Driving the stylish new A7 hatchback in Cape Town
I was heading down a narrow, craggy lane outside of Cape Town, South Africa, when we approached a group of children walking along its dry grassy edge. I slowed. They were maybe 10 or 11 years old, dressed in a palette of primary colors – yellow or green shirts; red or blue pants; I guess they’d just gotten out of school. Turning around, they glanced at us in the rolling black-grilled, laser-headlighted, hulking electric-blue 2019 Audi A7 and instinctively spilled into our path, loping into a sort of spontaneous dance. “Jeez, I don’t want to hit anybody,” I murmured to my co-pilot, AUTOMOBILE’s Rory Jurnecka, braking to inch through them.
Just like that, smiling faces filled the side windows as they patted the fenders, laughing and waving. “This looks like an Audi commercial,” I joked to Rory. With a nervous foot covering the brake pedal, we were all waving; the exuberance was contagious. Awhile back, I re-listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland, and honestly, it seems like half this country is still swaying to Simon’s soundtrack.
In Southern California, where I’m from (and until now, thought was pretty laid back), you’d have to toss free iPhone X’s out of the A7’s windows for kids to flood onto Pacific Coast Highway like this. But 55-year-old men thumbing the corner of an $85,000 USD stack of bills are the epicenter of the A7 buyer demographic. Trust me, they’ll be lowering their copies of The Wall Street Journal at sun-drenched Starbucks tables from Malibu to Montauk when this thing flashes past. Back in 2012, it was the original A7’s long-arc, four-door fastback silhouette that gained notice. That’s blasé now. Six years later (actually, nearly seven when the 2019 A7 finally hits the U.S. dealers this fall), what’ll attract attention are this four-door hatch’s razor-like bodywork creases.
Creases? The A7’s wardrobe seems to have been sent to the cleaners for heavy-starch pressing. The sun seems to paint its lines from almost any angle, and the trick to it finally occurs to you when you look closely and run your fingers back and forth over their surfaces. Many aren’t simple edges; where the metal bends, it overshoots a tiny bit before spilling into the next panel. As you walk around the car, sunlight doesn’t just briefly glint, it lingers there as you move. I wonder if those kids were feeling it, too.
Up front, the 2019 A7 is fat, melted-down, techno-aggressive and appears to be, well, completely pissed-off. Small, black-plastic bricks nestled into either side of the egg-crate grill house either radar or Lidar (used for parking); the headlights are either baseline LEDs, matrix LEDs, or the as-pictured laser-based LEDs. A passing A7 tells a quick, Tweet-length story of emotions as it goes by: First, that fearsome face, then a flowing profile like a gently tapering flag, then a quiet kiss goodbye from its thin, simple taillights. Tension built, tension resolved. Unlock the doors and the front and rear lighting puts on a brief little show; tap the turn-signal and red light sweeps laterally across the rear bezels.
Like all the rest of the bodywork’s tight-fitting apertures, the hood is demarked by pencil-line panel gaps. It’s light to lift—aluminum support by struts (how feeble are we?) and behold—a 340-hp, 369 lb-ft 3.0-liter V-6, topped by an in-the-vee twin-scroll single turbo; it’s the new A8’s base engine, and here, the 2019 A7’s singular choice. But it brings a twist to this engine bay: Cradled under its right cylinder bank is a belt-drive electric motor that elevates this to 48-volt, mild-hybrid status. It doesn’t add any propulsion, but instead, super-quick stop-start, and brake regeneration to harvest otherwise wasted heat (cabled to a small lithium-ion battery beneath the cargo floor). This is a quiet, silky powertrain that’s potent when you lean on it, while paddle-shifting through its 7-speed dual-clutched gears like snapping your fingers after eating buttered popcorn. Audi claims a 0-62 of 5.3 seconds. Anecdotally, it feels at least that quick.
OK, so I’m going to now take off my hat, hold it over my heart and publicly request one thing from Audi’s product planners. Step around next to the front wheel – see how the bulk of it is ahead of the front axle line? It’s a hallmark of Audi drivetrains and basically it makes them arrows with very-heavy arrowheads, reticent to turn-in at the limit. When I drive the figure-eight test with these cars, I deliberately brake in a straight line, fully compress the front suspension so the nose is sniffing the asphalt, and then all at once, pop off the brake pedal and turn-in to maximize its brief, wormhole access to front-end bite. Neglect to perform this task and … it’s a one-way ticket to Understeerland.
Anyway, back here—as we walk past the all-new platform (that will reappear on the next A6) and its standard AWD (sans a torque-vectoring rear axle) – is The Solution. Every car in our Cape Town fleet was fitted with active rear-steer operated by an electric motor manipulating rear toe links. Bewilderingly, Audi hasn’t decided whether it’ll be available on the North America. A7s. Memo to Audi product planners: Put this setup on everything, because it’s transformative.
At lower speeds, the front and rear wheel angles are in opposite-phase, the car’s turning circle noticeably contracts. At higher speeds, they same-steer for better stability and creatively intervene if the car gets out of shape. Abetted by the variable-ratio steering, the car’s bite into corners seems noticeably hungrier, yet its stepped-up pace on Cape Town’s often rough roads was generally well concealed by the busy air springs and adaptive shocks. Unlike the new A8, the hatch’s rears springs and shocks are separated to widen the cargo floor (which expands forward at the same level when the rear seat back is folded). Mental note to tall passengers: Even after several quick scrambles in and out of the back seat, the hat atop my six-foot-one frame never so much as brushed the sloping door opening.
Inside, there’s enough rear legroom to launch an annoying kick into the front seatback (except, of course, for the unfortunate tunnel-straddler in the middle). Ditto sufficient headroom, aft and up front … which is where you confront, in my opinion, the new A7’s single most significant thing – its two-tier, MMI touchscreens.
Remember when driving a German sedan meant always reaching your right hand down and spinning a big rotary knob (and usually bewildered by what it’s doing)? As with the A8 (and presumably, the new A6), the Audi’s slick virtual cockpit instrument display is matched by two center-stack displays, the upper one for infotainment, navigation and such, the lower one for climate control and other sundry functions. Both are haptic (with adjustable sensitivity) with audio confirmations; the lower one being particularly easy to interface with a finger because your wrist rests on the shifter.
You have to give Audi credit for what it’s done here. The lower screen’s search-by-cursive-text-recognition is great (again, that steadied right wrist is crucial); its natural-language voice recognition is sourced by both onboard and cloud-based computing. There’s an easy-to-assign row of short-cut icons, and even some degree of customization by holding an icon, then placing it—a behavior we’ve learned from smartphones. All that’s great, but I need a lot more time in my time-zone with less jetlag and more cappuccinos, before passing too much judgment. But.
On our first day in Cape Town, Rory and I set out on the nav-guided loop only to be halted by a closed road (due to high wind; who’s ever heard of that?). We had to turn around. But after much tapping, and screen finger-writing and dialoging with the voice recognition (all of which were stymied by the local connectivity issues) I got flustered and started to set-up CarPlay instead. Then an Audi helper came to our rescue, reached in and tapped the way back to the hotel. OK, so we’re unfamiliar with the system. But.
Being jet-lagged, geographically unfamiliar, and connectivity-challenged is exactly the situation these things should be designed to navigate. Then there’s the user interface: How come the icons are dark and monotone and sometimes over-designed to the point of being unidentifiable? There seems to be a compulsion to match the style-standard of the fashionable $85,000 USD car it’s attached to, rather than just being the easiest, friendliest interface to use. But.
You can have both. The Cape Town hotel Audi stashed us was the Radisson Red. It’s close to the swank marina, and is trendy and uber-cool inside – a conscious pick to complement to the fashionable A7. On my departure day, I went down for breakfast and was startled by the server’s grin, asking, “How’d you sleep last night? Rested? So, my friend, what would you like for breakfast?” I blanched. Then smiled. Design and smile-making communication, intertwined.
Maybe all automotive interface engineers should spend some time in chic-yet-friendly Cape Town hotels. They’d learn something.