2012 Audi A7 Sportback 3.0 TFSI

Written by Stuart Fowle

There’s a big risk in launching a new luxury car on the island of Sardinia, off Italy’s coast on the Mediterranean. Among the majestic cliffs, gorgeous blue waters, five-star hotels, and coastlines that serve as fully-booked yacht parking lots, it’d be pretty easy for the whole “look at our beautiful car” message to get lost.
 
Despite the risk, Audi had to come into the launch of the new A7 with a lot of confidence. Shown at the 2009 Detroit show in concept form with the name “Sportback,” the original design exercise was well received and when the production car debuted at a hip museum in Munich last month, it became clear that nothing was lost in the translation to production form. What the A7 manages to do, in a very basic analysis, is split the competition in the fast-growing gran turismo niche. It succeeds in capturing the sweeping grace of the Mercedes-Benz CLS, only with the added utility of a rear hatch in place of a tiny trunklid. Versus the BMW 5GT, it does the opposite, maintaining the utility of a hatch while adding while adding what should prove to be more universally appreciated design appeal. Hopefully, we think while waiting for a freak thunderstorm to pass over the town of Olbia, it also drives well.
 
Based on Audi’s flexible MLB architecture and giving a preview of the next A6’s general dimensions, the A7 manages to shrink 16.3 feet of pavement down visually. The car’s overhangs are relatively short and its greenhouse is quite long, further benefiting the tight design. For as modern as Audi’s most recent designs have been, they always manage to have a touch of nostalgia baked in. In this case, the A7’s profile could easily be compared to a Rover SD1, while the rear end has a certain 1970s Italian supercar quality to it.       
 
Along with visual shrink-wrapping, the A7 was developed using Audi’s typical aluminum diet, though the lighter material isn’t used as extensively as on, say, the larger A8. About twenty percent of the body (front fenders, hood, hatch, and doors) is aluminum, along with a few crossmembers underneath, the brake booster, and a couple suspension components. The last bit should pay dividends, considering that’s unsprung weight being cut. Still, the US-spec A7 3.0 TFSI quattro will weigh an estimated 4100 pounds, which isn’t bad but doesn’t warrant reaching for the exclamation point on our keyboard, either.
 
The wine hills south of Luogosanto help the A7 convince us to ignore the spec sheet. This new model drives smaller and lighter than the numbers might indicate, feeling more athletic than the last A6 3.0T we drove. That feel of sportiness is aided by a cabin design that fits the car’s character, with a slim band of trim wrapping from one front door handle, behind the instrument cluster and around to the other door to form a tight, intimate cockpit. Our S-line test model features a black interior with suede inserts and aluminum trim. It’s a great execution of the concept, but we couldn’t help but feel a car as swoopy as this would work well with a lighter, warmer interior and the absolutely stunning layered oak veneer that will be offered optionally at a later date. That stylish wood has a certain nautical feel to it, so it seems perfect for a customer hopping off his sailboat here in Sardinia. Our car’s black interior leaves little else to critique. The latest Audi infotainment gear is all here, as well as a 1300-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system, all of which is enjoyed from comfortable, supportive seats.
 
Beyond the simple impression of smallness, the A7 drives like it wears a few pant sizes down as well. It feels a bit like an athlete’s A8 (perhaps Tom Brady should switch now that he’s crashed his) or a richer man’s S4. We mention the latter on purpose, because the A7 uses a slightly less powerful version of the S4’s 3.0-liter supercharged six, which makes 300 hp in our European pre-production model. Final US numbers haven’t been sorted, and our cars will also arrive with a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic in place of the Euro-spec seven-speed dual-clutch, which is a bit jerkier in the name of shift speed. The message Audi seems to be sending with the A7 is that displacement is dead — while all the competition still offers V8 options, Audi customers will have to wait for an S7 model, which should use an all-new 4.0-liter V8 in place of the S6’s outgoing V10. The 3.0-liter engine gets the A7 to sixty mph in just 5.6 seconds, which we think is perfectly adequate considering the fuel economy it should deliver.
 
Supercharger noise is even more minimal here than in the S4, and drivetrain refinement seems to be at a new high. Sure, the dual-clutch is a bit punchy at times, which is why it seems wise that Audi of America made the decision to use a torque converter eight-speed; it should be well received by the target audience. And we do love V8 soundtracks, but the 3.0-liter fits the progressive nature of a versatile luxury hatchback.
 
Aft of the transmission, the A7 borrows heavily from the new RS 5. That means a brand new all-wheel-drive system with a more efficient, compact center differential. It butts right up to the transmission and uses two crown gears to split the torque from front to rear, sending sixty percent of it rearward in normal conditions. It weighs about five pounds less than the system it replaces and also communicates with the torque-vectoring software that controls braking at all four wheels to actively prevent overdriving one single wheel through a corner. Click this YouTube link if you’re more of a visual learner. Additionally, Audi’s rear sport differential with mechanical torque vectoring is on the A7 option list.
 
These drivetrain elements join our S-line car’s grippy summer tires and lowered (0.4) sport suspension to give the A7 quick responses and remarkably high limits. It’ll be some time before we’re able to put this car side-by-side with the upcoming Mercedes-Bens CLS or a 535i GT, but we’d be surprised if either is quicker than the Audi on a tight course. Braking performance is equally impressive and while the new electromechanical steering feels quick, it does unfortunately lack any sort of feedback, even with “dynamic” mode selected via the standard Audi Drive Select system. The number of customers who really care, though, will likely be more or less the same as the number who jump on the sport differential option, which is to say just a few. 
 
Everyone who buys an A7 will be happy with the space freed up for rear passengers, unless of course one intends to seat three back there; while there’s no rear center console breaking up the seat bottom, Audi chose not to include a third seatbelt. The two folks who do have seatbelts won’t have A8 space, but legroom is reasonable for anything but a really long drive and headroom is surprisingly decent considering the roofline. It’s no worse than the current A6, at least. Throw your passengers out and drop the seats, and that big rear hatch will swallow up almost fifty cubic feet of wine, sailing gear, or whatever else impresses the lovely local Italian ladies.
 
Really though, the Audi A7 is plenty ready to impress all on its own. Audi continues to cover a lot of ground on a lot of cool technology, including in-car internet, navigation using Google Maps satellite imaging, great audio systems, and of course the A7’s optional all-LED headlights. At the same time, even with small faults like the steering, Audi continues to advance its sporting image while also eliminating much of the jitteriness its more aggressive suspensions have recently been known for. Of course, the A7’s also a great looking car with a lot of functionality as a bonus.
 
Launching a car in Sardinia is indeed a gamble, but we have say the A7 fits in here as neatly as it fits right between the CLS and the 5 GT on the market. The A7 will arrive in America with just the one supercharged V6/eight-speed automatic/all-wheel-drive combination next year, and pricing is expected to split the A6 and the A8, so about $60,000. Like it’s little brother the A5, we think the A7’s style overshoots its price point. Its only problem is that as Audi continues to fill niches, all of its products are starting to blend together design-wise. But when they all look nice, we guess that’s not such a horrible problem to have.