If you’re after seven-seat practicality merged with luxury, technology and engines that aim to balance performance and efficiency, Audi and Lexus are competing for your money.
The Lexus RX hasn’t always been a completely natural rival for the seven-seater Audi Q7. Historically, the Japanese luxury SUV has been a five-seater that straddled the medium and large segments.
Lexus put that right in 2018 as part of an update for the fourth-generation RX, introducing an L variant with a longer body and two extra seats.
The RX has had another major update for 2020, neatly coinciding with a similarly revitalised Q7.
Currently, you can’t buy a Q7 for less than six figures, starting with the $101,900 45TDI. For this test we have the $112,900 2020 Audi Q7 50TDI that brings more power and torque from the same turbo diesel engine.
Lexus doesn’t do diesel outside of the heavy-duty LX450d 4x4, of course (not even in Europe any more), with its focus instead on hybrids for those looking to rein in fuel consumption.
The hybrid drivetrain currently accounts for about 30 per cent of RX sales – similar to the overall percentage of local Lexus hybrid sales.
The RX range starts from as low as $71,556 with four-cylinder turbo power, though to match the Audi’s pricepoint and seven seats we have the flagship 2020 Lexus RX450hL that costs $110,458 before on-roads. (The L variant is available from just under $85,000.)
Now to find out which large luxury SUV offers the best blend of performance, practicality, pampering and parsimonious fuel use.
Pricing and features
There are some features on the Audi we need to ignore, for fairness’s sake. Our actual test car is a 50TDI S Line that costs $119,900, with the ‘S Line’ part bringing various extras for the exterior and interior – including bigger (21-inch wheels), bodykit, sportier seats, some higher-grade interior materials, and a Bang & Olufsen audio system.
Yet the regular 50TDI’s equipment list has been bumped up significantly for 2020. Features now standard include adaptive air suspension, Matrix LED headlights, panoramic sunroof, head-up display, adaptive cruise control, 360-degree camera, wireless smartphone charging, wireless Apple CarPlay, plus there are now more online services available as part of Audi Connect Plus.
Audi says the additions total more than $20,000, which isn’t bad when the price has gone up by only $950.
Lexus has also thrown more at the RX for 2020, including new parking and high-beam technologies, improved AEB and pre-collision systems, and upgraded infotainment (all covered in more detail in our Infotainment and Technology segment).
And if you get the 450hL Sports Luxury, that’s it for gear – there are no options beyond exterior colour choices.
The upshot is that it’s difficult to split these models on features as both are comprehensively equipped (as you would hope for vehicles costing more than $110,000).
Shared between them are 20-inch alloy wheels, panoramic sunroofs, sophisticated suspension systems, electric adjustment for seats and steering wheels, gesture-control tailgates, advanced lighting systems, and luxuriously upholstered cabins.
Infotainment and tech
If you’re still not feeling sufficiently secure in your Q7 or RX despite driving a vehicle that’s nearly the size of a dual-cab ute – and with much better handling – there’s a multitude of assistance systems designed to keep you, as well as other road users, safe.
The Q7 lays claim to more than 30 assistance systems built around a long-range radar, forward camera, mid-range radar front and rear on both sides, and multiple ultrasonic sensors front and rear. Another four cameras create a 360-degree image of the vehicle’s surroundings, which helps greatly – along with front/rear sensors – when it comes to parking such a behemoth.
The Lexus has its own panoramic view available via four cameras.
Another reason you shouldn’t bump into any parked cars: the RX can now brake automatically if it thinks you’re about to reverse into something.
For night-time driving, both vehicles have advanced lighting systems – using different methods to avoid dazzling vehicles both ahead and oncoming by shading specific parts of the road while maintaining strong illumination for other areas, including road signs.
The RX’s AEB also now detects pedestrians (day/night) and cyclists (day only), and the Lexus adds speed-sign reading for 2020. The Q7’s AEB detects pedestrians but not cyclists and doesn’t offer speed-limit notification.
Exclusive to the Audi are Intersection and Turn Assist, which aim to prevent you accidentally turning across an oncoming vehicle, and Exit Assist that warns if you’re about to open a door into oncoming traffic.
Both models come with multi-speed adaptive cruise-control systems.
Many of these active-safety features are available on the Q7 45TSI and more affordable variants of the RX.
The Q7 joins other new and updated Audis in moving away from a centre console controller to a pure touchscreen set-up for its infotainment system. The 10.1-inch display is also integrated into the dash where previously it popped up.
It’s an excellent touchscreen, with haptic feedback creating a sense of pressing actual buttons – and helping to confirm you’ve selected a function. There’s swipe, pinch and scroll functionality, and a shortcut bar to help speed up access to key features.
And Audi Connect Plus now expands on Google Maps and search (and its inbuilt Wi-Fi hotspot) with new features such as online road assist, incident assist, remote lock/unlock, car finder, online traffic and weather, parking and fuel pricing info.
An 8.6-inch digital climate panel on the lower middle dash makes the dual-display arrangement reminiscent of Jaguar Land Rover’s Touch Duo Pro system. Audi’s execution just makes it slightly easier to figure out what’s what. However, changing temp/fan controls from simple physical dials to more fiddly digital buttons isn’t a step forward for ergonomics.
Audi’s brilliant Virtual Cockpit carries over, once again allowing drivers to tailor the 12.3-inch driver display via steering wheel buttons. Speedo and tachometer dials can be prominent, for example, or they can be shrunk so features such as the navigation map can occupy the entire screen.
A head-up display further allows the driver to keep their eyes on the road.
Lexus has given the RX’s infotainment system significant upgrades. The display size increases by more than 50 per cent, from 8.0 to 12.3 inches, and adds touchscreen capability. The screen isn’t naturally positioned for reaching, though – unless you have long arms.
The interface can still be operated from the centre console, though the RX switches from a joystick to trackpad. The trackpad is an improvement, though it remains tricky to be precise with selections – and that’s when you’re not driving.
The screen’s graphics and resolution also look dated alongside Audi’s ultra-sharp, ultra-slick presentation.
With its new digital displays, the Q7’s interior pulls off the feat of looking more expensive than before (even when allowing for the S Line’s extras).
There’s extensive use of gloss black and brushed metallics, and even lower plastics are partially yielding when pressed. The wide centre console helps emphasise the generous space between front occupants, and it again features a gear selector inspired by a yacht’s thrust lever.
The S Line’s sporty, flat-bottomed steering wheel just looks slightly incongruous in a big family SUV. The regular steering wheel is better, at least in our view.
S-Line seats are dressed in 'Valcona' leather, where 'cricket' leather is used for the regular 50TDI. (Seats are 'leather appointed' in the 45TDI.)
Quality also pervades the RX interior, with an abundance of soft materials and classy touches such as the polished door lock buttons, stitched leather gear lever gaiter, and the ergonomically shaped paddle-shift levers that curve at the edges.
The front seats are also ventilated as well as heated, whereas the Q7’s seats have only the latter function.
There are lower-grade plastics for lower sections of the cabin, though, and overall there’s a more traditional look here compared with the far more contemporary-looking Audi.
That’s especially true of our RX450hL Sport Luxury, which features wood sections for the steering wheel, doors and centre console. It suggests the target buyer may possibly own a Jaguar E-Type. Which they bought from new.
These large seven-seater SUVs need to impress with practicality as much as presentation, and they mostly deliver.
There’s plenty of knee space in both second rows even when sitting behind a 6ft 1in front occupant, with the Q7 – with a wheelbase of nearly three metres – offering that bit extra. (The L version of the RX puts all its extra length into the area behind the rear wheels – to help accommodate the third row.)
Foot space is more generous in the Audi, but there’s no shortage of head room in either vehicle even with the standard sunroofs.
Three adults can sit abreast in the second rows and both benches are comfortably cushioned. The RX’s completely flat floor makes it the pick for anyone sitting in the centre rear position, where the Q7 has a transmission hump, albeit not huge.
There’s dual-zone climate control for the Q7’s rear seat, while the Audi offers another advantage when it comes to fitting child seats. It features ISOFIX points in all three middle seats – plus another two in the dual third-row seats. The RX has ISOFIX points only for the outer middle seats, though there are top-tether anchor points for all rear seats.
The RX’s ISOFIX points are easier to access, though; the Q7’s are hidden behind a removable cushion bar that could be easy to lose when child seats are installed.
Seatback storage pouches and deep door pockets are common, with the latter wider in the Audi’s case. Centre rear armrests with cupholders are shared. The Lexus’s includes a lidded compartment with two USB ports. The Q7 places a 12-volt port and two USBs on the back of the centre console.
It’s natural light galore in the Q7 with its larger and more majestic-looking panoramic roof. The RX450hL loses the panoramic roof available on five-seater models, instead featuring a smaller, front ‘moonroof’.
The Audi, though, can’t match the RX’s heated rear seats or integrated window blinds (an underrated feature in our book).
Middle seats slide fore/aft – 60/40 in the RX’s case; individually in the Q7 – to allow some trading off for third-row space or extra boot space if the rearmost seats aren’t needed.
And second-row passengers in the RX need to sacrifice some of their leg room to allow passengers at least a modicum of comfort. Even then, it feels quite claustrophobic back there – compounded by the tiny window incorporated into the tapering black design element linking the main side glass area to the tailgate.
The Q7’s third row is also realistically for short trips only as far as adults or taller teens are concerned, though the Audi offers slightly more head room as well as more light thanks to more glass area.
The Audi, though, lacks dedicated ventilation for the third row, where the Lexus even provides controls.
For accessing the third rows, it’s a single ‘walk-in’ lever to slide the second-row seats forward in the RX and a two-stage process in the Q7 (pulling a lever to fold the second-row seatback, and then using a handle on the back of the seat to pull both the base and seatback upward and forward).
The seat is quite heavy, though Audi’s approach creates a slightly wider entry for climbing through. A little advantage for RX owners is that, when needing the third-row seats, they can store the cargo blind under the boot floor, whereas Q7 owners need to leave it at home.
Both vehicles provide electric operation to lower/raise the third-row seats.
With the rearmost seats in place, the Audi’s boot is a bit longer – though neither offers much space compared with a dedicated people-mover such as the Kia Carnival.
When those seats are flattened, however, there are large boots to swallow all sorts of luggage, scooters or kids' bikes. Fold the second-row seats and you’ll fit adult bikes.
That’s made a bit easier in the Q7, which offers a completely flat cargo floor with all rear seats folded, whereas the RX’s second-row seatbacks remain at an angle.
Quoted luggage capacities here prove why it's always best to check out actual boot space at a showroom, as Audi and Lexus have taken different approaches to measurement. Audi quotes 890 litres of boot space with the third-row seats flattened, measuring up to the roof; Lexus says the RX has 591 litres in the same set-up, measuring to the top of the seats. The boot sizes are similar.
You’ll find a V6 engine under the bonnets of both vehicles – and even ‘hybrid’ references – but that’s where any drivetrain similarities end.
Audi’s 3.0-litre is a turbo diesel teamed with an eight-speed torque converter auto and 48-volt ‘mild hybrid’ technology.
The Lexus’s 3.5-litre is a non-turbo petrol and supplemented by two electric motors – one on each axle – that can motivate the RX on their own. And the auto is a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
The Lexus’s combined 230kW trumps the Audi’s 210kW, though torque is more relevant when it comes to propelling two big SUVs that weigh more than 2.2 tonnes (the RX is 35kg heavier at 2275kg).
Lexus quotes 335Nm for both the V6 and the front electric motor, with the rear electric motor producing 139Nm. (As with Toyota, the company doesn't combine the figures as it's not an accurate reflection of the way all the torque is produced.) The 50TDI produces 600Nm, a 100Nm increase over the Q7 45TDI.
While the Q7’s diesel has plenty of low-rev and mid-rev grunt, it can be hindered by the auto gearbox. The eight-speeder can be slow to respond to the driver’s request for acceleration – including slightly tardy kickdown response at higher speeds.
The RX450hL’s petrol-electric combination feels responsive at all speeds, providing strong acceleration when required and generally making the Lexus the more effortless SUV to manoeuvre around town – especially when moving away from junctions, traffic lights or roundabouts.
Once the Audi is hooked up and rolling, its performance feels the more satisfying – smooth, muscular and impressively quiet.
There’s just another proviso when it comes to twistier country roads, where selecting gears yourself via the paddle-shift levers brings more fluid progress than leaving it to the gearbox.
For reference, there’s a 1.5-second difference in the 0–100km/h benchmark acceleration test. Audi quotes 6.5 seconds where Lexus quotes 8.0 seconds flat.
Hybrid buyers are typically more focused on fuel efficiency.
And while it’s well known that hybrids are most effective at saving fuel in town/city environs – where there’s greater opportunity to drive around at lower speeds using electric power only – there was an interesting result from our suburb-city-suburb test drive. The two big SUVs returned identical average (trip computer) fuel consumption of 9.0 litres per 100km.
The RX450hL’s weight makes it difficult to keep it powered by electrons alone, the petrol engine typically engaging earlier than it would in smaller Lexus models (or a Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, for example).
Fuel economy moved in the Q7’s favour as we headed out of the city – onto the freeway and into the countryside.
In these higher-speed scenarios, the Q7 can recuperate energy in Efficiency mode when the driver lifts off the accelerator – travelling for a short period with the engine either idling or switched off completely. Audi says this can save up to 0.7 litres per 100km.
The average-consumption difference between our SUVs was 8.3 v 9.6L/100km on the open road before the end of testing had the Audi settled at 8.0L/100km compared with 9.1L/100km for the Lexus.
The RX’s figure is an improvement on the 9.8L/100km we recorded when tested for its single review back in April, though is still 50 per cent higher than the Lexus’s 6.0L/100km laboratory claim.
If fuel efficiency is a high priority, the T8 plug-in hybrid version of Volvo’s seven-seater XC90 SUV has quoted consumption of 2.1L/100km. (Just note that, unlike the RX, it has a battery that needs to be regularly charged to achieve low figures.)
If you need your SUV to tow, there’s only one choice here. The Q7 is rated at 3500kg (matching the best dual-cab utes), whereas the hybrid L version of the RX is zero as it wasn't homologated for towing. (RX350 and RX450h versions have 1500kg tow-capacity ratings.)
(Lexus buyers seeking big towing capability are "overwhelming interested" in the LX450d and LX570, the company says.)
On the road
The Lexus RX remains an SUV that prefers a more leisurely, rather than spirited, approach to country roads, despite some chassis updates partly aimed at reducing body roll.
Body control isn’t that tight – and not noticeably improved even with the RX in Sport+ mode that introduces firmer damping control – and the steering is a bit slow and vague. Yet more important to the typical RX buyer is that the Lexus is quite enjoyable to drive when you’re not in a rush.
The brakes are smooth and responsive, the steering is light and consistent, and the suspension provides a predominantly pleasant, soothing ride.
It’s quiet on the road, too. That includes more than acceptable tyre noise from the (grippy) 20-inch Dunlop SP Sport Maxx rubber on coarser surfaces.
There’s much wider rubber on the Q7 50TDI – 285mm front and rear – which helps the Audi feel significantly more planted in corners. The steering weighting is equally effortless, though the on-centre feel lacks definition. If a sportier drive is preferred, the BMW X5 is a strong option.
The air suspension can struggle with bigger bumps/indents and occasionally feels a touch brittle at lower speed. Above 60km/h, the Q7’s ride feels waftier and more soothing.
Cabin life is also relatively serene, including a pleasantly subdued diesel.
All-round vision is excellent in the Q7 courtesy of its large glasshouse, expansive rear window and big side mirrors. That helps make the Q7 feel unintimidating to drive despite its size. You can also turn the Audi around on some roads without the need to perform a three-point turn – and that’s without optional all-wheel steering that tightens the turning circle by 1.1m.
The RX has slightly more restricted over-the-shoulder and rear-window views, and this can make parking that touch trickier compared with the Q7 – even if there are all those sensors and cameras to assist.
The Lexus seems to occupy more real estate despite actually being shorter (relatively speaking): 5.0m exactly versus 5.063m for the Q7.
Audi (three years) and Lexus (four years) both trail the five-year warranties offered by fellow luxury brands Mercedes-Benz and Volvo.
Q7 buyers are offered a $2310 servicing plan that covers three annual visits (or every 15,000km). A five-year plan costs $3190.
Lexus’s capped-price servicing program costs $595 per annual visit (or every 15,000km) for a maximum of three years. Lexus also offers a loan car for the period owners are without their RX, or there’s the option to have it picked up and returned.
MY20 updates have made both of these seven-seater luxury SUVs better value, even if that’s relative in the context of price tags north of $110,000. They’ve also made them safer in terms of increased active safety technology.
Families can enjoy long drives in both the Q7 and RX450hL thanks to touring-friendly drivetrains and suspensions. And although neither vehicle got near its fuel-efficiency claim even with just a single driver aboard, that the consumption managed to stay below double figures isn’t unnoteworthy.
Lexus’s hybrid system isn’t a one-trick pony, though; it can be appreciated for the effortlessness it brings to driving. That’s especially true around town where it has the Q7’s measure, including the more compliant ride.
Yet, while the Audi’s diesel engine isn’t always helped by the transmission, the punchy and refined oiler is impressive and so are the 50TDI’s towing credentials.
While it could be debated whether Audi’s new infotainment system is a case of progress over the previous set-up, it is more user-friendly and more slickly presented compared with the Lexus interface that remains flawed.
The Q7 interior overall is a step ahead – and key to its narrow win over the RX. Its third row is less compromised, the cabin is more versatile when it comes to fitting child seats (including more ISOFIX points), and subjectively the Audi’s interior looks the more expensive and more contemporary here.