Sometimes, the Automobile of the Year is a dramatic about-face for its manufacturer. Other times, it is a car that breaks new ground technologically. Some years, it is a spectacular upgrade from its predecessor. This year, it's none of those things.
Automobile Magazine's 2012 Automobile of the Year, the Audi A7, does not represent a dramatic change of pace for its maker. Audi has been building handsome, fast, and rewarding luxury cars for some time now. Anchored by Audi's Quattro all-wheel drive, bristling with of-the-moment technologies, and surrounding its passengers with an artfully crafted interior, the A7 is exactly in keeping with the cars that this brand has been turning out. As editor-in-chief Jean Jennings said, "It's the culmination of everything Audi has promised."
The A7 may not usher in any major new technology, but the list of leading-edge features it does offer is impressive. Inputs to the navigation system can be made by drawing them on a touch pad with your finger (which requires less eyes-away-from-the-road time than more traditional methods), and the navigation also incorporates Google Earth imagery. The car can function as a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot. LED front accent lighting -- which was pioneered by Audi and has since been much copied -- is standard, and full-LED active headlamps are available. Audi's all-wheel-drive system isn't just a bad-weather security blanket; the rear torque bias provides the sportier, more responsive cornering of a rear-wheel-drive car with the ability to put more power to the ground.
The A7 cannot be a dramatic upgrade over its predecessor, because it has no direct predecessor. Slipped into the lineup between the A6 and the A8 sedans, the A7 is something new from Audi. True, as a swoopy, four-door "coupe," the A7 is thematically similar to the Mercedes-Benz CLS. But as a four-door hatchback, the A7 is something else again.
Still, we will admit that the A7 is a car that snuck up on us. It looks good in pictures, but it's much more striking in person. The front visage is both sleek and imposing; in the side view, the car appears elongated, as if tapered by the wind. Move around to the rear, and the A7 is simply captivating. Who ever thought a hatchback could be so sexy? The seduction was underway.
The closer you get to the A7, the better it looks. Slip inside, and it looks better still. The Audi-liscious interior does not disappoint. It's modern and luxurious yet cosseting and comfortable, mile after mile. Granted, things are more snug in the back seats than they are in a traditionally shaped sedan, and the center rear position has been sacrificed. But who wants to sit in the center position of a rear bench anyway? And the dramatic shape has a practical benefit. Under the enormous, power-operated rear liftgate is nearly twenty-five cubic feet of cargo space -- more if you fold the rear seatbacks. That's an almost SUV-like ability to tote luggage, but no SUV looks anything like this.
It's not all about looks with the A7, however. This car moves with grace and ease. There is only one engine, but what an engine it is. A 3.0-liter supercharged V-6, it makes 310 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque, the latter from 2900 rpm. That output is distilled through a superlative and highly efficient eight-speed automatic transmission. A dealer friend of ours tells us that some customers are skeptical of the A7 because it doesn't have a V-8. They shouldn't be. The muscular six makes this sleek Audi as fast as it appears -- we clocked the car's 0-to-60-mph time at 5.0 seconds -- and yet unlike a thirsty V-8, the supercharged six exhibits healthy, modern drinking habits, nursing a gallon of premium over twenty-eight highway miles.
A relaxed, long-legged cruiser, the A7 hoovers up the interstate. It also attacks corners with a verve that the rear-wheel-drive purists on our staff found surprising. At the same time, it proved supple over beat-up pavement despite its high-fashion, twenty-inch wheels and low-profile rubber. It was even surprisingly at home on the racetrack, where all-wheel-drive sedans are usually an uncooperative mess of understeer. As associate editor Eric Tingwall pointed out, "Whether it's commuting, being driven hard, or touring, the A7 can please any driver."
Indeed, its excellence in any one area does not come at the expense of its competence in any other. Speaking of expense, however, we will acknowledge that this is not an inexpensive car, starting at just over $60,000. It is, however, a highly desirable car, a covetable car. And covetable objects rarely come cheap. Mesmerizing to look at and seductive to drive, the Audi A7 is a car to aspire to -- and an entirely worthy Automobile of the Year.