Efficiency and excess are strange bedfellows. Yet from opposite sides of the world both the Audi SQ7 and Tesla Model X P100D each attempt to arrange forced marriages for these two seemingly opposing traits.
Neither large SUV comes cheap, costing $150,000 and (well) beyond. The best technology is expensive, and heavy. Both the German Audi and American Tesla seat up to seven people inside their identically sized 5.0-metre-long bodies. Weighing between 2330kg (SQ7) and 2497kg (P100D), these really are heavyweights.
Yet size, and weight, and a high price, apparently isn’t a curb to efficiency. Of course the Model X is all-electric with zero emissions, able to be recharged from a currently-free Tesla-supplied ‘supercharger’ network in an hour-and-a-half or so.
While the Volkswagen Group has been caught up in a certain diesel emissions scandal over the past couple of years, the SQ7 returns here with a mighty V8 oiler, but with an electrically powered compressor to help spool the turbo and eliminate lag while increasing efficiency. Optionally, it has active anti-roll bars to attempt to eliminate bodyroll, and four-wheel steering to aid agility, with some self-driving ability.
In short, this Audi is the closest shot from a traditional brand to the controversial technology upstart that is Tesla. Yet this contest doesn’t simply distil down to diesel versus electric – read on, becomes it soon becomes much more than that.
Audi SQ7 ($153,616 plus on-road costs)
Tesla Model X P100D ($261,132 plus on-road costs)
On paper, there is a $107,516 pricing difference between the SQ7 and Model X P100D. And yet with the press of a button that can be reduced substantially.
Tesla could only supply its P100D flagship for testing, which has Ludicrous mode that enables a claimed 0-100km/h in 3.4 seconds. Switch that mode off, and it does the same in 5.0sec – the time set by the $175,852 (plus orc) 100D that would have been a better fit here. Ludicrous is one very pricey ($85,280) party trick, then.
Versus the non-P 100D the SQ7 is $22,236 cheaper and it claims a near-identical 4.9-second 0-100km/h. And the non-D is identically equipped to the D.
The cheaper 100D even claims that 565km can be travelled between recharging, compared with only 542km for the P100D tested here. Claimed combined-cycle fuel consumption is 226 Watt-hours per kilometre – and as the model names denote, both Model X flagships have a 100,000 Watt-hour battery capacity. Oddly, though, the latter figure divided by the former equals 442, for a theoretical 442km range.
By contrast the Audi claims to drink 7.2 litres of diesel per 100 kilometres and, with an 85-litre fuel tank, should be able to drive 1180km between service station refills.
Compared with their wildly different methods of propulsion, the SQ7 and Model X appear orthodox in their classic SUV shape and typical three-row cabin configuration.
Aptly, we’ll start in the core positions for a large SUV – the second and third row.
Where the Audi gets seven seats as standard, Tesla charges $4350 to replace the standard five-seat format with two positions in three rows as tested here. The far more sensible and efficient option is to select seven seats instead for $5800 extra.
Why? Well, P100D is 103mm wider than SQ7; at 2.07 metres from door to door.
In lieu of three flat middle seats provided by the German contender, the American gets wider chairs with greater side bolstering. Choose the inefficient six-seat option, and a chair is simply deleted, leaving wasted space between outboard pews. Choose seven-seat, and an identical seat is intelligently added to fill the void.
Yet the 10cm of extra shoulder width the Model X delivers isn’t even its best X-factor single hit. Those controversial Falcon Wing doors seem gimmicky, and they have been prone to reliability issues overseas, but in the real world they work beautifully.
That conclusion has nothing to do with style and everything to do with practicality – they raise so high that occupants entering the third row can stand in the SUV before lowering themselves down. No crimping of heads and shoulders here.
In the Model S sedan on which this large SUV is based, a low roofline and underfloor battery storage conspire to push the legs of occupants higher than normal, while forcing heads down. Not so in the Model X, which in spite of its oddball egg-shaped exterior, actually provides a cavernous cabin with vast legroom and headroom.
With all seven seats in place, the Audi claims to provide just 235 litres of boot volume. However, without an exhaust system, the Tesla boasts the deepest boot of any SUV, allowing a pram to stand upright without hitting the roof. And without an engine up front, it includes a luggage compartment there as well.
With all seats folded – a good indication of entire cabin size – the SQ7 claims a maximum 1890L versus a gargantuan 2180L for its rival.
The Tesla makes its diesel rival seem inefficient in both packaging and practicality.
Centre-row room is similarly generous in both in all directions, except there is no transmission tunnel in the P100D, which provides extra middle rider foot space, while all occupants can also place their legs under the ‘floating’ chairs.
The third row of the Model X is far plusher than its rival, with a more heavily tilted base and greater headroom. There are even third-row air vents, where the German only has a window demister function.
Then the killer blow lands.
To access the third row a Tesla owner simply pushes one button on the side of the centre outboard seat. The backrest then electrically tips forward and slides. In the Audi, it’s a manually adjustable multi-stage process that needs two hands – fold the backrest down, then pull the base to flip up against the front seats.
It’s even tricker for third-row riders of the SQ7 wanting to get out. Curiously, though, the two third-row chairs are electrically powered but the second row isn’t.
All is not lost for the Audi, however. From the driver’s seat it feels like the more premium product, with a lower seating position and shallower dashboard.
Both get digital driver instrumentation, however the Tesla’s huge centre screen is also both more intuitive and feature-packed – with predictive navigation search and Spotify integrated apps connectivity, it eclipses the bulkier rotary dial controller used for the Apple CarPlay functionality on the non-touchscreen Audi.
That intuition is offset by the Model X’s expansive panoramic windscreen, which gives great visibility except when driving towards the sun. Then, it is a horrible glare-fest that demands a driver constantly adjusts the ultra-thin sun visor. Unlike the clever Falcon Wing doors, it’s an affectation.
Despite being cheaper to buy, the SQ7 also comes with more equipment than its rival including adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assistance that form part of the $7300 AutoPilot package on its rival – although Tesla’s self-driving technology is far superior, from past experience.
On both the 100D and P100D, even leather trim is optional ($4800), as is a leather/Alcantara dashboard ($6600) and 17-speaker premium audio system ($3700); although the latter sounds utterly fantastic.
Add in 22-inch wheels ($8000) as also fitted to our test car, and this is a $291,532 (plus orc) large SUV.
Not that Audi is afraid of options. Add in a Dynamic package – see next section – for $13,500 as fitted to our test car, plus 23-speaker Bang and Olufsen audio ($11,340), 21s ($4000), panoramic glass roof ($3990), extended leather dashboard ($3600), Alcantara headlining ($3400), Matrix LED headlights with adaptive high-beam ($2200), power-assisted door closure ($1550), plus electric steering adjustment ($950), and a $198,146 (plus orc) SQ7 is the result.
In short, when each other’s specification is equalled, around $93,386 remains the difference between this duo. Or, just $8106 if the otherwise identically-equipped Model X 100D is chosen over this P100D.
ON THE ROAD
Performance and economy are mutually exclusive, as the Model X P100D proves. Its off-the-mark acceleration is other-worldly – ludicrous if you will – causing family passengers being ferried around over the Easter long weekend to shriek and/or laugh as the Tesla thrusts off the line.
Use full acceleration only a handful of times, however, and the claimed range before recharging plummets alarmingly. Our testing initially took us between Sydney and Goulburn, two hours south to one of Tesla’s ‘supercharger’ facilities positioned at various points along the Hume Highway towards Melbourne.
Consumption testing started following that recharge, which took an hour and a half.
On the freeway back, the P100D only used 40 per cent of its battery after 175km, delivering 234Wh/km – close to its claim of 226Wh/km for a theoretical range of 438km. Load up passengers around town, however, and the remaining 60 per cent of battery was used in just 125km for a 300km total range. Had the ‘tank’ been all-urban, the range would have been just 210km – less than half the 542km claim.
Oh how the SQ7 chuckles. It used 7.3L/100km on the freeway; astonishingly low for a heavy SUV and within 0.1L/100km of its claim. The worst around town, with a 31km/h average speed, was 10.9L/100km, while country driving saw 9.0L/100km.
Almost hilariously, after the Tesla was out after 300km, and the Audi had travelled that same distance, the SQ7 trip computer was still showing more than twice that distance (630km) to empty.
Even so, we surveyed several SUV owners before this test who suggested that their vehicle is garaged at home over 80 per cent of the time – which means a mind-change is required, to charge a car like a smartphone overnight rather than visit a service station’s greasy forecourt once per week.
The Australian Government’s Green Vehicle Guide – which uses the national average of kilometres driven, fuel/energy prices and official consumption figures to work out annual running costs – also estimates the Tesla will cost $791 per annum to ‘fuel up’ while the Audi will need $1483 over the equivalent median distance.
Regardless, for country buyers or long distance drivers, only the SQ7 awaits.
Beyond economy, though, which is simply the more compelling form of propulsion: electric-tweaked diesel engine or multiple electric motors? The answer is the latter.
By using an electric motor to spin up the turbocharger, Audi claims to have eliminated pesky turbo ‘lag’ off the line. It has, mostly, after experiencing the almost too-touchy throttle of the SQ7 from a set of traffic lights. Yet after also trying the silent, serene, instant torque of the Model X, the synthesised fake-burly note of the diesel contender annoys as much as occasional thump from the auto transmission.
During quick throttle increases when moving from lower-speed cruising to rapid overtaking, the eight-speed can stutter before delivering a lower ratio. It gives the impression of ‘lag’ where there shouldn’t be in something with 900Nm of torque from 1000rpm until 3250rpm, and 320kW of power between 3750rpm and 5000rpm.
The SQ7 never escapes the feeling that it is a big, heavy machine. The adaptive suspension does a sterling job of attempting to provide comfort and control in any of its modes (Comfort/Auto/Dynamic from softer to harder) but the sheer mass and absurdly large 21-inch tyres conspire to not ruin, but thwart, its best efforts.
Other new Audis, such as the five-seat and $50K-cheaper S4 Avant recently tested, feel nimble and silken. The SQ7, however, can often feel a bit floaty, or a bit too harsh, or very bulky when changing direction quickly.
It dislikes rough country roads, but likes smooth twisty bitumen, where its optional Dynamic package comprising a locking rear differential, active anti-roll bars and all-wheel steering do their best work.
Like the ailerons of an Airbus A380, along with jet thrust from the diesel and unflappable grip, all such elements brutally force this large SUV to handle well. But just like how the Model X’s range plummets if its performance is used too often, don’t expect the tyres to last long if the Audi is regularly driven enthusiastically.
And if it isn’t enjoyed often, then a $50K-cheaper Q7 3.0 TDI with its optional, creamy-smooth air suspension is the smarter buy.
Although the German delivers with hard-driven balance and panache, the more enjoyable large SUV to drive more frequently is actually the big American.
Its steering is consistently lighter, more direct and fluid, its ride remains far more level and controlled while being especially more supple at low speeds, and while its handling is of the basic, point-and-shoot variety – all grip, little balance – the instant performance and sheer grip will have any driver grinning.
The least impressive part of the P100D driving experience is its optional 22-inch rims, however. They hate rough roads as much as the Audi’s 21s do, and while they don’t rumble to the same extent, the Tesla is likewise unhappy on country surfaces – so forget about using up their all-wheel drive capability on unsealed ones.
Who would have thought that a contest between a German-engineered diesel-powered Audi and a US-built all-electric Tesla could come down to interior space? Surely, though, this is the reason to buy a seven-seat large SUV and it’s the Model X that comfortably bests its rival inside.
Value-wise, save $85,000 and choose the 100D over the P100D. It even gets a longer range between recharging, while matching the SQ7 for 0-100km/h performance and being – when optioned like-for-like – only $8106 pricier.
Picking a powertrain depends on the (family) dynamics. Recharge in the garage every night and the Tesla is more convincing; need to go on long family holidays or travel touring stages of Australia, and the Audi is the one. Simple as that.
Both are compromised in terms of efficiency due to their size, weight and luxury. There are lighter, smaller cars that are more impressive to drive, for much less; even ones that seat seven. But technology costs, especially in a do-it-all package – and the Tesla Model X P100D balances efficiency with excess better than the Audi SQ7.
Audi SQ7 – 3.5 stars
Tesla Model X P100D – 4.0 stars