The sophisticated A7 offers hatchback practicality in a fabulous package
Sleek. Few words are as overused in describing consumer products. A superficial term often applied to overpriced objects that turn out to be obsolete in six months.
The new Audi A7 is sleek. Shiny and slick as well, two other words I don't particularly like.
Odd, then, that I deeply desire it. That's despite — okay, because of — its utter slick 'n' shiny sleekness. I can't help myself. My brain easily rebuffs the "need" for an iPad 2, but those pleasure receptors get all tingly when presented with this overly stylized $60,000 car.
I'm driving the A7 down a wide freeway through New Jersey in the dead of night, a sliver of moon overhead. There's almost no traffic and the adaptive xenon headlights create a silvery tunnel through the asphalt darkness.
The Bose stereo, quite good, is pumping. The interior is gently lit by ambient LED lights tucked inside the door handles. The sunroof is open and the warm outside air smells of greenery.
I could happily drive all night. I'm two states away from my destination, but would easily go twice as far. This is what a car like the A7 is designed for. It gobbles up distance, leaving the occupants in crisp comfort.
Unlike some highway barges, however, its essence doesn't bore or lull, prodding drivers to a nearby motel for a bit of shut-eye. Rather I constantly drop my gaze to the speedometer, making sure my speed hasn't crept beyond an acceptable threshold. New Jersey's state police are nice, but I'd prefer not to meet them tonight.
The 3.0-liter V-6 isn't loud or rough-sounding. I can't hear it over my selection of night-driving songs. But it is punchy at low speeds and brilliant at a freeway pace. The gearing is managed by an imperceptible eight-speed transmission that acts quickly to downshift when you ask for extra power.
I drop off the freeway to an exit ramp, barely reducing my speed. My test car has 20-inch wheels with summer performance tires and traction is good. All-wheel-drive is standard.
I roll onto a side street, looking for gas. The A7 gets 28 miles per gallon on the highway: Not bad considering the 310 horsepower. The engine is supercharged and direct injected.
As I maneuver to the pump, I'm cursing the steering. Like the new A8 sedan, the power-steering is electric and speed sensitive. It feels about as organic as a block of Velveeta cheese. Just as rubbery, too.
It's designed to turn extra easily at low speeds — so you don't strain yourself with the superhuman effort of maneuvering in a parking lot, for instance. (Yes, that's sarcasm.) As you go faster, the resistance gradually builds, firming by the time you're on the highway.
BMW uses a similar system, which doesn't bother me. Audi still hasn't perfected its feel, however. It's far too loose when driving around town. My irritation fades as I begin pumping gas and gaze over the sheet metal.
Audi's A6 sedan is bigger and plusher than the A4; shorter and less luxurious than the A8. So the A7's odd-numbered nomenclature kind of says it all. It doesn't fit an elemental function, but rather fills a quirky niche.
This is for the driver who wants to exhibit her or his uniqueness while still showing off.
The A7 has four doors and a rear hatch. Most striking when viewed from the side, it's defined by a sloping roofline, which arcs in an uninterrupted line into the trunk to form the hatchback.
This "fastback" design became popular again when Mercedes-Benz introduced its beautiful CLS sedan in 2004. Benz has just released the second generation of that car.
The A7 has an extremely thick shoulder-line running from the fenders to taillights, a feature that stands out nearly as much as the shape of the roof. The extrusion, situated between the window sill and door handles, is so prominent that I'm able to rest a nickel on its ledge.
While the large sedan will seat only four, ceiling height in the rear is acceptable. Folding the rear seats down flat results in a cavern of space, into which I easily slid a bicycle. The hatch opens and closes electronically. The downside of the configuration is thick pillars in the rear, resulting in a potential blind spot. Optional side sensors are $500.
My test car had the $6,330 "Prestige" package, which includes sportier-looking bumpers, the Bose stereo and a navigation system. The extremely thin navigation screen does a neat trick of sliding out of the dashboard horizontally and then righting itself.
Audi is aiming at technocrats. You can choose to view maps in Google Earth view, and see related photos or Wikipedia entries. The car can even function as a traveling Wi-Fi hot spot. Strictly necessary? Not really, but real-estate agents, Silicon Valley wunderkinds and teenagers will surely be impressed.
Me? I'm just ready to get back inside, get up to speed and blow through the night in my sleek ride.
The 2012 Audi A7 at a Glance
Engine: 3.0-liter supercharged V-6, with 310 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 18 city; 28 highway.
Price as tested: $68,630.
Best feature: Hatchback practicality in a fabulous package.
Worst feature: Speed-sensitive steering.
Target buyer: Those who appreciate a niche (and odd- numbered) player.