LÜDERITZ, Namibia — The sat-nav says arrival time 12:53 a.m. The man from Audi advises us not to drive after dark because of wild animals. The photographer says let’s get on with it. My inner voice tells me to believe in the power of laser headlights and night vision, so let the impala and springbok play hide and seek if they want.
On the two-lane N7 highway between Citrusdal, South Africa, just north of Cape Town, to Vioolsdrif at the Namibian border, progress is a matter of attitude, aspiration, and ambition. In addition to being on high alert for any wildlife lurking in the bush, we’re also busy dodging underpaid and overly keen asphalt jockeys in charge of slowly disintegrating tour buses, mirrorless vans on a clock-beating mission, and grotesquely overloaded semis. But thanks to some 39 assistance systems and a switched-on driver who can’t spare a single digit to toy with the seductive, colorful touchscreens, the new 2019 Audi A7 cuts through it all with relative ease. When we hit Klawer, about a quarter of the way to Vioolsdrif, the estimated arrival time has lowered to 12:11 am. We’re making headway.
Our destination is the port of Lüderitz on the Namibian coast, founded in 1883 by settlers from Berlin, Dresden, and Cologne. The A7 Sportback 55 TFSI we’re in is fitted with every conceivable extra and then some. It even features double-glazed glass, multicolor ambient lighting, and intelligent wipers with washer jets focusing on the dirtiest spots. Back-seat magnates like The Donald would undoubtedly appreciate modern conveniences such as Twitter access and the pay TV module; owner-drivers are more likely to applaud the fully automatic parking assistance system, which takes the sting out of hungry curbs and tight entry and exit spirals.
Despite the puzzling 55 TFSI badge, the A7’s base powerplant remains Audi’s 3.0-liter turbo V-6, which now delivers 340 horsepower. It’s been thoroughly modified, feels livelier, and plays a catchier tune. The seven-speed S tronic automatic transmission is really on its toes in Sport mode. Eco efforts include a start-stop system that calls it a day below 15 mph, an efficiency program that cuts the engine between 30 and 100 mph under trailing throttle, and a green lift-off symbol in the instrument binnacle, which suggests that now is the time to take it easy.
It’s not only the 340 hp that gets things done but also the torque curve, which peaks at 369 lb-ft between 1,370 and 4,500 rpm—it is as flat as Cape Town’s famous Table Mountain. The Audi collects further brownie points for its ability to accelerate to 60 mph in an estimated 5.2 seconds, its brisk downshift action, ambitious redline that touches 7,000 rpm, and its aggressively spaced third through fifth gears.
Praise is also due to the air suspension that leans the car ever so slightly into the random gusts of crosswind.
Bureaucracy thrives at the border crossing that separates South Africa from Namibia. We’re in a hurry, but the squadron of uniformed state servants on both sides of the barbed wire evidently has all the time in the world. For no good reason at all, we waste almost an hour filling out forms, waiting for stamps, paying fees, and having the vehicle searched. As a result, our ETA has dropped back. No way are we giving in. So let’s fill up the Ara Blue-sprayed hatchback-coupe and get back after it. We’re going to need to rely on the technical improvements that set the new A7 apart from its predecessor: its piercing matrix-laser headlamps, recalibrated air suspension, and rear-wheel steering chief among them. Having fiddled with Drive Select for the past six hours, the preferred configuration locks the drivetrain in Dynamic while the algorithms looking after steering and chassis are left alone. Above 75 mph, the road-hugging sports pack lowers the ride height by another quarter inch or so.
The final leg of the night stage to Lüderitz goes down in the logbook as a real challenge and an eerie experience. What looks like London fog is actually a proper sandstorm, whipping tall, thin curtains across the road and drowning tire and engine noise in pelting spells that sound like a million needles pitting the paintwork to the primer. The curvy highway is littered with tumbleweed and occasional waves of rock-solid drift sand. It’s a baptism of fire for the A7’s rear-wheel steering, which enhances stability and maneuverability depending on how fast you’re going. Praise is also due to the air suspension, which leans the car ever so slightly into the random gusts of crosswind. Although the broad light cone cast by the matrix-laser wonderbeams could almost touch the horizon on a clear night, we’re limited to low-beams in this tempest.
Helping the cause is Audi’s latest, more fuel-efficient Quattro system—dubbed Ultra—effectively all-wheel drive on demand. Rear-wheel drive only activates to support takeoff traction, cornering grip, and handling bias. Acting progressively and imperceptibly, it engages and disconnects in milliseconds. For enhanced road holding and curb appeal, our test car was fitted with 20-inch wheels shod with 255/40 tires. In the previous A7, this setup in combination with the sport suspension would have smashed a set of false teeth to pieces. The second-generation model, however, has learned to ride more smoothly. Like every Audi, this one is still not pleased with transverse irritations, but it no longer absolutely hates potholes, manhole covers, and railroad crossings. The steel brakes deserve applause for prompt response and efficient deceleration, but it also earns a few scattered boos for elevated pedal pressure, which increases with every repeat high-speed action and is accompanied by a certain sponginess over the final 100 yards or so before the vehicle comes to a full stop.
“No, we don’t have Wi-Fi. Talk to each other!” This sign put up at Giesela’s breakfast station down by the sea is not only a mocking shot across the bow of the Facebook crowd but also confirms in writing that digitalization has not yet fully arrived in Lüderitz. Almost everything related to electricity does in fact move at a different pace in this part of Africa. Filling up the car takes around 10 minutes, the streetlights flicker at night like back in the postwar days, and paying with a credit card only works when a favorable internet wind blows.
Architectural gems like Villa Goerke, which looks like something that was helicoptered out of Bavaria and dropped into the rugged desert, dot the landscape. Built in 1909 during the diamond rush, it is now a national historic monument. Then there’s Shark Island, an area that has become prime residential property but used to be a German labor camp where thousands died in the early 1900s. It is a lasting symbol of the numerous atrocities committed against indigenous peoples by the colonial powers.
The Germans, who had claimed large chunks of Africa in 1884’s Berlin Conference, were running the show here.
So although not all of the wounds from those dark days have fully healed, there is a special spirit that has developed among the locals, known as Buchters (Bucht is the German word for bay), who pride themselves on living life to the fullest. Many of them are trilingual, fluent in Afrikaans, German, and English.
The A7 is linguistically even more talented. It speaks more than 15 languages and understands every spoken and written word, although it needs a stable web connection to shine, which is as rare as an ice-cream vendor in this scorching part of the world. But even without car-to-infrastructure intelligence, real-time traffic information, and super-precise HERE maps, the in-dash mix of touchscreens, displays, and buttons is pure sensory overload—a potpourri of recurrent distraction and stubborn, smeary fingerprints. Make no mistake: This is a great-looking, beautifully made, and emphatically modern cockpit. But like in an Airbus A320, you almost need a co-pilot to make full use of the car’s diverse talents.
A short distance from Lüderitz is the ghost town of Kolmannskuppe, a series of buildings fighting a losing battle against sand and wind and time. Kolmannskuppe was built between 1908 and 1910 next to the country’s first diamond mine, which yielded more than 5 million carats of gemstone before World War I broke out. The Germans, who had claimed large chunks of Africa in 1884’s Berlin Conference, were running the show here and in Lüderitz. And what a show it must have been. The largely intact wood-paneled town hall houses a theater, cinema, library, bowling alley, restaurant, bar, and gymnasium.
Perhaps the biggest frivolity was the stone-walled saltwater swimming pool the size of a football stadium, which still caps the hill like an ancient helipad for the gods. A guide named William takes us through the buildings. “Goods were transported by horses, boats, and eventually by rail,” he says. “Round about that time, the diamond barons brought in the first motor cars. When a Mercedes or Rolls broke down, it was simply put away while a new one was ordered. Wealth was unreal in those days.” After a short 17-year boom, the miners moved on, and Kolmannskuppe was abandoned by 1956.
Today’s travelers on African roads don’t have the luxury of waiting months for a new car to replace the old one, let alone hours to fix more than one flat tire or a mechanical fault that grounds the vehicle in the middle of nowhere. Then there’s the worst-case scenario, getting in a crash, since the next hospital is more than likely a long drive or flight away. This creates a lingering inner conflict because on both sides of the Namibian tarmac are some of the best sand roads we’ve ever seen. Wiser men would ignore them. But with ESP turned off, it was slide time.
With exactly 13 minutes to spare, the car finally grinds to a halt at the barrier, brakes sizzling, exhaust crackling.
From one moment to the next, Quattro returns with a vengeance, pushing hard to support the struggling, spinning, scraping front wheels. It takes only a couple of corners to find the right rhythm, to make lift-off action bond with turn-in bite, to play the car with steering and throttle, throttle and steering. Drama can multiply in the even lower-grip zone between sand and gravel, where the car’s attitudes, gestures, and stances match a ballet dancer for elegance in motion.
We leave Lüderitz midafternoon, forking off toward Rosh Pinah then heading for the border at Oranjemund. It’s a shorter yet slower route on twistier roads with older, sun-bleached surfaces. According to the guide book, the border crossing closes at 8 p.m., and there is no listed accommodation this side of South Africa, so time is once more of the essence. We fire up the afterburner, and two hours later, we know for a fact that the A7 55 TFSI tops out at more than 150 mph.
Even through increasingly tight radii, the car keeps carving with poise, prowess, and panache. There is a blind understanding between the steering angles of all four wheels, and the firm ride still shows mercy, holding the line with singing tires. With exactly 13 minutes to spare, the car finally grinds to a halt at the barrier, brakes sizzling, exhaust crackling. Gimme five, mate. And please ignore the sign on the customs building that reads, “From Feb. 1, 2018, this border is open 24/7.”
2019 Audi A7 Sportback Specifications
|PRICE||$70,000 (base) (est)|
|ENGINE||3.0L DOHC 24-valve turbo V-6/340 hp @ 5,000-6,400 rpm,369 lb-ft @ 1,370-4,500 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD hatchback|
|L x W x H||195.6 x 75.1 x 56.0 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.2 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph (est)|