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2012 Audi A7: Stunner sedan owns the boulevard

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  May 23, 2011 12:10 PM

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Before introducing the R8 supercar in 2008, Audi was the Necco wafer of luxury carmakers. Plain-looking, flat, and bland, most of Audi's lineup had never matured past the dressed-up Volkswagens they started with in the 1970s. That's not saying they weren't nice cars, or even better values against the Mercedes and BMWs of their time. My high school French teacher (circa 2000) drove a pearl white A4 quattro, and while it was by far the best car in the faculty lot, you could close your eyes and forget what it looked like.

Now, like Korean upstarts Hyundai and Kia, Audi is in the midst of a design renaissance, or rather, a domination. Those studded LED parking lamps that Lexus, Saab, and Chrysler have copied all came from Audi. The big-mouth grill that debuted on the once-homely A6 sedan is now a big trademark across the line (and has influenced the latest Chevrolets). But Audi doesn't want an artistic reputation — it wants to be the largest luxury automaker in the world. And to get there, it has given us stunning designs like the new A7.

The so-called "four door coupe" — a low-cut sedan with a rakish roofline and tight back seat — was a straight flush for Mercedes when it introduced the CLS for 2006. It offered less space and cost considerably more than a similar E-Class, but wow. You stopped dead when one rumbled past on Newbury Street. Jaguar and Volkswagen fired back with the XF and CC "coupes," and while BMW and Honda won't admit it, their curvy X6 and Accord Crosstour CUVs share that same wild, impractical feel.

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Next to this Audi, the all-new 2012 CLS looks bulbous and a little ungainly. Walk around our A7, so low its fenders nearly scrub the optional 20-inch steamrollers, and you can't help wondering why — why! — Porsche didn't use this body for the Panamera. It's so expressive, so tailored and crisp, and so very un-German. The notchback layout — with its huge power hatch and cramped storage area — renders a classic Italian sculpture (think the four-seat 1968 Lamborghini Espada). The only sedan more ravishing than this is the $200,000 Aston Martin Rapide.

While dripping with speed, the A7's supercharged V-6 sends only 310 horsepower through a sleepy 8-speed automatic. You can bet an S7 (or better yet, a warrior RS7) is being readied to terrorize the 500-horsepower Panamera Turbo. For now, the A7 isn't the world's fastest four-door, but it's among the prettiest.

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Rolling through downtown Manhattan, the A7 feels like it owns the boulevard. The ride, brakes, and engine note are smoothly subdued, even with a few mid-block bursts. Steering is a wee too quick and light, but a quick tune-up through the LCD display — slipping out of the dash like a charmed snake — gives it a firmer, sportier weight befitting the car's style.

I'm headed back to Boston after the A7 debut at the New York Auto Show, but first, a requisite yuppie excursion to Dean and Deluca. Because as we all know, a household with a $66,000 Audi needs its kitchen stocked with saffron fettuccine.

When I leave the store, the parking attendant can't find the starter button (it's to the right of the shifter this time). That's because the A7 shares much of its remade interior with the larger A8, including a touch pad that can recognize handwriting.

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Here, Audi has fixed its lousy climate control system. Instead of do-it-all knobs that dial fan speed, temperature, fan direction, and seat heat, the layout has reverted to that of a normal, sane car. The radio controls are still terrible, with the volume and seek buttons to the right of the shifter. Adding to the confusion is a main dial for the infotainment system that turns counter-clockwise.

All in all, it's a delicious recipe for driver distraction. Oddly enough, the wide LCD in the instrument panel, controlled by an easy steering wheel switch, is very intuitive and can operate most of the car's everyday functions.

Materials are impressive. The leather has that typical German coarseness, with a sturdy texture like that on expensive luggage. But the matte-finish wood on the A7 is stellar at any price. Unlike the high-gloss trim in most cars, this stuff really knocks like wood, and it's cut at swooping angles that echo the exterior. Only problem? The suave cabin ages Audi's other models another five years. I stepped into a 2011 A6 a few weeks later and felt pretty let down. That's how slick the A7 is.

But if you're shopping for this look, the Volkswagen CC is a fantastic, great-driving alternative for half the price. Plus, it's been around since 2009, so a used one loaded with a V-6 and all-wheel-drive is even more appealing. If it's got to be Audi, the A6 is just as superb a drive, has more room and usable cargo space, and is being overhauled for 2012.

Those who spring the cash for an A7 are paying $10,000 over the A6 to have onlookers mistake it for a Maserati. Consider me thoroughly duped.


2012 Audi A7

THE BASICS
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $60,125 / $66,245. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: N/A.Fuel economy, Globe observed: 20 mpg. Drivetrain: 3.0-liter supercharged V-6, 8-speed automatic, all-wheel-drive. Body: 5-door, 5-passenger notchback.

THE SPECIFICS
Horsepower: 310 @ 5,500 rpm. Torque: 325 lb.-ft. @ 2,900 rpm. Overall length: 195.6 in. Wheelbase: 114.7 in. Height: 55.9 in. Width: 84.2 in. (with mirrors). Curb weight: 4,210 lbs.

THE GOOD: Looks like sin, impeccable interior

THE BAD: Doesn't go like hell, some poor ergonomics

THE BOTTOM LINE: Consider the era of boring Audis to be officially gone

ALSO CONSIDER: Mercedes-Benz CLS, Porsche Panamera, Volkswagen CC, Audi A6

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
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Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
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