First Drive: 2019 Audi A7 gets new skin and technology, keeps alternative place as an elegant luxury hatchback

The A7 wears its significance with subtlety.

The A7's hatchback form adds to the style and function. Lower roof and tapered rear end create a boattail theme.
The A7's hatchback form adds to the style and function. Lower roof and tapered rear end create a boattail theme. –Audi

In America, “hatchback” is an automotive four-letter word. It reminds us of dire times, gas lines, runaway inflation, ’70s malaise, and making due with the bare minimum. Pinto, Vega, Chevette, and Gremlin memories still linger in 40- and 50-something minds like the dreaded ring-around-the-collar.Baggage.

No such four-letter baggage in Europe, though. Hatchbacks there have always been seen as practical and in no real sense a horrific barter of style for frugality and affordability. Why? They had better examples.

Taken to a luxurious extreme, Audi’s original A7, which debuted in 2011 as a 2012 here in America, gave open-minded buyers a more practical and stylish Plan B to the midsized luxury sedan. Based on the A6, it offered 4 doors, a big and wide hatch, and more storage flexibility, but also a raffish, sportier profile with unique bodywork. Now, as the new 2019 model debuts, past is prologue.

Audi’s avant-garde — unleash the niche

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The A7 wears its significance with subtlety. If Frank Lloyd Wright were shopping for an Audi, he’d choose the A7. Compared to the A6 on which it’s based, the A7 sports a lower roof, frameless windows, greater horizontal accents, and alternate front- and rear-end treatments. It’s also a touch wider and feels a bit more hunkered down than the A6, both visually and as you drive.

Other luxury automakers have also played in this nichey sandbox, Mercedes being first in the market with its non-hatch CLS based on the E-Class. BMW has fumfered around with hatchback 5 Series and 6 Series models since 2010 (the abysmally ugly 5 Series GT being its first) and currently offers both a 6 Series Gran Coupe (a four-door despite the misleading name) with a conventional trunk and a 6 Series Gran Turismo with a hatch rear, neither of which combine both the panache and the practicality of the A7.

We talked with the A7’s designer, Sebastiano Russo, about a few vital keys for the A7. “It must be avant-garde,” Russo says, “but it must also be romantic. And the rear must have a boattail-shaped rear like a classic speedboat.” Mission accomplished then, though the romantic piece is more interpretive than the others.

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Only four small, specific items place a collective strike against the A7 visually. A duo of frumpy radar unit bulges up front spoil the grille. Also, a pair of fake exhaust outlets in the lower rear bumper mock that joy-thing of car-nutty kids the world over. The fauxhausts might prevent black build-up around the bright tips, but on a luxury car, it’s a faux-pas.

Simplifying is luxurifying

The new A7’s interior is almost entirely shared with the all-new A6 sedan, using a mix of top-shelf materials including open-pore matte finished wood, piano black dash surfaces, brushed aluminum, and leather, with multi-adjustable seats in front. The rear seat accommodates three passengers and when folded, opens up a big 49 cubic feet of cargo space.

The more significant change from the last A7, though, is Audi’s new MMI touch-response infotainment interface. In place of the former rotary dial selector on the center console, this new MMI uses two smartphone inspired touchscreens, one in the center of the dash and one just beneath it, forward on the console.

Step in to step forward

The 10.1-inch upper screen focuses mostly on audio, navigation map, depicting external cameras, and various less important secondary settings. All climate functions are shown in the lower, 8.6-inch screen. Tapping and swiping are the input methods for both.

You can also write inputs at the lower screen by finger for Google or navigation searches and the system recognizes full words, not merely letter-by-letter inputs. You can create up to 32 virtual buttons in the lower screen as shortcuts, which call up your most often-selected radio stations, destinations for navigation, or phone numbers. Very convenient.

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The only remaining conventional knob anywhere controls volume, though that is also redundant with the dial on the steering wheel.

Swiping the upper screen brings into view audio, navigation, phone settings, and other functions. Each of these is color-coordinated as well, and if you hover a finger over, say, navigation without selecting it, the background glows blue before it’s selected. The premise here is your peripheral vision will identify things while your eyes stay on the road.

New voice recognition software enables more natural language commands for audio, navigation, and climate control. Shout “I’m cold” and you’ll be asked what temperature you’d like the cabin (I actually tested that). Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, too.

The new A7 can save seven different driver profiles, storing up to 400 profile adjustments like seat and mirror placements, climate, and interior lighting. These profiles also include favorite radio stations, preferred tone settings, plus Drive Select preferences (engine, transmission, and suspension adjustments) and choices for instrument cluster graphics.

Sports sedan performance

The new A7’s power comes from a 335-horsepower, 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 that also makes 369 pound-feet of torque, a bump of 44 pound-feet over the last-generation V6. Though this turbo V6 is quiet in operation, it’s also quick, reaching 60 mph in a claimed 5.2 seconds, though I’d wager that it is really a bit faster.

Audi’s twin-clutch seven-speed transmission backs up the V6 where Audi has actually been turning back to conventional torque-converter automatics over the past two years. This twin-clutch unit behaves for all the world as smoothly as a conventional automatic, yet responds like a twin-clutch when driving hard. It will revert to automatic mode if you leave the shift paddles alone for any length of time, though. Of course, quattro all-wheel drive sends the power to all four corners.

At a zaftig 4,332 pounds, the A7 is no lightweight, but returns surprisingly good fuel economy, at 22/29/25 miles per gallon in city/highway/combined driving. It’s also a mild hybrid (MHEV), storing the extra battery business under the rear floor.

With the willing and optional Sport suspension that uses adaptive air springs and dampers, the A7 handled Northern California wine country’s twisty roads like a proper sports sedan. Body roll in swift corners builds only marginally, and repeated heavy braking also instills confidence. Even though the steering is not the most communicative on the market, it is still very accurate and requires a reassuring dollop of additional effort when pushing things.

Lighting as street theater

Audi’s also at the forefront of advanced lighting technology, and the A7 uses either two-element LED headlights (standard on Premium trim), headlights using multiple LED segments (Premium Plus trim), or HD matrix-design LED headlights (Prestige trim) that, with a software update, will enable future flexible and smart lighting that shades oncoming drivers, minimizing dazzle. This latter system is itself awaiting a green light from U.S. government regulators. The A7 also uses sweeping LED taillights that create motion from turn signals and when locking or unlocking the car.

Pricing for the A7 begins at $68,995, a healthy $10,000 above the A6 sedan, and spans to $77,295 for the top Prestige trim. As ever, panache can be pricey.