Once the hero of the downsizing era, the hatchback had its heyday in the '70s and '80s, when gas prices spiked. As Americans rushed into small cars -- most for the first time ever -- hatchbacks allowed them to still bring along lots of stuff. But it was their very success back then, in cars like the Ford Pinto, the Datsun B210, the Plymouth Horizon, the Chevy Monza, and dozens of others, that today makes the body style an unhappy reminder of cheap economy cars past.
Europeans do not share this hang-up. Germans think we're ridiculous for choosing the VW Jetta sedan (there seen as an old-man's car) over the more practical Golf hatch. Europeans like hatchbacks. So it's not surprising that it is a German car company, Audi, whose latest offering, the A7, may be the best chance yet to reform the image of the hatchback in the United States. Why might the Audi A7 succeed where cars like the BMW 5-series Gran Turismo and the Honda Accord Crosstour failed? In a word: style.
Hatchbacks have always been more practical than sedans, but they've rarely been better looking. Good looks, though, are a key selling point for the A7. The A7 is essentially an A6 with lower, sleeker bodywork -- much in the same way that the Mercedes-Benz CLS is a rebodied version of the E-class. The original CLS wrote the book on this strategy: charging a premium for a higher-style, but less practical, variant of its mainstay midsize sedan. The A7 attempts to do the same thing. As its model designation suggests, it slips in between the A6 and the A8, pricewise. Compared to the CLS, however, Audi is charging a much smaller style premium. The A7 starts at a hair over $60,000 (about $9000 more than an equivalent A6), compared to more than $70,000 for a CLS.
Like the CLS, the A7 is significantly lower than its more mundane sibling, and its back seat is strictly for two. Despite the dramatically sloping roofline, there is room enough in back for adult-sized passengers although the rear cushion is low. Again like the Mercedes, frameless door glass is part of the program, but unlike the Benz, the stubby rear deck of the Audi opens together with the huge rear glass to give wide-open access to a generous 24.5 cubic feet of luggage space -- more if you fold down the rear seatbacks. Interestingly, the rear parcel shelf is attached to the hatch rather than suspended from it.
The interior is very close to the new A6 (which launches in the States this fall), and can be had with Audi's very latest in-car electronics, including a touch-pad that allows one to finger-draw letters and numbers for input into the navigation system, maps that incorporate Google earth imagery, and the ability for the car to be a mobile internet hot spot. Unfortunately, the navigation system in my test car wasn't terribly useful, as it had a strange fixation with Port Jervis, New York. It stubbornly insisted on showing Port Jervis on the map, even though we never went there but instead traveled to a destination 150 miles away, Saratoga Springs. We took the A7 up to Saratoga for the horse races, as it seemed like a good going-to-the-track kind of car: suitably plush, fast, and a little flashy. Aside from its obstinate nav system, the A7 did not disappoint. On lumpy two-lane roads, the A7 delivered a ride of near-glassy smoothness, rather remarkable given its high-fashion twenty-inch wheels with their low-sidewall 35-series tires. Pushing fast through the curves as I hustled to make the first race post time, the A7 was an eager and adept companion. The supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 is the only engine offered. (It also powers the A6, although the base 2012 A6 will get Audi's 2.0T turbo four.) If the New York State Thruway were an unlimited-speed autobahn -- Governor Cuomo, are you listening? -- the supercharged six might have come into its own, as it can power the A7 to 60 mph in only 5.4 seconds.
As it was, it had to content itself with only the occasional flexing of its considerable muscles (310 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque) on all-too-brief on-ramp blasts and passing occasions. As smooth and impressive as it was in those moments, however, its supercharger whine is not the sexiest sound. The eight-speed automatic, however, cannot be faulted, and it helped this speedy sedan returned an indicated 25 mpg in four days of mostly highway driving (against EPA estimates of 18 city/28 highway). Returning home on the narrow, winding Taconic State Parkway, the A7's precise steering was confidence-inspiring as we aimed for precise placement between inattentive lane wanderers on our right and a battered center guardrail on the left. In the gathering darkness, the ambient lighting cast a glow about the interior and the adaptive xenon headlamps did a great job illuminating curvy country roads. Both features are part of a raft of equipment that comes with the top-tier, Prestige, trim package, which adds $6330 to the bottom line.
Our bottom line at the track was a small loss for the day, but the bottom line for the A7 is a little tougher to calculate. The car is an undeniably swell companion for a long day-trip -- quick, comfortable, and luxurious. But one nagging question is: Is it distinct enough from the A6 to justify its premium positioning, the way the CLS has successfully done? The fact that its sloping silhouette hides a hatchback underneath gives the A7 a bit more versatility than the A6, but if buyers cared about that, then the A6 Avant would still be with us (it's departing with the 2011 model year). At the very least, however, the A7's hatchback is unlikely to be seen as a negative. A car this swanky and plush bears absolutely no resemblance to with the econo-hatches of decades ago. With the A7, the hatchback has moved uptown, but we'll see whether it will be redeemed at last.