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Can Audi top its most beautiful, stylish work? With the new Sportback, the German auto maker attempts to redesign the vehicle that came to define the four-door coupe
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Friday, February 16, 2018 – Page D1

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA -- AUDI A7 SPORTBACK 2019 $80,000 (EST.) Engine: 3.0-litre turbocharged V-6 Transmissions: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic Fuel economy: TBD Drive: All-wheel drive Alternatives: BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe, 6 Series Gran Turismo, Audi A6, Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagon

The A7 is Audi and Audi is the A7. No other car so fully exemplifies the brand's vision right now. It aspires to nothing less than Teutonic perfection, wrapped in modernist sheet metal and conspicuously stuffed with technology.

It's a car designed to fit into, and create for you, an Instagram-perfect life. A car to be parked outside architecturally significant homes in a world where nothing gets dirty. It's the automotive equivalent of a white sofa: high style at the expense of a little practicality.

Make no mistake, the all-new 2019 A7 is a good car, but its biggest challenge might be its predecessor. That car still turns heads, despite having been introduced eight years ago. How do you top that seminal design without messing it up?

"We talked about it. It's really hard because the [old] A7 is such a beautiful car," said Andreas-Joachim Koglin, exterior designer at Audi. Between the company's design studios in Germany, the United States and China, 40 designers submitted sketches - proposals for this new A7.

More so than even the A8, the brand's traditional flagship, the mid-size A7 demonstrates the future of Audi design, as defined by Marc Lichte's 2014 Prologue concept. "Marc himself said the essence of the Prologue is in the A7," Koglin explained.

Audi used a new design process to make this car. In the company's new 400,000square-foot studio in Ingolstadt, Germany, are five car-size LED screens run by a computer cluster with the processing power of 4,300 laptops. The screens work like a virtual sketchpad, showing changes to 3-D models in 1:1 scale, in real time and with photorealistic detail. They can show designers what the car would look like under the California sun in July or in Moscow in February. From there, 20 milling machines work day and night to turn the digital models into physical objects, accurate to a tenth of a millimetre.

That it was Koglin sitting down in Cape Town to discuss the new car gives away the fact his design beat out the 40 others. "I got inspired by the Zeppelin," he said, "not because of the Teutonic engineering - Americans made a lot of Zeppelins as well - but the feeling of this pure sculpture. It is above everything else, which is what the driver should feel. We discussed it: This car needs some aloofness."

Cape Town is running out of water because of the worst drought on record. "Let's save water while we still have water to save," the South African Airways pilot said as we landed. The city was pulling together to conserve. A dirty car is, as one local newspaper columnist put it, a "trophy of good citizenry." Needless to say, our spotless new A7 stood out.

From the city we drove southeast, around False Bay toward Kleinmond on the Western Cape. The coastal road, the R44, is spectacular. As it hugs the hillside, it serves up curves and ocean vistas to rival California's famous Route 1.

Our test car's optional air suspension did a good job taking the edge off ruts and manhole covers and some pretty vicious speed bumps. The turbocharged 3.0-litre V-6 is mated to a 48-volt mild-hybrid system said to improve fuel economy by as much as 0.7 litres per 100 kilometres. It powers a stop-start system and harvests energy from braking, feeding it to a lithium-ion battery under the trunk. The motor provides 340 horsepower, which propels the A7 from 0 to 100 kilometres an hour in 5.3 seconds. A little more drama would be nice, though - especially in a car that looks so dramatic. But Audi stresses that the A7 is meant to be a grand tourer.

The inevitable, sportier S and RS models will undoubtedly add the drama - for a price.

In comfort mode, there was a slightly vague softness to the controls, which suited a relaxed pace.

A new seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission replaces an eight-speed conventional automatic. Step on the throttle and the gearbox changes down three gears in a split second before hauling ahead. Dynamic mode did away with the softness, holding gears longer and providing less down-shifting-induced delay.

Performance and handling come second to the A7's raison d'être: style. Technically, it's largely the same as the nextgeneration A6 sedan, Audi engineers confirmed. The main reason anyone would spend more for the fastback A7 is its rakish good looks. It's perfectly acceptable to be shallow when it comes to cars.

The stylishness extends to the interior. The new cabin is the best thing about this car and by far the biggest improvement over its predecessor. Most of the technology, including the dual-touchscreen centre console, has trickled down from the A8. The black panels blend neatly into the architecture and don't feel like an afterthought as they do in most cars. There's a lot of screen real estate here: three big displays if you opt for the "virtual cockpit" instrument panel. It can be distracting at times with so many functions and options at your fingertips, but the fact it doesn't feel like you're sitting at a Bloomberg terminal is a minor triumph.

The roof is a tad higher and the wheelbase is 15 millimetres longer, which provides rear passengers with extra head and legroom, thereby addressing the main criticism owners had of the old car, Koglin explained. Of course, the new A6 will likely provide even more interior space, but the A7 has always happily made sacrifices in the name of style.

The four-door coupe is a relatively recent automotive invention.

Audi didn't create this subgenre of sleek fastback sedans; Mercedes did with the CLS, first shown in 2004. But Audi perfected it with the A7. More than 250,000 were sold, making it - according to Audi's figures - the most successful car in its segment.

Today, you'll find a four-door coupe in almost every auto maker's showroom. They combine most of the practicality of a traditional four-door sedan with most of the stylishness of a two-door coupe. Many of them have hatchback trunks, which are useful for strollers and IKEA flat packs.

Other examples include the Kia Stinger, Porsche Panamera, BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe, Jaguar XJ, Aston Martin Rapide and Volkswagen Arteon. Even SUVs are adopting this fastback shape.

Look at the Mercedes GLC and GLE Coupes and the BMW X6, X4 and X2.

The new A7 looks like an evolution of the original. The wheels are bigger. The LED headlights are more intricate. The grille is wider. The wheel arches are more pronounced. The trailing edge of the trunk has been raised 30 millimetres to give the machine a more aggressive, nose-down stance, but also to hide the higher roofline. There are more creases on all surfaces of the sheet metal.

And it looks, perhaps, busier.

The new A7 is a victim of its predecessor's success. It was always going to be impossible to recreate the wow factor of the original design. You had the feeling you were looking at something new and futuristic and maybe even cool. That the A7's silhouette has become ubiquitous is a sign that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it means the wow factor has worn off a little, not just for the A7 but for all four-door coupes. That could be a problem for a group of cars whose primary aim is style.

Or it could mean that the fourdoor coupe is maturing as a product. More examples appear at auto shows every year. The trend shows no sign of slowing.

Besides, even the iPhone X wasn't as spectacular as the original, but it is unquestionably a better product. And so it is with the 2019 Audi A7 Sportback.

It will arrive in Canada this winter. Meantime, it is on display at the Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto, until Feb. 25.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

Associated Graphic

The new cabin is the best thing about the Audi A7 Sportback 2019 - and by far the biggest improvement over its venerable predecessor.

With the A7, performance comes second to style. it's largely the same as the next-generation A6 sedan; the main reason anyone would spend more for the fastback A7 is its appearance.

The new A7 looks like an evolution of the original: The wheels are bigger, the LED headlights more intricate and the grille wider.

Huh? How did I get here?
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