Think about the new Audi A7, and your mind will probably be fixating on its hilariously large grille. But, there’s a lot going on behind that big gob, and it’s mostly good stuff. It’s as much of a niche car as the previous one, but an appealing thing nonetheless, and it effectively previews its incoming A6 saloon sibling.
Here’s what we learned after a two-day drive at the car’s launch in South Africa:
Driving the Audi A7 is seriously relaxing. The ride from the optional air suspension (an option that is worth ticking) is impeccably smooth, with a caveat - proceedings take a crashy turn if you go for big wheels and the lower, stiffer S Line suspension. The latter does make a noticeable difference to body roll, but on a car like this, it doesn’t seem worth the ride sacrifice.
Noise from the outside world is kept very low meanwhile, and the cabin is thoroughly lovely. The seats support you in just the right way, the leatherwork is stunning, and where specced, the wood trim looks deliciously good. This is automotive luxury done right.
All the cars we tried in South Africa came with the active rear-wheel steering system, and it does make a difference. Under 60kmh the rear wheels turn the opposite way to the front ones to aid agility, and above that they turn in the same direction in the name of stability.
Sure enough, the A7 does feel oddly lively for a near-1900kg car in tighter bends, and you get a feeling of pleasant surprise when it doesn’t flop around like a beached whale in demanding higher-speed cornering. But don’t expect the A7 to be a sports-saloon-cum-coupe, because it isn’t.
It’s all very tied down and safe. It’ll happily get you from one place to another competently and very quickly, but without much in the way of excitement. A Quattro all-wheel drive system which tends to give way into - as you’d expect - nice, predictable understeer is a factor, but a lot of the lack of thrill factor is down to the engines.
The 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 is disarmingly smooth and whisper quiet, even with what sounds like a little artificial audio enhancement. It’s relaxing (see our previous point about refinement), but far from thrilling. That kind of works in the A7, which makes the petrol version more appealing over the diesel - the one most will buy. The latter has a punchier mid-range and will be far more economical, but don’t discount the petrol.
From the semi-autonomous functionality to the trio of screens up front, the A7 is stuffed full of tech. Perhaps the most interesting part though is the ‘mild hybrid system’ - it’s pretty complex, so stick with us. There’s still a conventional starter motor, but this is used for cold starts and cold starts alone. Every other time the engine fires up, it’s the job of the water-cooled 48-volt belt alternator starter, or ‘BAS’.
There’s a lithium-ion battery in the boot, which can be replenished by up to 12kW of energy under braking or coasting. Plus, the re-gen can be carefully managed if the front camera detects a slowing vehicle in front. Clever stuff.
So, what’s the point of all that? Efficiency, mostly - while coasting the engine can disengage entirely, and the start-stop function can increase up to speeds of 11mph. It can save you up to 0.7 litres of fuel for every 62 miles you drive, and - our favourite bit - it reduces turbo lag. As a result the V6 petrol is noticeably more responsive than you’d expect, although over in the diesel, it hasn’t managed to kill off lag entirely.
In a few years’ time, 48-volt systems like this are going to be incredibly common, and so far, that’s looking like a good thing.
I had two very different experiences with the A7’s semi-autonomous functionality. It’s still a more basic system (Level 3 autonomy is being added at a later date, along with a remote parking feature), but on my first try, it seemed like the best, smoothest system of its type I’ve yet used. Steering inputs felt gentle and natural (you can’t say the same of Volvo’s jerky Pilot Assist), the braking was smooth and well-timed, and it’ll only let you take your hands off the wheel for a few seconds. Which is the way it should be.
But on the second outing, it didn’t seem happy at all. It was constantly drifting across into other lanes, and generally needed more human intervention. Perhaps the road markings weren’t as clear - we’re not sure. We’ll need to test the system further before giving our full verdict.
The starting price of £54,940 for the A7 really is a starting price. As is the case with most stuff from Audi - and indeed German cars in general - you’re going to want to stick on some options that will inflate that price by a significant amount. And right at the top of your list should be the Bang and Olufsen sound system - it delivers a deep, crisp and satisfying sound, whether you’re playing the London Symphony Orchestra or some early Snoop Dogg.
The engine in the petrol A7 is broadly the same as the one in the S4, with a crucial difference: it’s hooked up to Audi’s ‘S Tronic’ seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, not the ZF-derived eight-speed torque converter automatic. ‘Hang on,’ you’re probably thinking, ‘So the sporty S4 has a normal auto, and the wafty A7 has the snappier DCT?’ Nope, we don’t get it either, and when we asked a few of Audi’s technical people at the launch, we weren’t given a clear answer as to why.
It’s a shame as the diesel A7 does have the auto, and is all the better for it. It’s the sort of ‘box you quickly forget about because it’s so subtle in the way it works, and that’s how it should be for a car like this. The DCT on the other hand works very well in manual mode, but stick it in auto, and you’ll find it just can’t make its mind up when you’re changing your throttle inputs.
There’s been an unwritten rule for years that German luxury cars simply must not have a touch screen. But, no doubt fuelled by the smart phone revolution, Audi is ditching the rotary control for a touch screen layout, which operates, well… much like a smart phone. I get why - that’s how punters expect to interact with technology these days, but I’m still adamant that cars can’t be treated the same, simply because a rotary controller is easier to use on the move than a touch screen.
However, keeping an open mind, what’s the new system like? It certainly looks impressive: along with the Virtual Cockpit screen used for the instrument binnacle - which looks sharper than ever - you get a pair of touch screens with a haptic feedback response, with the biggest one measuring 10.1 inches. And yes, the heater controls have been moved to a screen, but since you can just leave them up on the lower 8.6-inch display most of the time, it’s not as big an issue as it could be.
Open mind or not though, it just didn’t seem as intuitive to use as the old system, and compared to BMW’s better-than-ever iDrive system, it’s a little too complicated. Of course it’s a little pointless calling it ‘unintuitive’ after driving the car for only two days - actual owners are going to have longer to get used to it and the unusual-feeling service that needs more of a push than a touch to operate. But is the climate control ever going to be as easy to use on the move as if it had physical controls? I don’t think so.
Even with the gigantic grille (Audi’s design people told us that, unsurprisingly, that’s as big as the trapezoid grille is going to get), I’m fond of the way the A7 looks. It’s pretty yet striking, and combines its neat aesthetics with exceptional luxury and an obscene amount of tech. A BMW 6-series Gran Coupe is going to be sportier to drive, but if you want something smarter and more relaxing, the A7 is in another league. Will the next Mercedes CLS be the better car? We’ll find out in a few weeks when we drive it for the first time, but for now, it looks like the bar has been set rather high.