in the headrests with wireless headsets as standard. Regardless, the back seat is pure elegance and a nice place to be. An optional "executive jet" package offers individual rear seats separated by a leather-wrapped, walnut console that spans the entire length of the interior.

This is a car that could be chauffeur-driven, but most owners will opt to drive-and for good reason. With an ungoverned top speed of 198 mph, the Spur carries the elite distinction as the world's fastest production sedan. Its ability to reach triple digit speed in roughly 11 seconds makes for a surreal experience. You don't expect a car of this size and heft (5,400 pounds) to accelerate even half as fast, unless it really did have wings (and a pair larger than those found on the hood crest). Its sub-five-second zero-to-60-mph sprint is utterly mind boggling, as is the mere 4.6-seconds between 30 and 70 mph. For that matter, so too is its incredible stopping power. The world's fastest four-door aptly carries the world's largest passenger car brakes with massive pizza pan-sized rotors (15.9 and 13.2 inches).

While the Spur isn't the most agile car, it makes up for it with better than expected steering response and a favorably nimble overall ride for its size. Still, its acceleration through locomotive-force torque is clearly what impresses most. At the heart of the matter lies the twin-turbocharged 6.0-liter W12 engine that produces an impressive 552 bhp. Sporting a six-speed paddleshift Tiptronic-style gearbox that allows either auto or manual modes, power is directed to the pavement via a full-time all-wheel-drive system. The combination, based on Volkswagen Group's D1 chassis, proves exceptionally effective and an ideal pairing. Many people argue whether or not the car is British or German. In the end, it doesn't really matter. What does is that the Bentley Continental Flying Spur is the best all-around luxury sedan in the world. It does so many things remarkably well. And it's not bad for one's ego either.

Continental Flying Spur By The Numbers
Peak power (bhp): 552
Peak torque (lb-ft): 479
Peak torque available at (rpm): 1600
Number of cylinders: 12
Displacement (liters): 6.0
Displacement (cc): 5998
Number of turbos: 2
0-60 mph (sec.): 4.9
Top Speed (mph): 198
Front brake rotor diameter (in.): 15.9
60-0 mph stopping distance (ft): 117
Passenger capacity: 5
Cowhides used for interior: 11
Number of airbags: 8
Curb weight (lb): 5,400
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy): 11/22
MSRP: $164,990

Sources

JE Design
Leingarten, Ge D-74211

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