Mercedes-Benz GLS 350d: First Drive Review
- May 18, 2016
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I still remember the first time I met John Abraham. He was at an event to promote a popular brand of sun-glasses, and as the ‘Dhoom’ actor stepped out of a black Audi Q7, the crowd had gone absolutely ballistic. Just like the brawny model-turned-actor, the luxury SUV looked handsome with its muscular lines and gigantic size. It was quite a sight, and at that point, there couldn’t be a more blockbuster entry to announce that you've arrived.
And in the last decade as a journalist, I kept meeting several actors, cricketers, business tycoons and Page 3 celebrities who’s choice of commute was the brutish Audi Q7. No surprise, that the popular German SUV has sold over 5 lakh units globally… that too, without a major makeover in its 10 years of existence. The creme de la creme loved the Audi Q7, and there was nothing that could stop it from climbing the sales chart. Until perhaps when Europe imposed more stringent CO2 emission norms; Volvo completely rejigged the XC90 and Mercedes-Benz introduced a new range of the GL-Class SUVs.
So, the new generation Audi Q7 made its entry. Incidentally, this happens to be the first car model to be based on the mother company - Volkswagen’s new MLB 2 platform. Just the chassis is said to be about a 100kgs lighter than the older Q7, and overall the 2016 Audi Q7 boasts of shedding close to 325kg over its predecessor.
And since we’ve already driven it in Europe (read here), we experienced its light-weight benefits, and also know how well it drives for its size and segment. But what piqued our curiosity was what the India spec of Audi Q7 had to offer?
The new Audi Q7 comes in a completely new form. It loses the butch design of the outgoing model and appears to be sleeker. It has a more chiselled body and is clearly more compact. The spec sheet shows the length to be 37mm shorter, width down by 15mm and overall height lowered by 3mm. The idea is to make this full-blown SUV more aerodynamic and provide better fuel efficiency.
The new design has no bulging body lines, which gave the older car its imposing figure. But the new Audi Q7 looks fitter and more agile, even at a glance. However, it has retained some of the elements of the older model —like the one-piece hexagonal front grille and narrow headlights. But overall, the Q7 has lost the exaggerated mass, which makes SUVs so alluring.
The model we’re driving today is the top-of-the-line Audi Q7 Technology Pack which, apart from being more expensive than the standard Premium Plus variant, also looks slightly different.
This is mainly because the Technology comes with the beautifully detailed LED Matrix headlight and larger 19-inch, 5-spoke wheels.
Here the headlight is split with a ‘double arrow’ style feature which does resemble Volvo XC90’s ‘Thor’s hammer’ headlight design.
Like the front, the side also looks sharp with prominent wheel arches and crisp shoulder line, which part ways as they approach the rear wheels.
Inlay strips at the bottom of the doors with the ‘quattro’ embossed further accentuate the side profile. At the back, the angular tailgate stylishly extends over the D-pillar.
The only issue is that the subtle lines, sleek and long profile make the Q7 appear like a station-wagon, than a full-blown SUV.
Once you are inside the car, the Audi Q7 gives practically no reason to complain. It’s a beautifully crafted cabin and has excellent attention to detail. You sit tall on the large driver seat, which by the way, is completely electric-adjustable and very comfortable.
The driver gets a great view from his seat, thanks to the low positioning of the luxury sedan worthy dashboard finished in walnut brown and highlighted with brush metal. The layout is understated and classy, and like the Audi A8 has horizontal pattern. For instance, an unique set of AC vents run across the entire breath of the dashboard, with a brush metal strip running below and a wooden inlay underneath.
The neat layout hardly has any buttons on the dashboard, while most of the operations like radio, media, phone and navigation can be managed through a bunch of toggles, a dial and a touch-pad. However, I had quite a challenge to use the touch-pad with my left hand and feel this feature is better suited for left-hand-drive countries.
The chunky gear-knob looks premium and has a handy ‘Park’ button inbuilt, which prevents the Q7 from rolling when stopped at an incline. But the design of the knob makes it cumbersome to use if you want to shift gears manually.
I also hopped on to the second row of seats, and had not much to complain about either. The low floor and high ground clearance of the SUV means, getting in or out is fairly easy. There’s more space here than many Mumbai flats, with no shortage in knee, leg or shoulder room. The seats are large and supportive; the backrest angle can be adjusted for better comfort and the individual seat can slide forward to make room in the third row.
The middle row passengers get a manual blind on the window, to keep the sun at bay, and 2-zone climate control. If I really had to nit-pick then I would’ve liked some more under thigh support and the headrest could have been a few shades softer, as in the Audi A8. The centre seat is not as comfortable and the protruding centre tunnel doesn’t improve matters.
Coming to the third row then. As you already know, the Q7 is shorter in length but the smart packaging has helped in carving out decent space within the cabin. As compared to the older model, the new Q7’s last row is more useable now, provided you slide the second row right ahead. There is a lever which folds and tumbles the second row gracefully, to give access to row number three. On the third row, an average Indian like me will have his knees touching the back of the second row. With little support from the tiny seats, I was barely able to sit comfortably, and an adult can feel claustrophobic during a long drive.
The luggage area at the back is spacious, and the boot opening is wide and low for easy loading / unloading. The third row can be folded flat at the press of a button, and if the second row is dropped down, then you get a massive 1,995-litres storage space. But this is purely on paper.
In India, the new Audi Q7 comes with a space-saver spare wheel, which is a life saver. But the bad news is that it’s vertically strapped in the boot (instead of been under it), making most of the third row seats unusable and also eats into the luggage space.
Recently, during the launch event of the 2016 Q7, Audi surprised most by increasing the features on the Technology variant and yet dropping the price by a couple of lakh.
Standard features, which even the Premium Plus variant offers, include a really large panoramic sunroof; auto ORVM (Outer Rear View Mirror) with dimming, folding and heating system with memory. The Matrix headlamps come with intelligent covering lights, which doesn’t blind others on the road. Thankfully, like the international model the Audi also gets air-suspension, 8 airbags and half a dozen driving modes.
Inside, the new Audi Q7 gets electrically adjustable front seats, a 4-zone climate control and a 7-inch touch-screen that slides out of the dashboard and which can be used to set up various functions of the car.
Tucked away under the front centre armrest is another interesting feature - the Audi Phone Box. So, if you place your mobile phone on it, the system promises to improve the network reception with options of wireless charging certain phones. This proved of little use for my iPhone, which I could only charge using the USB port.
Apart from the usual rear camera, the top-spec Technology variant comes with 360-degree view of the Q7’s surrounding. This is extremely useful while parking in a tight spot, as the 7-inch screen gives a clear image of what’s around the car, while the Park Assist will help steer the car automatically in to a safe parking spot. Another feature most Audi Q7 Technology buyers will enjoy is the great sounding BOSE 3D surround music system.
The other thing I really like is the grip the driver gets of the four-spoke steering wheel and how quickly one can adapt to the multi-function buttons on it. But the highlight in the long list of driver’s aid has to be the Audi Virtual Cockpit. It’s essentially a foot long, high-contrast colour screen which gives out tonnes of information to the driver.
The system can be further customised so that it throws info from the Sat-nav, media, speedo etc. helping the driver to get all the data quickly, without deviating his or her eyes off the road for long.
Apart from being extremely useful, the navigation system has superb clarity and looks quite spectacular on such a large screen.
Engine and Performance:
To keep up with the rest of the new Audi Q7, the existing engine has also been revamped. The 3.0-litre V6 diesel motor of the outgoing model now feels even more refined than before and has better fuel efficiency than before. More importantly for petrol-heads, power has been bumped up from 244PS to 249PS, and torque increased by 50Nm to 600Nm now. The 8-speed automatic gearbox torque converter continues to power all four wheels using Audi’s quattro 4x4 system.
And the moment I stepped on the gas, it was evident that the additional power and generous weight-loss had made the new Audi Q7 a lot more dynamic and sharper than before. For a large SUV, a 0-100kmph times of 7.1 seconds is really commendable. And having driven the Volvo XC90, which is the Q7’s biggest challenger, I felt the new Audi to be sharper and more spirited.
The biggest improvement in the 2016 Audi Q7 is the refined diesel engine. There’s a feeling of richness even at idling and the V6 remains smooth even when it’s driven at full throttle. The new Q7 feels much lighter and quick, when compared to the older version.
To make the new Audi Q7 sharper, you can toggle around with the Drive Select system, that can alter the power delivery, gear shifts, steering feedback and suspension setup. Slot to ‘Comfort’ for plush city cruising or ‘Dynamic’ which prepares the Q7 at its athletic best. But no matter which mode you select, the engine never sounds strained, even while maintaining three digits speeds. And the credit goes to the well sorted gearbox.
The automatic transmission is alert, and quick to respond, shifting seamlessly through the eight cogs. It ensures to shift-up, keeping the car free of vibes and, in turn, improves fuel economy.
There are paddles on the steering to controls the gears, if you like. These come handy in the ‘S’ or Sport mode, as you can hold on each gear a bit longer and extract the maximum juice from the diesel motor. But when it senses that you are getting carried away and the tachometer is approaching the 4,600rpm redline with much ferocity, it shifts up before you command it to. This could be a turn-off for true-blooded enthusiasts.
Ride and Handling:
Keeping in mind the fact that the luxury SUV is over 5-meters long and weighs close to 3 tonnes, the new Audi Q7 is surprisingly easy to live with in a congested city like Mumbai. I preferred to keep it in ‘Comfort’ mode, which made the ride plusher, steering lighter and kept the throttle response docile. Since, you’re sitting at a commanding position on the driver’s seat, all round visibility is also great, making the Q7 very manageable in the traffic. The only issue is that the soft suspension setup makes the car wallow and roll a bit over road undulations.
To counter severe broken road, the Q7’s ride height can be raised by 60mm, simply by engaging the ‘Off-road’ mode. Apart from the Quattro all-wheel drive, which gauges the situation and provides the right amount of torque independently to all four wheels, there’s also Hill Decent Control (helps the Q7 crawl down a slope) and Hill Start Assist (ensures car doesn’t roll back on an incline). Plenty of electronic for your unlikely off-roading jaunt.
And when you hit the highway, its a good idea to shift to ‘Dynamic’ mode, which does arrest body roll to a great extent. The new aerodynamic design and lower centre of gravity gives this luxury SUV impressive high speed stability. Before one can realise, the speedo crosses 150kmph. Noise insulation is also brilliant. There’s barely any engine, wind or tyre noise filtering through the cabin, and this completely disguises the actual speed.
And as you speed up, the steering feel improves but it still has the artificial character to it. In terms of handling and driving dynamics, the new Audi Q7 is a massive improvement over its predecessor. The air-suspension is quick to adapt sudden changes in direction and the electronics further aid this cause.
The new Audi Q7 is more engaging to drive than ever before, and now we can’t wait to pit it against its traditional rivals like the Volvo XC90, BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne.
The new Audi Q7 has many things going for it. The beautifully crafted interior, unparalleled engine refinement and cabin insulation, which raise the bar in the segment. But like I had mentioned in my international drive report, the Q7’s biggest challenge is the tauter exterior design. The bulk and imposing stance of the older model was a key reason that encouraged so many celebrities and entrepreneurs to buy Audi’s luxury SUV over its competition.
To counter this, Audi India has priced the new Q7 pretty aggressively. The basic Premium Plus model at Rs 72 lakh and the top-end technology at Rs 77.5 lakh (Ex-showroom Delhi). We’ll get to know if the strategy will work in the company’s January 2016 sales figures.
Recommended Variant : Q7 Technology Pack
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