First drive: 2019 Audi A7 Sportback in South Africa

First drive: 2019 Audi A7 Sportback in South Africa

Audi’s slinky A7 Sportback has carved a small but solid niche for itself since its 2010 launch, targeting buyers who want the space and functionality of a large sedan, yet aren’t keen on the formulaic three-box proportions that come with the traditional four-door format.

The first-gen Mercedes CLS got the ball rolling a decade-and-a-half ago with the sedans-that-want-to-be-a-coupe genre, but since then various other slope-roofed offerings have joined the fray, including BMW’s 6 Series Gran Coupe and Porsche’s Panamera. It’s against these contenders that the all-new, second-gen A7 Sportback must lock horns.

The latest A7 is due to launch in the GCC by August, and the only variant initially on offer will be the A7 55 TFSI, propelled by a twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 that pumps out 340 hp and a robust 500 Nm of twist. Drive is sent through a seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch transmission, and hooked up to this is the familiar “Quattro” setup whereby the A7 operates primarily in front-wheel-drive mode – until there’s a loss of traction. The instant this happens, a percentage of drive (as much as necessary) is shunted to the rear axle.

We’re in the visually spectacular city of Cape Town, South Africa, to sample the new A7 Sportback, which is underpinned by largely the same platform (dubbed MLB Evo) as Audi’s A8 flagship limo. But, just to be clear, the newbie isn’t merely an A8 cloaked in a slinky bodyshell, as Audi’s chassis engineers stress that the chassis and suspension was significantly adapted for the A7, in keeping with the grand tourer’s sportier job description than its stately limousine sibling.

One of the key areas in which the A7 differs from the A8 is in its much lower centre of gravity, thanks partly to a repackaged/redesigned suspension layout, plus the fact it stands just 1422mm tall (66mm lower than the A8).

The A7 is also significantly shorter than the A8 at 4969mm, so its footprint on the road is more akin to the mid-size A6. The cutting-edge aluminium/steel composite structure of the MLB Evo platform means the A7 55 TFSI tips the scales at a sprightly 1830 kg, enabling it to undercut the Panamera, 6 Series Gran Coupe and CLS in the battle against the bulge.

The fact it’s not overly lardy results in a tidy 5.3-second 0-100 kph dash for the A7 55 TFSI, while top speed is electronically limited to 250 kph. In case this doesn’t seem rapid enough for your tastes, you’ll have to hold out for the inevitable V8-powered S7 and RS7 variants that will follow in due course.

It’s fair to say the styling of the outgoing A7 was polarising. Some people loved the shape, while others found it ungainly and disproportionate; few were indifferent. This suited Audi just fine, as it was quite happy to flog A6s and A8s to buyers with more traditional tastes.

Although the latest A7 preserves the fastback format of the oldie, the end result is arguably better resolved as it loses the rear-end bloat of its forerunner. The derriere now has more visual muscularity, and the car has a squatter stance – this is particularly evident when you’re following one on the road.

The elongated light bar that connects the taillights lends the car a distinctive look, while also adding to the impression of greater width than its predecessor. Locking and unlocking the car also prompts double-takes from bystanders as this simple act triggers an animated light show via the headlights and taillights.

That said, the latest A7 Sportback still isn’t as rakish or dramatic looking as, say, the BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe so, once again, Audi’s crayon wielders have erred on the side of conservatism. The face of the A7 doesn’t differ markedly from its four-door siblings, and we feel the stylists could have been a bit more adventurous in trying to differentiate it from Audi’s mainstream sedans.

Should you already be eyeing up options for your new A7, we should point out that it’s highly colour sensitive. The Sportback looks a bit ho-hum in silver or white, but has some eye-popping appeal in the iridescent Ara Blue. You also need large rims (the A7 is offered with wheels that range in diameter from 18 to 21 inches) for the car to look its best.

But where the exterior design doesn’t deviate too far from the template, there’s some artistry evident in the cabin, with elegantly sculpted surfaces and top-notch trim materials used throughout. There’s a pair of touchscreens (a 10.1-inch upper screen for the satnav/infotainment systems and an 8.6-inch lower screen for the climate control and comfort functions) that are nicely integrated into the expansive dashboard.

The requisite boxes are also ticked in terms of practicality as there’s more kneeroom and headroom in the back (you can specify a pair of individual rear pews or a 2+1 bench seat), while luggage space is a generous 535 litres – expandable to 1390 litres by folding the rear sears down. The only drawbacks are limited visibility due to the A7’s small glasshouse, and a slightly claustrophobic feel in the back resulting from the car’s high shoulder line.

As per the latest A8, there’s a veritable barrage of driver-assist systems, including Park Pilot and Garage Pilot, whereby you can watch the A7 park itself while you stand outside and control the action via your mobile phone.

Another key tech highlight is a four-wheel-steer system whereby the rear wheels steer in the opposite direction to the fronts at speeds of up to 60kph. This effectively shortens the wheelbase and endows the A7 Sportback with a tighter turning circle than even the significantly smaller A4. At higher speeds, the rear wheels turn in the same direction to boost straight-line stability and make for smoother lane changes.

Meanwhile, powertrain efficiency is maximised by what Audi refers to as a “Mild Hybrid” system. Basically, this system switches off the engine to save fuel whenever you’re coasting at speeds between 55-160 kph. The instant you put your foot back on the gas, a secondary belt-driven starter (powered by a 48-volt electrical system and lithium-ion battery) instantly cranks the twin-turbo V6 back to life. It all takes place seamlessly, so you’re barely aware any of this is happening from behind the wheel.

Preliminary impressions from the launch drive are of an ultra-smooth and supple-riding sedan, and the A7 Sportback serves up a decent turn of pace even across narrow, winding mountain roads on the periphery of Cape Town. There’s ample grip and the four-wheel-steer set-up noticeably improves agility, but the nose-heavy characteristics of the A7 (a result of the engine sitting forward of the front axle line) means it isn’t as light-footed and eager to change direction as, say, the Panamera or 6 Series Gran Coupe.

Depending on how much you’re prepared to splurge, you can choose between four suspension configurations – conventional steel springs, sport suspension that lowers ride height by 10mm, electronically controlled damping and the self-levelling adaptive air suspension. Spend more money and you can also get the optional sport differential that actively distributes torque between the rear wheels to maximise traction out of tight hairpins.

Has Audi nailed it with its all-new A7 Sportback? There’s no doubt it’s a highly refined and capable sporting sedan, even though it lacks the outright dynamism of the Panamera. For what it’s meant be, the newbie satisfies most criteria, and this plus its slightly unconventional sense of style should enable it to win the affection of a niche audience – just like its predecessor did.

Photos by Audi.

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