Carrying Off the Five-Door Form in Style

2012 Audi A7 Sportback – Click above for high-res image gallery

We don't normally think of Germans as being shrinking violets, but apparently the country's national pride has been enduring a long winter of sorts – a decades-old funk from which it's only now beginning to emerge. So says The New York Times, which notes that the nation's resurgent patriotism is taking many forms, from an increasing amount of German-language music on the radio to more flag-waving pride and a stable economy that remains the envy of Europe in dark times.

Certainly, the same could be argued for Deutschland's auto industry. Having weathered the threat of upstart luxury foes from Japan over the last 20 years, Germany's premium brands have fought through their own crises to emerge stronger and with more than a bit of swagger in their step. You'll remember that, for some time now, German marques have been trying to unceasingly convince us of their technical brilliance through things like all-in-one dashboard controllers, willfully disagreeable styling and the steadfast adherence to stone walled run-flat tires. But a decade or so in to these initiatives, it's finally all starting to pan out. iDrive, COMAND and MMI aren't the counterintuitive scourges they once were. Edges have been chamfered off controversial styling languages. Run-flat tires have improved. And lo and behold, BMW is once again threatening Lexus for the U.S. luxury sales crown, Mercedes-Benz has its quality control woes in hand, and Audi... well, Audi's rocket-like trajectory is the envy of the industry, isn't it?

After enduring a near-death experience at the hands of 60 Minutes during the 'Unintended Acceleration' fiasco of the Eighties, Ingolstadt has only truly caught fire in the last five years or so, but now it's white-hot and giving its fellow countrymen at BMW and Benz fits. Its latest offering, the 2011 A7 Sportback, promises to turn up the heat on the budding luxury five-door segment, so we headed to the Mediterranean island of Sardinia to see if Audi might have a good reason to indulge in a bit of horn-tooting of its own. Make the jump to find out.

Photos copyright ©2010 Chris Paukert / AOL

Audi has made much of its headway over the last few years by being a design leader, and that torch has clearly been passed to the A7, a car that boldly presumes to challenge the long-held stereotype that Americans don't buy hatchbacks – especially one with a premium price point.

Built on Audi's new modular architecture that underpins the company's forthcoming A6 replacement, the aluminum-paneled A7 Sportback is predictably gorgeous – that is, it breaks little new ground for the brand stylistically, yet it's still altogether beautiful. The tapered greenhouse and resulting long hatch might throw off a few people, but it's hard to argue against Audi having done a top job integrating its once-controversial single-frame grille. The A7's profile nicely pulls along viewers' eyeballs toward the rear with some well-chosen character lines, and Audi has blessed the car with a range of great-looking alloys, including the 20-inchers seen on our Dakota Gray tester. As with its R8 brethren, a full complement of LEDs can be specified if the standard adaptive Xenon headlamps are somehow deemed inadequate, and there's an S-Line package available, too (though the standard car doesn't lack aesthetic oomph).

2012 Audi A7 with woodpile

Not everyone will be a fan of the A7's truncated Kamm-tail and rather simple taillamps, but the latter sports an interesting helix-pattern for those who look hard enough, and the pop-up airfoil is well hidden, only revealing itself at speeds above 80 mph. We think the whole package looks sensationally rich, an easy foil for its "four-door coupe" rivals that include Benz's CLS, Porsche Panamera and Jaguar XF, not to mention BMW's bizarro 5-Series Gran Turismo.

If we're being honest, the Audi makes both Porsche and BMW's offerings appear even frumpier and more misshapen than they already are, but if you open the A7's frameless rear doors and scoop inside, you'll understand the price of pulchritude. Whereas the Porsche and particularly the limo-like Bimmer flatter second-row occupants with vast expanses of head- and legroom, the Audi... doesn't. It's definitely a bit tight back there. Still, it's a workable space for most adults, with a reasonably airy feeling thanks to plenty of glass and Audi's decision to not even attempt to pretend the A7 is a five-seater (there are only two rear belts). Toe room is a bit cramped and taller folks won't want to sit back there for long sojourns, but it's fine for shorter trips. Pro-tip: Find the money for the quad-zone HVAC system – the rear windows only roll down about half-way, the practical penalty of such a stylish greenhouse.

One area that does benefit – hugely – from the A7's fastback form is the cargo area. It's colossal, and it looks like it could swallow a few Paris Hilton shopping sprees without even putting the 60/40-split seats down. The space is admittedly a bit shallow, but there's no denying the Sportback offers unexpected wagon-like utility.

Front seat occupants will have no space complaints, as the A7's front chairs are a sumptuous place to be. Our tester's optional layered oak wood trim was particularly stunning – the low-gloss finished inlays looked like something that originated from a master musical instrument maker's shop, not a mass-market factory. We also came to appreciate a couple of Audi's latest MMI developments, namely the finger gesture pad and the Google Maps data included with the navigation system (originally seen on the A8, but not due in the U.S. until next year). We even liked the peek-a-boo gyrating eight-inch screen, though we're not sure how often one might leave it retracted when the car isn't parked. Our A7's optional Bang & Olufsen Advanced stereo was similarly decadent, both audibly and visually thanks to its polished speaker grilles and tweeters that rise above the surface of the dashboard like miniaturized lairs of a James Bond villain.

While a range of drivetrain offerings will grace A7 engine bays the world over, North American models will make do with the supercharged 3.0-liter V6 and standard Quattro all-wheel drive. Our European-spec A7 was fitted with Audi's seven-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch gearbox, but all models bound for our shores will instead be fitted with an eight-speed automatic. We love twin-clutch gearboxes as much as the next enthusiast, but we're guessing the ZF-sourced cogswapper is a better fit for the rest of the car, which reflects a priority list emphasizing refined luxury rather than outright friskiness and pace. We've sampled this gearbox in other European bruisers and found it to be a model of refinement and efficiency while offering snappy paddle-shifts, so we're not worried that all driving enjoyment will be chipped away.

The all-aluminum, direct-injected, supercharged V6 produces 300 horsepower in European guise (at a fairly lofty 5,250 rpm) and a healthy 324 pound-feet of the twisty stuff (from 2,900 to 4,500 rpm), which is enough, Audi says, to hit 62 mph in 5.6 seconds en-route to a limited top speed of 155 mph. In practice, the 3.0-liter TFSI is a smooth device with no obvious burrs or hiccups, but it's also not a particularly sonorous engine, which perhaps explains why Audi has elected to bury it behind a wall of sound deadening and double-glazed windows. Those looking for a sexy exhaust note or intake bellow will want to look elsewhere by either seeking solace in the aftermarket or waiting until the S7 arrives.

Dull engine soundtrack aside, there's little to complain about with the powertrain, as the Quattro all-wheel drive and hugely grippy Yokohama Advan Sport shoes eagerly pushed the A7 around the Emerald Coast's lilting blacktop as hard as we liked. Sardinia is blessed with entertaining road surfaces that are largely very well maintained, and the A7's ride was very pleasant and the chassis rock-solid – so much so that we didn't realize that our tester was shod with such gigantic footwear until we happened to notice during a photo break.

Since September is past the resort area's high season, we didn't encounter a single soul-crushing traffic tailback as we wended our way through the mountains and along the shoreline. Doing so at an advanced clip allowed us to experiment with our car's air suspension and take advantage of the A7's neutral cornering stance and minimal roll – particularly when the Drive Select settings were pegged in Dynamic mode. We found the brakes up to hauling the 4,100-pound luxocrat down from considerable velocities, but despite the sticky summer rubber, the electric power steering setup was disappointingly light and feel-free regardless of the Drive Select system's setting (though its accuracy was seldom in doubt). A torque-vectoring sport differential is available to curb understeer, but the standard rear-biased Quattro system does the job admirably.

We encountered exactly one stop light in all of Sardinia, so the emissions-saving stop-start technology was only triggered a single time, but this bit of programming isn't expected to make it to the U.S. when the A7 goes on sale next year as a 2012 model. Audi suggests that our seven-speed tester sips premium fuel to the tune of 8.2 liters per 100 kilometers on the Euro cycle, which works out to nearly 29 miles-per-gallon. That's an impressive figure, and even though the EPA's test cycle is different and doesn't reward automakers for fitting start-stop technology, it's likely that with the eight-speed automatic that the A7's economy outlook will be similarly rosy. Pricing has yet to be established, but we're expecting it to base somewhere around $60,000.

Germany may have only begun emerging from its period of self-enforced temerity and diffidence following World War II, but in the automotive sector, the country's representation has had its mojo workin' again for some time now. With both Japan and Sweden's premium players sitting back and regrouping for a bit and Korea attempting to build up its first head of luxury steam, you might think that Audi might ease off the gas a bit and take a breather. Not so. The A7 may not yet be perfect, but its blend of beauty and poise checks a lot of the right boxes both emotionally and practically, and we couldn't blame Audi for engaging in a bit of good ol' fashioned flag-waving parteizeit in celebration.

Photos copyright ©2010 Chris Paukert / AOL

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