By Kevin Miller
I’m a huge fan of big European five-door cars, which were once somewhat common in the US (think Merkur Scorpio, Saab 9000, and Sterling 827i). The segment, which offered luxury-sport-sedan performance and styling with the practicality of a wagon has been nonexistent in the US since the Saab 9000 was put out to pasture in the late 1990s, but the segment is making a big-dollar comeback with cars like the BMW 5-series Gran Turismo and even the Porsche Panamera. Audi’s A7 is the latest entry, though the A7 moniker demonstrates that Audi is pitching the car as a 4-door coupe rather than a 5-door sedan.
Following the style trend set by the Mercedes CLS (rather than the functionality of the aforementioned BMW and Porsche), the A7 is a large coupe-styled four-seater that puts its stylish form ahead of actual function. A long, shapely bonnet and a front clip without visible bumpers, plus a flowing roofline and greenhouse that terminate in a stylishly truncated tail (with active spoiler that raises above 80 MPH) make the A7 arguably one of the best looking vehicles available in the US today. The A7 recently reached the US as a 2012 model, slotting both numerically and sizewize between the A6 and A8 sedans – which means that the A7 is a large car.
The four side doors have frameless windows, which index when the doors are opened and closed. The A7 comes with standard keyless go, but not with “Convenience Key” which allows locking/unlocking just by touching a door handle; that means that the key has to be dug out of your pocket to unlock the car, but then immediately put back in your pocket. The so-called Convenience Key should be standard on a vehicle as expensive as the $66,220 as-tested A7.
The A7 has a large, electrically-operated hatchback to access the long (but not particularly tall) luggage compartment. The luggage area is nicely carpeted, and has tie-down eyelets and rigid parcel shelves to conceal cargo, though the shelves can be removed and back seats can be folded for loading bulkier cargo (I was actually able to stretch my 6’4” body out back there on a dare, though the cargo floor isn’t quite flat with the seats folded). Unfortunately, the light-colored parcel shelf reflects sunlight onto the large rear window on sunny days, obscuring the view in the rearview mirror. Still, the utility of the large five-door is nearly unheard-of in North America, making the unique configuration oddly appealing.
Up front, seats are low and firm, offering adequate legroom, with 8-way power adjustment plus power lumbar; two memory positions can be stored for the driver’s seat. A non-panoramic sunroof was fitted to the test car. The cabin uses soft-touch materials on the upper and lower dash, console, and doors. Only lower console parts (as well as the console between the two back seats) are made from lower-grade hard plastic. The front console has two small cupholders immediately in front of the armrest, which itself conceals two small storage bins, one of which contains an iPod/USB connector. The dash, doors, and console feature a naturally-finished dark wood, which give the interior of the A7 an upscale ambience.
Surprisingly (given the size of the shadow cast by the A7), the car’s interior is particularly cozy. While front legroom is adequate, rear knee- and headroom are cramped, and there are only seats for two passengers in back, with just two seat belts and a small, cheap-looking (and feeling) plastic console between the two rear seats. ISOFIX child seat anchors are available in each rear seating position, but upper LATCH tether anchors are located immediately under the rear headrests; neither my Graco ComfortSport nor Britax Marathon car seats was able to cinch its upper tether tight with the anchor point so close to the child seat itself.
My test car featured black leather interior with black carpets, and the previously mentioned dark brown wood accents. The engine start button is located on the console to the right of the gear selector, which is not an expected (or intuitive) location. When the A7 sat in a parking lot for several hours on cloudless, 80° F afternoon, black interior was scorching hot, and the metal engine start button was literally hot enough to burn my finger, which surprised me.
The interior ambience was both luxurious and high-tech, with a high-resolution infotainment screen that motors up from the dash when the car is started. The instrument panel features clear, large speedometer and tachometer and smaller temperature and fuel gauges, plus another high-resolution color display which can display vehicle info (including speed), telephone, audio, or navigation information. The display of information in the A7 is truly impressive, even if the input or manipulation of information is not necessarily so.
The dash below the screen has a CD/digital media input, and just a couple of auxiliary control buttons, and the climate controls, but no audio controls. All audio functions are controlled by a volume knob and track buttons on the console to the right of the gear selector, or by using the MMI system’s MEDIA or RADIO buttons, plus its main control knob and four soft keys. The system can also be controlled using steering wheel buttons and the auxiliary display in the instrument panel. I found using the system (especially for tuning terrestrial and Satellite radio) to be unnecessarily complex, and far from intuitive. While an owner would likely grow accustomed to the control system (and its forty station pre-sets available using the MMI control), having a few extra audio controls on the dash would make the system simpler to use.
Audi is using the A7 to launch its MMI Touch interface in the US. The system uses Audi’s standard MMI control system with an additional touchpad on the console to the left of the gear selector. The touch pad can be used for selecting six top pre-set audio stations, but can also be used to “write” letters or numbers for telephone or destination entry. Writing characters on this touchpad is much easier than selecting them using the MMI knob (which is a tedious task), especially when selecting letters. The MMI system also features integrated Audi Connect internet connectivity, allowing Google Earth imaging as well as internet searches for destination entry. I was able to use the MMI Touch system to enter in an internet destination search for a couple of different locations (search by ZIP code and business name), which was much easier than trying to locate the same location using only the built-in POI database.
The A7 is powered by a 3.0 liter supercharged TFSI V6, producing 310 HP. Mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission and Audi’s quattro AWD system, to the seat of my pants the A7 feels like it packs more than 310 HP; Audi claims a 0-60 mph time of 5.4 seconds. The transmission can be manually shifted using the gear selector on the console or steering wheel paddles (which are not standard but were included in the $1500 20” Sport Package on the test vehicle); manual shifts occur very quickly and employ rev-matching. The A7 also has a Drive Select vehicle setup screen allowing for Comfort, Automatic, or Dynamic driving modes. Comfort mode does smooth out the ride, while Dynamic improves throttle response and firms up the ride. The logic in the transmission’s Dynamic Shift Program did a good job of selecting the right gear (the same is not true of the same unit in Audi’s A5 2.0t coupe I drove earlier this year), and was quick to downshift with a prod of the accelerator.
While the A7 was reasonably quick and handled reasonably well, it is very noisy underway, which can likely be attributed to the low-profile tires on 20” wheels included in the “20” Sport Package” on the vehicle I tested. These tires also had the characteristic of being unsettled on-center, requiring constant corrections on the freeway, making it not an ideal long-distance cruiser – something I had initially thought would be the A7’s strong suit. While the A7’s quattro AWD system is configured with a rear torque bias, even with its 20” rubber it will tend to understeer when handling limits are approached, with liberal intervention of the stability control.
Thanks to the low roofline (and low seats with a somewhat high beltline), flat rear window and relatively thick pillars, visibility out of the A7 wasn’t great. The car I tested featured Audi’s Side Assist, which is a blind-spot monitoring technology that illuminates an amber LED array on the exterior mirror if a vehicle is detected in the blind spot. It worked as intended. The A7 I tested also had front and rear parking sensors and a rear video camera, which were very helpful maneuvering the big A7 in tight spaces.
While Audi clearly engineered the low, sleek A7 for on-road use, I unwittingly ended up piloting it on indifferently-maintained gravel roads for about five miles when I went for a hike in Washington state’s Cascade mountains. I failed to notice the last phrase in the online directions that read “continue approximately 5 miles after pavement ends”. The dusty road featured both pot holes and washboarded sections, but to its credit the A7 never bottomed out (though, to my credit, I drove incredibly slowly and studiously avoided the pot holes). The quattro system handled the washboarded gravel inclines with aplomb, and when I reached the parking area, the A7 was the only vehicle there that wasn’t an AWD truck or SUV. Upon returning from my hike, however, a Prius was parked next to the Audi, so perhaps the road wasn’t quite as rugged as I would like to imagine.
The A7 is rated 18/28 MPG by the EPA (22 combined) and requires premium unleaded fuel. Over the course of a week and 340 miles (most of which were on the freeway), I recorded an impressive 25.7 MPG with an average speed of 41 MPH according to the Audi’s trip computer.
The 2012 A7 3.0 TFSI quattro Auto Tiptronic Sedan has a starting MSRP of $59,250 and destination charge of $875. The A7 I tested included $475 Dakota Gray metallic paint, $3620 Premium Plus package (19” wheels; Audi navigation with MMI Touch; Audi Connect; Front/Rear parking sensors with rear camera; HD radio; auto-dimming exterior mirrors; color Driver Information display), $1500 20” Sport Package (20” wheels with summer performance tires, sport suspension, three-spoke multifunction steering wheel, sift paddles), and $500 Audi Side Assist, for a total of $66,220.
At that price, the A7 is simply too expensive. While to my eyes it is a beautifully styled vehicle, with a very nice interior and impressive interior features, there are simply too many compromises: the interior is too small, the ride is too noisy, it missing key features such as Audi’s Convenience Key and seats with more adjustment. While I’m thrilled for the return of European five-doors to the US market, the practicality I long for is neither the intent nor the reality of the A7’s existence. Style, though, it has in plentiful supply.
Audi provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.