Steady in the snow

See some of the wintry landscapes senior transport correspondent Christopher Tan drove through in Finland and Norway.

Audi's first SQ7 takes flight with the most powerful diesel engine the company has ever made

If you think autonomous driving is just round the corner, go to northern Norway.

In frigid North Cape, where the land is blanketed in white for at least seven months of the year, a car's sensors and electronic aids are mostly useless.

Audi's SQ7, the flagship of its Q all-terrain cars, is fitted with the latest assistance systems, including active lane-keeping, adaptive cruise control, all-round camera and infrared night vision.

But they do not work very well in the moon-scape, where lane markings are often obscured, where snow dust chokes sensors, where the tailgate literally ices over after just 20km of driving.

Passengers in the SQ7 are kept safe and snug in terrain ranging from icy tarmac to compacted snow to fresh thick-pile powder.
Passengers in the SQ7 are kept safe and snug in terrain ranging from icy tarmac to compacted snow to fresh thick-pile powder. PHOTO: AUDI

  • SPECS / AUDI SQ7

  • Price: $650,000-$700,000 (est)

    Engine: 3,956cc 32-valve biturbo diesel V8 with supercharger

    Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with paddle shift

    Power: 435bhp at 3,750-5,000rpm

    Torque: 900Nm at 1,000-3,250rpm

    0-100kmh: 4.8 seconds

    Top speed: 250kmh (electronically limited)

    Fuel consumption: 7.2 litres/100km

    Agent: Premium Automobiles

Even images on the night-vision screen lack definition.

It is so cold, the rear windscreen wiper and defroster cease to be effective before long.

Activating the washer only speeds up the icing process.

Yet, the qualities of the SQ7 which keep you safe and snug are not compromised by the weather. Speed warning is linked to the car's navigation system and is not dependent on road signs, which are sometimes frosted.

In this part of the world, where speeding fines vary according to a driver's income, a ticket can be extremely costly to those who can afford a car like the SQ7.

The SQ7 is exactly the type of car you would want to be in in a hostile environment, though.

It is fitted with a monumental 4-litre biturbo diesel V8 which feeds power to all four wheels via a seamless eight-speed transmission.

It is the same engine found in the Bentley Bentayga Diesel and puts out 435bhp and 900Nm of torque from just 1,000rpm.

That makes it one of the most powerful diesels ever created, overshadowing even the 5-litre V10 which powered the VW Touareg R50 a decade ago.

It owes its towering shove to an electrically driven compressor, which provides boost at near-idling engine speeds before the two turbos spool up.

The immensity of its engine makes the 2.4-tonne Audi feel like a lightweight two-seater.

Where the terrain allows, zero to 100 is accomplished in 4.8 seconds (quicker than a Porsche Cayman) and top speed is electronically capped at 250kmh.

Yet, the test-car averages 7.9 litres for 100km - not far from its declared figure of 7.2 litres. With a full tank, it has a range of about 1,000km, which is comforting in this frozen wilderness.

The car's output is almost too much for the surfaces it encounters, which range from icy tarmac to compacted snow to fresh thick-pile powder (the last being the most treacherous).

The SQ7, shod with special metal-studded tyres, does an admirable job of converting torque to traction.

Passengers in the SQ7 are kept safe and snug in terrain ranging from icy tarmac to compacted snow to fresh thick-pile powder.
Passengers in the SQ7 are kept safe and snug in terrain ranging from icy tarmac to compacted snow to fresh thick-pile powder. PHOTO: AUDI

Still, you have to be mindful of pressure applied to the throttle or the tail of this rear-biased quattro will invariably stray.

Fortunately, the car gets back on the straight and narrow as soon as you ease off the pedal, even if a slight counter-steer is required every now and then.

Like its Q7 siblings, the SQ7 is not at all unwieldy despite its size and heft. But with all-wheel steering as standard fare, it is nimbler than you expect.

The helm also feels a little lighter, but that has to do with the white- coated tarmac.

Despite the slippery route, the beefy SUV progresses with relative ease and certainty.

Its brakes shed speed with the gentlest of pressures, which is a good thing on snow and ice.

And when you do need to slam on the pedal, the anti-lock system is effective even on a slope, allowing the SQ7 to retain full steering control.

That was how I managed to avoid one mishap, but not another. I drove too close to the edge of a concealed road and the car ended up on its side.

To its credit, the Audi kept its occupants unscathed. And surprisingly, when it was towed out, there wasn't even a scratch on it.

You would want to be in a car like this - whether there is a driver at the controls or not.

But with the recently announced diesel-punitive Vehicle Emissions Scheme, the Audi, which has survived sub-Arctic conditions, may not make it to sunny Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2017, with the headline 'Steady in the snow'. Print Edition | Subscribe