Editor's note: This review was written in May 2011 about the 2012 Audi A7. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2013, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
There are luxury cars with better performance or roomier backseats, and there are luxury SUVs with more utility, but the swoopy Audi A7 is a sexy hatchback with performance and personality to match.
Based on the next-generation A6 sedan, the A7 is priced nearly identically to the BMW 535 Gran Turismo, a luxury hatchback that certainly doesn't win the matchup on looks.
While the hatchbacks' engines offer similar power, the two have distinctly different personalities on the road. They're different inside as well: The BMW is a more luxurious cruiser, while the A7 aims for sport-sedan status.
Audi made its R8 supercar a movie star, placing it center stage in the popular "Iron Man" film franchise. That car's aggressive front end is clearly mimicked on the A7, but that's where the hatch's resemblance to current Audis ends.
The back end has a sloping rear window, as you'd expect, but the end of the car is truncated, as if a knife cut off the end of a loaf of French bread. An upward kink creates a lip spoiler, and there's a retractable spoiler hidden in a small amount of space on the deck lid.
You could just say the A7 is gorgeous and stop discussing design elements. During my few days piloting our Garnett Red test car, my neighbors, fellow commuters and one nice lady filling up her BMW next to me at a gas station all clearly envied me.
Audi's A8 flagship sedan is opulent inside, with suede lining the doors and plush leather seats. The A7 — despite the single-digit difference in its name — is a vastly different vehicle, with a starting price $20,000 less than the A8's. The interior is patterned after sport coupes, with a black dashboard trimmed in metal finishes.
Our tester was decked out in black leather with dark ash wood trim, and it was not a pleasing combination. A dark walnut trim is available, and perhaps either one with the available beige or dark brown leather interior would be more appealing. Frankly, I'd prefer a carbon fiber or metallic finish with the black to accentuate its sports-car attitude.
The driver's seat was comfortable, and it was easy to find the proper driving position. The rear seat wasn't as accommodating.
While the BMW 535 GT is based off the larger 7 Series and features a voluminous backseat, the A7 is based on the midsize A6, and there was barely enough knee room for my 5-foot-10 frame with the driver's seat positioned for me. Legroom back there is a scant 37 inches, versus the BMW's 41.8 inches. The more expensive Mercedes-Benz CLS 550 has just 35 inches.
The moonroof also takes away a lot of headroom, so there's a bubble carved out of the roof lining for rear passengers' heads.
That also means the moonroof itself isn't very big. Personally, I'd prefer the glass roof Audi has on its A5 coupe, to create more headroom and make the cabin brighter. As it is, the moonroof doesn't offer much light or create an open-air feeling, even when it's open.
Your rear passengers won't be completely cramped, but they won't be able to relax much. In the end, this is still a driver's car.
The A7 is available with just one engine, and it's a good one: a 310-horsepower, supercharged V-6 teamed with an eight-speed automatic transmission. An optional Sport Package adds shift paddles to the steering wheel for manual gear changes.
It's a fun, high-revving engine that feels faster than its power rating suggests. That's thanks to the car's relatively light weight: It's almost 500 pounds lighter than a BMW 535 GT, which sports a 300-hp, turbocharged six-cylinder.
Our tester included a $1,500 option package that added stunning 20-inch wheels, a three-spoke steering wheel with shift paddles, and a sport suspension.
You can shift the car manually by throwing the shift knob to the right, where it will stay until you pop it back over, then moving the knob up or down in the gate to shift through the gears. If you have the Sport Package, the same thing can be accomplished by giving shift paddles on the steering wheel a quick tap.
I, however, preferred pushing the shifter down from Drive into S, for the automatic sport mode. It isn't a gate unto itself; push down once and it returns to the D position, then shows the S designation in the gauge cluster. This mode sharpens accelerator response and allows you to shift using the paddles, but reverts to the regular Drive setting if you fail to shift repeatedly. The faster response from the accelerator pedal is still there, though, whether you shift manually or not. You can turn it back to the Drive mode with a quick push back down. You can also manually shift when just in Drive, but the characteristics of Sport mode are not in place.
The firmer suspension wasn't overly firm, but it clearly was not a cruiser, like the BMW.
The speed-sensitive steering for which Audi is so well known — often not in a good way — may be at its best in the A7. Typically, Audi aims for an extremely loose wheel at low speeds, so if you're navigating a parking garage you have to turn the wheel around like it's attached to a 1980s arcade game. It's a little firmer in the A7, but the incremental change builds at around-town speeds and is at its best in the most aggressive driving situations.
BMW's steering is typically so firm it gives your arms a workout at all speeds, but the latest 5 and 7 Series are much lighter at low speeds. Still, they're nowhere near Audi's relaxed wheel.
Braking in the A7 is solid and linear — another difference between it and the BMW. New BMWs are integrating regenerative braking systems, similar to those in hybrids, for better efficiency. However, they also leave a lot to be desired when it comes to pure brake feel, and the A7 is almost as efficient as the BMW 535 GT with all-wheel drive. The A7 is rated 18/28 mpg city/highway, versus 19/27 mpg for the BMW. Both require premium gas.
You get a fair number of features for the A7 Premium's base price of $59,250. (Yes, Audi calls all its base trims "Premium.") The A7 Premium comes standard with leather, keyless start and those trademark LED daytime running lights.
Move up to the Premium Plus version, like our tester, for $62,870, and you'll also get 19-inch wheels, navigation and parking sensors.
Then there's the Prestige model, which starts at $65,580 and adds a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, xenon headlights, four-zone climate control and a Bose sound system. Audi's impressive Bang & Olufsen sound system is the Prestige model's only option, and it costs an additional $5,900.
I enjoyed our test car's assortment of features, which included Audi's new navigation system. The A7 Premium Plus I drove seemed almost reasonable at $66,000 as-tested, but it lacked keyless entry. All A7s — perhaps all Audis — should include keyless entry as well as keyless start. Many Nissans, Fords and even Kias are available with that feature for half the cost of the Prestige model, which is the only A7 to offer it.
The navigation system is downright beautiful, using Google's satellite imagery. The A7 also comes with an optional wireless internet system that uses 3G signals to create up to eight Wi-Fi access points. During my test, I found it as responsive as my 3G iPhone, which was faster using its own connection than it was using the Audi's.
However, the 3G system can also deliver news, weather and points of interest for the navigation system. That's instead of using satellite signals, like competitors do with SiriusXM Satellite Radio. The A7 has satellite radio, too, of course, so I'm not sure where the advantage is, besides creating the wireless hotspots, which don't seem like much of an advantage. I would, though, still advise buyers to get the navigation system, as it's one of the better systems I've tested when it comes to the basics of getting you where you want to go.
The dazzling pop-up LCD screen is standard on all A7s, with or without navigation.
How does the shapely … shape of the new A7 impact its practicality? Not much. There's 24.5 cubic feet of cargo room in the back, and it's a deep cargo area — perfect for golf clubs.
The curved glass, though, makes it nearly impossible to keep dogs secured in the cargo area with the rear seats in place. I had to put them down to transport my 65-pound boxer to the vet for a routine checkup. The seats created a relatively flat surface for her, but I could tell she preferred our station wagon's taller rear digs.
The A7 has the standard array of airbags, as well as a number of optional safety systems we've seen proliferate in the luxury market. Adaptive cruise control with a collision-warning system is available, as is night vision assistance — a feature for which we've found little use when not traveling deer-patrolled rural roads in the dead of night.
Our tester had a $500 blind spot warning system that Audi calls "side assist." Instead of featuring lights on the interior of the car or in the mirrors themselves, there are three LEDs housed in a black panel inside the exterior of the mirror.
It's an odd decision, and one that doesn't look too pleasing, either. The real problem, though, was that the system wasn't very accurate. Several times, they flashed long after a car had passed me, or when I had plenty of room to merge. These systems are commonplace these days, even on typical midsize sedans, and I've seen them work better on most cars that have them.
Audi A7 in the Market
There's no real need for the A7 in Audi's lineup. Buyers could get an A6 sedan with the same engine for less money without sacrificing much utility. They could also choose a Q5 or Q7 SUV and get more utility, along with a sacrifice in performance. That said, though, the A7 does blend driving pleasure and practical luxury — and it does so in a beautiful wrapper.
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