Sardinia is a really old place, and at first it feels odd to drive Audi's latest creation, the 2012 Audi A7, on roads that meander past the remains of a stone village from the Bronze Age and a 3,800-year-old olive tree that's miraculously still alive.
But Sardinians have gotten in the habit of reinventing their island over the centuries. Their latest creation is the Costa Smeralda, a gorgeous strip of coastline that's currently the No. 1 destination for millionaires from Moscow, Dubai and all points in between. You certainly wouldn't be surprised to see a high-end vehicle here, particularly if it's new and avant garde in design, as the Audi A7 is.
We don't mean to make too much of the "five-door coupe" marketing wizardry that will accompany the launch of the 2012 Audi A7 in Europe this fall and here in the U.S. next spring. This car is a sedan, in the same way the Mercedes-Benz CLS is a sedan. The difference is the A7 has a hatchback tail, so it can carry four millionaires and their luggage on a tour of the island.
Of course, the beautiful vacationers would never actually want to be seen in a practical vehicle, so the 2012 Audi A7 hides that utility under sleek bodywork.
It's a Small Island
Although it's a five-door hatchback, the 2012 Audi A7 is a preview of what we can expect from the redesigned 2012 A6 sedan — both in size and driving characteristics.
The A7 uses the same chassis architecture as the A4, S4, A5 and S5, but has a longer wheelbase (114.7 inches) and wider track (64.5 inches front, 64.1 inches rear) than any of those cars. At 195.7 inches, it's also a good foot longer than the S5 and a couple inches longer than the current A6. But like we said, the Audi A7 is sleek; at 55.9 inches, it's only 2 inches taller than the S5 and most definitely not of the crossover persuasion — a BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo this is not.
The A7 is also fairly lightweight for its size. Audi says it weighs 4,100 pounds — same as the last A6 we tested. Although the unit-body is primarily steel, 13 percent of it is the lighter, high-strength variety. Audi used plenty of aluminum, too, saving an estimated 150 pounds, officials tell us. The hood, front quarter panels, doors and tailgate are all aluminum.
Most of the roads in Sardinia are two-lanes lorded over by fearless locals, and the 2012 Audi A7 manages just fine. It has that wonderful quality of shrinking around you as you drive it, and it feels at ease going through tight corners. Our test car has the optional adaptive air suspension, which allows you to tailor the damper maps in the Audi Drive Select menu, in addition to drivertrain response and steering weight. In the most aggressive "Dynamic" suspension setting, the ride height is lowered by up to 0.8 inch. An optional S line sport suspension (with steel springs, rather than air) will be sold separately for those who prefer to drive around with the lowered ride height all the time.
The electric-assist power steering still feels a little off to us, as in the A4 and S5. The precision and feel you get with hydraulic-assist setups isn't quite realized here. The "Dynamic" setting adds heft to the wheel, but doesn't actually improve the act of steering the car.
Maybe the biggest surprise during our drive is the ride quality. Audi will offer a range of wheels from 18-20 inches in diameter on the 2012 Audi A7. Our test vehicle has 20s mounted with 265/35R20 99Y Yokohama Advan Sport summer tires, and somehow it still finds the sweet spot between control and compliance. Mind you, the Sardinians seem to have spent plenty of the revenue from the Russian tycoons on maintaining their roads, so we'll have to test an A7 in Southern California before we deliver a verdict on ride quality.
This Engine, Not This Transmission
The Europeans will get their diesels, of course, but in the U.S., the 2012 Audi A7 will come with just one engine (unless you count the S7): Audi's gasoline-fueled, supercharged and direct-injected 3.0-liter V6. Still carrying the misleading "3.0 TFSI" badge (misleading, because it's not turbocharged), this V6 will be rated right around 295 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque in the 2012 A7.
Our European-spec test car has the automaker's S tronic seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission, but U.S.-spec models will use the ZF-developed eight-speed automatic transmission exclusively. Audi's German product managers tell us that they feel Americans will prefer the smoothness of a real automatic. However, the seven-speed S tronic is as smooth in its automatic modes as any dual-clutch gearbox we've ever tried. So the decision here is likely more about consistency, as Audi has announced plans to use the eight-speed automatic on every U.S. model except the A3.
With its vast swath of usable torque, though, the supercharged V6 would be content with half as many forward gears. All 325 lb-ft are available from 2,900-4,500 rpm, and the power doesn't show any signs of dropping off by the time you hit the engine's 6,500-rpm redline. Audi estimates the S tronic version of the A7 3.0 TFSI will hit 60 mph in the mid-5-second range, and we'd guess the American version won't have much trouble cracking 6 seconds, either.
Quattro all-wheel drive is standard on all Audi A7 3.0 TFSI models, and it's identical to the setup on the RS5, where you have a couple of clutches for front-rear torque vectoring on the fly. In perfect traction conditions, 60 percent of engine torque goes to the rear wheels. A rear limited-slip differential will be offered as an option.
We have few opportunities to stop on Sardinia, where there are 50 roundabouts for every traffic light, but when we do, the engine in our A7 tester shuts off. All European models will have this fuel-scrimping start-stop feature, but no U. S. models will.
"With start-stop, there are several implications on the comfort side for the customer, and it's something we thought U.S. customers would not be too thrilled about," Sebastian Mackensen, Audi's head of sales and marketing for the Americas, tells us. "On a car with a stylish design and a lifestyle orientation, we didn't think it was the right time to launch this."
Seats and Timber
Sitting in the 2012 Audi A7 is a lot like sitting in the new A8, as all the same technology is at your disposal. The navigation system calls up Google Earth images, and the pad for Audi's MMI Touch interface, where you can use your finger to spell out a destination or phone number, is on the console. And like the A8, the Audi A7 becomes a mobile WiFi hotspot when you insert a SIM card into the appropriate slot in the dash; you'll need to buy a pretty robust data plan from your wireless provider, of course.
It's a lot of technology to negotiate, but simple tasks like setting the climate control or hooking up an iPod via hard USB line remain simple in the 2012 A7. Expect a lengthy options sheet, with everything from a head-up display to a car-parks-itself-for-you system.
Because Audi plans to market the A7 as a coupe, the seating layout is for just four and the car will launch as a four-seater even in the U.S. There's definitely room for a third seatbelt in back, though, and Audi of America officials tell us they're pushing for a five-passenger version. Adults will fit in back just fine, provided they're not much over 6 feet, as the fast roof line noticeably limits headroom. Cargo capacity figures are European measurements, so they're a bit lower than typical U.S.-spec SAE figures: 18.9 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 49.1 cubic feet when they're folded.
Furnishings are high in quality, as you would expect in a car that will start around $60,000 in the U.S. As always, there are several wood options; our favorite is the layered oak, which has a genuine weathered look to it. It's a delayed option in Europe but should be available in the U.S. at launch.
A Small Niche
Audi is trying to carve out yet another niche in the luxury car segment — the luxury five-door hatchback. It doesn't need to be a big niche, as the automaker only plans to sell us 7,000 A7s in a full year.
If the 2012 Audi A7 was just a utility play, though, we'd be highly doubtful about its prospects in the United States. We Americans do not like hatchbacks unless they're pretending to be something else.
The A7 is pretending to be a coupe, and a particularly graceful one at that. It looks better than most luxury sedans, and it drives like a big A5. It may not be elite enough for the millionaires sunning themselves on Costa Smeralda, but it's the classiest car in the Audi lineup.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.
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