Audi brings us the all-new, second-generation A7 Sportback, a luxurious five-door 'coupe-fastback' that offers something a little grander than an A6, but which is less staid in the appearance department than the A8 saloon. And, talking of the German company's flagship saloon, the Mk4 A8 donates lots of technology to the A7, beginning the trickle-down filtration of the biggest saloon's toys to the rest of the Audi family. Technologically advanced, and judged as a whole, the A7 Mk2 is a very good car. Judged on its perceived quality and appearance alone, it looks next to impossible to fault. But judged on its driving manners?
In the metal
When you go for one of these cars that aims to blend the sportiness of a coupe, the practicality of an estate and the comfort of a saloon into one package, you can all too often end up with a severely compromised piece of design as a result. Not so the Audi A7 Sportback. It's a seriously good-looking thing. It loses the slight flabbiness and rather 'meh' shape of the old car, in favour of something that manages to appear both imposing and lithe at the same time. The great work starts up front, where the A7 Sportback features the same sort of sharply sculpted bonnet as the smaller A5 Sportback, only extra definition to the A7's face means it lacks for the slightly stretched, surprised expression of the A5; instead, the A7 looks scowling and mean, exactly as a big, premium car from Audi should.
Continuing down the flanks, there's a whopping great swage line just above the sills that manages to break up the bulk of the A7's doors. Wheel sizes range from 19 to 21 inches, the test cars on the launch all sitting on 20s, which are not only gorgeous in all their various designs, but which also suitably fill the arches to give the Sportback the correct stance. And then, around the back, we have the new Audi trademark: a full-width strip of lights, seen already on the A8 and due to debut on the forthcoming A6 Mk5. Together with the wide and linked exhaust treatment lower down in the rear bumper, it contrives to make the A7 look beautifully well-set on the roads when you're following behind it. Sure, like any Audi, the new Sportback can be specified in sedate, boring shades like grey and silver, but go on, be a devil and try living life a little more boldly - spec it in white or even the lustrous Ara Blue, because it really can pull off such strong shades. While few four-door 'coupes' are ever what we'd call truly beautiful, the Audi A7 Sportback gets mighty, mighty close in such finishes.
If the exterior is close to greatness, but perhaps slightly short of it, the interior is an example of how Audi continues to evolve to keep itself one step ahead of the ever-chasing competition. Just when you think Audi's cabin design is getting a bit safe and boring, that the rival premium carmakers are going to finally show it a trick or two, the company introduces a new two-tier sculpture for the A7's fascia and that three-screen digital infotainment system (as, again, already seen on the A8), which does away with the majority of physical buttons, to have you purring in admiration for the cabin finishing once more - and you'll soon be defiantly stating such sweeping observations as 'no one does interiors better than Audi.' It's true that the additional digital display (specifically, the lower one in the centre stack on which the heating controls and a few other sundry items are housed) does lack the immediately intuitive operation of the old MMI rotary controller, but we're sure that after a few weeks of ownership, most people will have mastered the fine art of controlling this spaceship-like console.
And, of course, it all looks wonderful and operates with a magnificent tactility, each 'button' press on the two centre screens rewarding you with a haptic feeling beneath your fingertips and an audible click sound. The Virtual Cockpit instrument cluster is as glorious as ever, all the materials used are first-class, the driving position is excellent and there's acres of legroom with impressive headroom in the rear, too. Factor in a big boot and a lengthy toy count, and the A7 looks a sound showroom purchase.
Featuring a long-wheelbase, quattro traction, lots of mechanical grip, strong drivetrains, plenty of optional chassis technology and the mild hybrid drivetrain (MHEV) electrical assistance, but weighing in at nearly 1.9 tonnes, how do you expect the Audi A7 Sportback to drive?
Don't get excited by the 'Sport' bit of the Audi A7's name, because it handles in the corners and loafs along motorways like a big executive saloon, not a sports coupe. As already stated, our A7 test cars for the international launch event were all fitted with 20-inch alloys, as well as the optional Dynamic All-Wheel Steering system (in which the rear wheels turn as much as two degrees in the opposite direction to the fronts at low speeds to improve manoeuvrability, before mimicking the front tyres' direction at higher speeds to boost stability for fast lane changes, while the steering rack itself offers variable assistance) and also-optional adaptive air suspension. Get busy with the Audi Drive Select button and ramp the Sportback up into its most aggressive modes, and you get lots of confidence-inspiring grip that ultimately does nothing but give way to scruffy, howling understeer if pushed too hard. Admittedly, it takes a fair amount of provocation to get the Audi washing wide in a corner, but there's little else to discover with a chassis that feels at its best being kept well within itself. One pleasing bonus of the safely-safely road-holding is that the four-wheel-steering system is noticeable in sharper corners, helping swing the back end of the Audi round to increase its perceived agility by a few notches, even if feedback at the steering wheel is markedly absent.
Nevertheless, the body control is very impressive in such spirited-driving circumstances, but that then leads onto another problem: ride comfort. It's as if by trying to convince us the A7 is sportier than an A8, by dint of more than just having a swoopy roofline, someone forgot to calibrate the Sportback for 'maximum waftiness'. While its ride is by no means bad - some would even say it was, in the main, extremely good - the air-suspended A7 doesn't quite filter out enough thumps and bumps from the cabin on motorways, and it can get pretty flustered if several things assail it all at once. Hit a succession of transverse ridges midway through a bend and the whole car shimmies sideways in a weird crabbing motion. Additionally, if the frequency of large, high-speed compressions heading its way becomes too intense, the A7's body gets out of sync in terms of controlling its vertical movements. The result of all this is that the grand-touring coupe isn't as comfortable as it really could and should be.
Pity, because in all other respects the A7 is as sophisticated and velvety smooth as you'd hope for. The Tiptronic transmission is superbly smooth, never once letting you feel gear swaps nor feeling like it is struggling for ratios or delaying its responses to big inputs of throttle; the noise suppression in the cabin is sensationally good; and the brawny diesel engine is a peach. It's the same TDI unit as found in the A8, but weirdly it has higher peak torque here (620Nm, instead of 600Nm in the saloon) that is concomitantly delivered at higher revs - the A7 doesn't hit 620Nm until 2,250rpm is on the clock, 1,000rpm above the point the A8's 600Nm comes on stream.
Despite this, the A7 - which is 200mm shorter than an A8 short-wheelbase - is 65 kilos lighter and so it's sprightly for acceleration, hitting 100km/h from a standstill in just 5.7 seconds. It feels every bit as quick as that oft-quoted stat suggests too, the mighty midrange of 620Nm making light work of the Audi's bulk once you're up and rolling. Even sounds good, for a diesel, albeit Audi hasn't given it a load of synthesised exhaust drama to up the excitement levels; the A7 is too upmarket for that sort of malarkey. Although economy and emissions figures haven't been confirmed as yet, it's reasonable to expect the 50 TDI to be capable of up to 50mpg, so while it has pace to burn, it won't be chewing through fuel at the same time.
So our summation is this: while we don't mind the fact the A7 Sportback Mk2 isn't the sharpest thing to drive, the occasionally firm ride offered by the air suspension is less forgivable. Perhaps the standard passive suspension, or even the regular springs but with adaptive damping, might sort out the sometimes pattering, wobbly characteristics of the Sportback on air. Thus, don't expect too much of the handling, try and avoid air suspension, never drive the A7 like you've stolen it and, if you stick to all these rules, you should find you get on famously with Audi's latest Sportback.
What you get for your money
Prices start at €72,950 on-the-road for the A7 Sportback 3.0 TDI in SE trim with 231hp, rising to €76,350 for the S line variant. The 286hp version starts at €78,150 for SE and €81,550 for S line. All have quattro four-wheel drive and Tiptronic automatic transmissions. As standard, equipment will include the three digital interior screens, heated leather upholstery, cruise control, MMI Navigation Plus, 19-inch wheels, the MHEV system, wireless smartphone charging, dual-zone climate and more, but to make the A7 truly feel futuristic, options will include (among many more items) a head-up display, night vision, the four-wheel steering set-up, the air suspension, HD Matrix LEDs with Audi laser light, two uprated Bang & Olufsen sound systems (the top dog packing a thumping 1,920-watt amplifier), the ability for the car to park itself in garages and tight spaces without anyone being in it, all manner of semi-autonomous driver assist safety systems and power-door closure.
The Audi A7 Sportback is, as expected, a highly polished, all-round impressive big grand tourer/five-door coupe that sets a tough benchmark for impending, rival products from BMW and Mercedes to surpass. But it's not faultless. Like so many Audis that have gone before, the A7 majors on the assured, stable security of its quattro chassis, over and above any genuine driver thrills. And on the optional air suspension that's supposed to be top of the chassis set-up tree, the ride is simply not as cushioned as we would like, especially if you're sacrificing the last vestiges of dynamic sharpness on the altar of Audi's traditionally urbane charm.
More time is needed testing the variety of different suspension types available for the A7 Sportback on roads closer to home to deliver a definitive call on the ride, but in essence this verdict is classic Audi critical fare: fast, grippy, immensely cultured, deeply attractive inside and out... and yet not massively exciting to drive. Still, the A7 Sportback is bound to be a success story for the German company, so expect to see plenty of Mk2 models on the roads in the coming months.