Review: 2012 Audi A7

The Good: Gorgeous inside and out, speed, luggage space
The Bad: Tight rear headroom, costs ten grand more than a comparable Audi A6 sedan
The Bottom Line: A home run for Audi (but check out the new A6 before buying)

Make: Audi
Model: A7
Model Year: 2012
Body Type: Four door/four passenger hatchback
Price Class: Premium
Product Name: Audi A7

Up Front

Audi lauds its new A7 hatchback as combining “the emotional appeal of a coupe with the prestige of a sedan and the functionality of a wagon.” In this case, there’s truth behind the hype. The A7 “sportback” (to use Audi’s preferred term) not only handles well but is surprisingly practical, as long as you don’t mind that maximum seating capacity is only four people. It’s also quicker, cheaper, and more fuel-efficient than such competitors as the BMW (BMWA) 550i Gran Turismo, Mercedes (DAI:G) CLS550, and Porsche Panamera.

In fact, the A7′s toughest competitor is probably Audi’s own newly designed A6 sedan, which costs much less but is less striking in appearance.

The A7 is the best-looking Audi I’ve ever seen and one of the most distinctive-looking cars on the road. From the front, the A7 resembles a jungle cat ready to pounce. The lower section of the body is wide and solidly grounded, while the side windows slope in, giving the top of the car a lean, aerodynamic look. The grille seems better integrated into the overall design than in other Audis, and the very cool-looking headlights—formed out of a curvy string of LED lights—are similar to the ones in the new A8. The roofline is radical, sloping sharply down in back and then abruptly ending, as if cut off with a knife. The bright-red LED taillights are almost as noticeable as the headlights.

The A7 matches or beats the quickness of its main competitors while leading the pack in fuel economy. It’s rated to get 18 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway, compared with 15/22 for the 2011 BMW xDrive 550i Gran Turismo, 17/25 for the 2012 Mercedes CLS550 4Matic, and 18/26 for the Porsche Panamera 4.

Yet under the hood is a supercharged 3.0-liter, 310 horsepower V6 that generates a very admirable 325 lb. ft. of torque. The transmission is a high-tech, eight-speed, dual clutch automatic with a manual shifting function and available paddle shifters. All-wheel drive is standard.

With a starting price of $60,125, the all-wheel-drive A7 is significantly cheaper than its main competitors. By comparison, the 2011 BMW 550i GT starts at $65,275 with rear-wheel drive and $67,575 with all-wheel drive. The gap is even greater between the A7 and the 2012 Mercedes CLS550, which starts at $72,175 with rear-wheel drive and $74,675 with all-wheel drive. Ditto for the 2011 Porsche Panamera, which starts at $74,375 with rear-wheel drive and $79,875 with all-wheel drive.

The real bargain in the segment is the redesigned 2012 Audi A6 sedan, which is about to hit dealer showrooms and starts at just $50,775 with all-wheel drive and the supercharged V6 engine—almost 10 grand less than the A7. The A6 also has the advantage of seating five people rather than four, and it can be had in much cheaper configurations.

Keep in mind that the price of the A7 (and the A6, for that matter) mounts precipitously as you add bells and whistles. The $3,620 Premium package includes such upgrades as 19-inch alloy wheels, a retracting 8-inch video screen, a rear-view camera, and a six-CD changer. The $6,330 Premium Plus package includes all that plus such upgrades as heated outside mirrors, ventilated seats, an upgraded Bose sound system, LED ambient lighting, and adaptive headlights. A Bang & Olufsen sound system costs an extra $5,900, and the $5,800 Innovation Package adds night vision, collision avoidance, and blind-spot warning systems, as well as a head-up display and adaptive cruise control.

It’s too early to tell how popular the new A7 will be. Audi is doing very well, however, with U.S. sales up 15.4 percent, to 55,909, in the first half of this year compared with the same period in 2010. The company’s top-selling model is the Q5 SUV, sales of which increased 14.2 percent, to 11,135, in the first half of the year.

Behind the Wheel

The A7 is more comfort-oriented than a BMW or Porsche. To me, it drives a lot like a Mercedes coupe. The suspension is very forgiving on bumpy back roads. Acceleration is smooth and handling tight, but the car’s sportiness is understated. Although not quite as sound-deadened as a Mercedes, the A7′s cabin is quiet at all speeds.

Among the A7′s more distinctive features is a new speed-sensitive steering system that verges on being too loosey-goosey at low speeds, requiring almost no driver effort when you’re parking or negotiating driveways. Steering becomes increasingly sporty as you accelerate, providing (for me, at least) a more-than-adequate feeling of connection to the road. My main gripe is that the system doesn’t revert to easy-steering mode quickly enough as you slow down. When you first pull into a parking lot, you sometimes really have to horse the wheel around until the steering adjusts.

The A7 is rated to accelerate from zero to 60 in 5.4 seconds, which about matches the speed of the BMW 550i GT and Mercedes CLS550 and bests the more expensive Porsche Panamera. Top speed is electronically limited to 130 miles per hour.

The A7′s cabin is as gorgeous as its exterior. I particularly love the curvy wraparound dash, and the 8-inch navigation screen that folds down flat and disappears when not in use. All the materials look elegant and expensive. The leather on the seats and dash is soft and sumptuous—and was particularly beautiful in the light tan and coffee colors in my test car. Dark walnut, ash, or brushed aluminum highlights add to the luxury.

Although the A7 is a four-door, it’s laid out inside like a coupe, with seating for a maximum of four people. There’s plenty of room in the front seats for adults who aren’t unusually tall or heavy, but the sloping roofline makes head space in the rear seat scant. I’m 5 ft. 10, and with the front seat set for my height, I had plenty of foot and knee space in back, but my head was close to touching the ceiling.

What makes the hatchback design practical is the voluminous amount of easily accessible hauling capacity it offers. Space behind the rear seats is 24.5 cu. ft. (vs. 14.1 cu. ft. in the trunk of the A6 sedan), expanding to far more when one or both of the rear seats is folded down. The rear hatch opens up wide, making bulky objects easy to load and unload. The A7 is ideal for someone who, say, regularly drives a foursome to and from the golf course.

Buy It or Bag It?

Even factoring in the cost of optional equipment, the A7 is a relative bargain. At an average selling price of $66,738, according to the Power Information Network, the A7 comes in well below the 2011 BMW 550i xDrive GT ($74,000), 2012 Mercedes CLS ($80,844) and 2011 Porsche Panamera ($96,531).

The A7 has significant advantages over the BMW 550i GT, a hatchback that is probably its most direct competitor. The A7 not only costs less and gets better mileage but feels nimbler, because it weighs about 800 lbs less than the all-wheel-drive version of the 550i GT. The A7 also has 9 cu. ft. more luggage space with the rear seats up.

The big question is whether simply to opt for an A6 sedan instead. Admittedly, the A7 has more standard features than the A6 (18-in. wheels, a hard-drive), but what you’re mainly paying an extra ten grand for is good looks. I’d still be sorely tempted. The A7 is a knockout.

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