If the Mercedes CLS invented the concept of a sedan leaping up one rung on the coolness chart to a "coupe," then it has a new competitor in town: the Audi A7 takes two leaps. Don't say the words out loud, but it's a hatchback station wagon. One that happens to call itself a coupe. That's two steps up the cool ladder from wagon, straight past sedan, and to coupe. Or so says Audi.
Do we buy it? Well, the A7 certainly looks gorgeous enough to play in the same league as the Mercedes CLS. And it does one parlor trick the CLS will never do: press a button, and the motorized rear hatch swings upward exposing an enormous cargo hold. Fold down the rear seats, and you could sleep two six-footers comfortably in back. No folding or bending necessary. The trunk of the CLS, on the other hand, is best reserved for unsightly corpses, preferably in the fetal position.
The rest of the CLS game is familiar: start with a mid-size sedan (in this case, the Audi A6), stretch it a little, lower the roof a little, and add high style. Other than a slightly droopy butt (also a characteristic of the CLS), it works quite well. Like the CLS, it only seats four, though the back seat has no console or divider, so in theory Audi could have added a fifth seat belt.
The A7 should have a base price of around $60,000 when it arrives stateside in the spring of next year and it will show up with one sole powertrain: the supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 we know from other models. (The A7's new badge says 3.0 TFSI, so maybe Audi's grown weary of all of the jokes about the engine having a "tupercharger" because of its previous "3.0T" badge.) The engine is rated at 300 hp in Europe, Audi says a 310-hp rating is possible for our market.
Attached to the engine is the ZF 8-speed automatic transmission from the A8 and, of course, Quattro all-wheel drive. This particular Quattro system is new, replacing the previous system's Torsen center differential with a faster-acting, lighter, and more efficient planetary gearset. Under nominal conditions, the system sends 60 percent of the power rearward, but can send as much as 85% or as little as 30% to the rear. Audi's torque-vectoring Quattro Sport Differential will be available as an option.
The A7s we drove in Europe were European-specification and used Audi's 7-speed twin-clutch S-tronic transmission, and all we can say is: we're glad we're getting the ZF 8-speed torque-converter automatic. There's nothing horribly wrong with the twin-clutch unit, but the torque converter is far smoother under off-the-line acceleration and in low-speed maneuvering.
And smooth is the name of the game with the A7. The 3.0T still sounds a little like a vacuum cleaner, but it's quiet, and its power delivery is silky. Made partially of Aluminum, the A7 weighs 4100 lb, according to Audi. Our butt scales think the actual weight of a well-equipped A7 will be closer to 4500-it didn't feel quite as lively as Audi's quoted 0-100 km/h time (5.6 seconds) would suggest.
Riding on optional 20-inch wheels, the A7 generated an astonishing amount of cornering grip, no doubt thanks to the aggressive 265/35-YR20 Yokohama Advan Sport summer tires fitted. Cornering balance was surprisingly neutral, and body control excellent. Sadly, the perfectly paved, smooth roads on our test drive didn't give us the opportunity to test what the ride will be like on our third-world U.S. roads.
We did get to sit in the back seat, though -- and though legroom isn't quite as vast as this big Audi's exterior dimensions might suggest, it's more than adequate, and headroom isn't an issue despite the steeply sloping roof. The word claustrophobia will never come to mind -- it's light and airy in back, no doubt helped by the frameless windows' larger openings.
Audi's MMI interface takes a step forward in usability with the touchpad that debuted in the A8 (which allows you to spell out the name of navigation destinations), but it takes a few steps back at the same time. A new menu structure requires that you take your eyes off the road more often than before, and with two sets of buttons surrounding the circular MMI controller, both arranged in the same square (one in each corner), it's easy for your fingers to aim for the wrong button. Additionally, the engine start button and the stereo volume control are both mounted on the passenger side of the shifter -- a curious placement at best.
In terms of styling, though, the interior leaves little to be desired. Swooping surfaces of wood break up the dashboard into multiple contours, and there's a small vertical swash of wood, a la Jaguar XJ, at the base of the windshield that allows the dash upper surface to be brought down, enhancing the feeling of spaciousness. A new type of wood, a striped light oak veneer, looks particularly Scandinavian, as if Ikea suddenly went upmarket and consulted with Audi on the design. It's very chic.
Like the new A8, the navigation screen rises from the dash, and it's a relatively large (eight-inch) high-resolution screen that can now display Google Earth images (in 2D or 3D birds-eye view). An additional LCD panel between the analog speedometer and tachometer displays all kinds of information -- too much, perhaps -- directly in front of the driver. And like other upscale Audis, there's an optional (and surely fabulously expensive) 1300-watt, 15-speaker Bang + Olufsen sound system with gorgeous motorized tweeters that rise out of the dashboard. The system is worth the upgrade for the looks alone, but the base Bose system (14 speakers, 600 watts) sounds flat enough that the B+O is a requirement for any audio fan.
Some upgrades that might not be worth the extra money: a parking assist system. We still think that if you can't park your car, you probably shouldn't be driving it. With that said, if you need help squeezing into a tight spot, this system can shoehorn the A7 into a spot only 31 inches longer than the car. You'd better budget some extra time, because like all of these systems, any good parker could accomplish the same in a fraction of the time, but Audi's system is particularly flexible and forgiving: it'll guide the car into the spot in multiple passes, and won't cancel if you accidentally creep forward or backward while it asks you to stay stationary as it turns the wheel in the opposite direction. It'll also help you get out of a tight parking spot, which might be its most useful feature.
Another new toy we didn't love is Audi's new lane assistant, which uses the A7's electric power steering to keep you within your lane. It has two intervention modes, both of which are more heavy-handed than we'd like, and on Italy's curvy roads, it often tried to steer the car when there was no actual lane marking. We suspect it'll work really well on straight American interstates, but likely it'll be loved best by those who miss the stern steering-wheel grab of a driver's-ed instructor. Or if you miss steering feedback (the A7 delivers precisely none) and want the steering to feel alive in any way, shape, or form.
As cool as the infra-red night vision is (and it's so cool, if you're a geek like me), it's more of a gimmick than a tool -- as is the blind-spot warning system, when you're driving an A7 with the awesome European-market side view mirrors. Far more convex than the mirrors we get in the states, they completely eliminate blind spots -- and someone at the DOT needs to be kidnapped and tortured until agreeing to make them legal in the US.
Sign us up -- every time -- for the head up display, which is a new feature at Audi. For long drives, we'd also recommend the double-glazed windows (optional in Europe, though they may be standard on US-models), as the interior remains very quiet even at high speeds. Even the HVAC fan is barely audible.
An all-new 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 is one of the available engines in Europe, and it, too, is impressively refined. It comes in two versions (204 or 245 hp), and we drove a front-wheel drive, CVT-equipped 204-hp version, and it's quite fast. Once you're moving, that is -- it suffers from what could be the worst off-the-line throttle response of any car we've ever experienced. Adding a smaller second turbo (as BMW did in their twin-turbo 3.0-liter six) would likely fix that problem, but this engine's fuel economy (44 mpg on the EU combined cycle versus 29 mpg for the supercharged gas engine) is a significant benefit.
Yes, both of those numbers would likely be unobtainable in the real world, but we suspect the US-market gas A7 to post impressive EPA numbers. Both the 8-speed transmission (in the A8) and the 3.0T (in the S4) have proven to be highly efficient. The A7's low coefficient of drag (0.30) will surely help there.
The A7 is a great looking, high-quality design compromise that seems to have no real drawbacks. Its low roof might afford it slightly less rear passenger and cargo room than, say, an A6 Avant wagon, but its additional elegance is probably a better match for the needs of luxury car buyers anyway. We look forward to driving a US-spec A7 on our own soil, but until then, we think Audi might have just leapfrogged the original CLS by skipping over two categories on the Cool Car Chart. Then again, we'll be driving the brand-new 2012 Mercedes CLS in a few weeks and it sounds like these two cars are ripe for a shootout.