The design gives the A7 a sharper look than before but it dilutes its character compared to the original. Picture: AUDI
The design gives the A7 a sharper look than before but it dilutes its character compared to the original. Picture: AUDI

Replacing its style leader was always going to be difficult, especially when its design department feels like it’s lacking the confidence it had when the first A7 Sportback was developed.

Audi has done brilliantly with the cabin, the dash, the digitalisation and the drive, but its exterior design is good, which is a step down from its near-perfectly nuanced predecessor.

There’s a point along the A7’s body when the design-is-in-charge jig is up. That point is at the intersection of the rear door’s shutline and rear door’s window line. The two should create a seamless, straight line.

Except they don’t. There’s about a 3cm dogleg between them. The Audi design team explains it was forced on them by the location of the rear seat-belt anchor points and that it had to leave space so the frameless rear windows could wind down into the doors.

Whatever the reason, it’s the sort of thing that didn’t happen on the last A7. That was a car that stood proud of the rest of the range, incorporating curved light catchers when the rest of the family became rolling monuments to Audi’s ability to press metal into crisper and pointier shapes than anybody else.

But this car is no longer dominated by its designers. It has evolved from an Audi built to please its sketchers to one that’s fallen in line with the system.

Still, the original A7 found 250,000 buyers and forced BMW to join in, which it did with the spectacular own-goal of the 5 Series Gran Turismo, then the 6 Series Gran Coupe. Two cars to combat one Audi.

The interior is modern and elegant with some brilliant tech. Picture: AUDI
The interior is modern and elegant with some brilliant tech. Picture: AUDI

The A7’s five-door liftback layout keeps it a bit aloof from Benz’s CLS, but they are conceptually similar. Both cars are a second, design-driven bite at the same mechanical cherry, with the A7 essentially a rebodied (next generation) A6 with a sportier feel, while the CLS is a rebodied E-Class for people who feel younger than 65.

The new A7 is, by just about any measure, a better car than its predecessor, yet it doesn’t quite have the same on-road presence, especially from the rear three-quarter view. The creases on its body now seem to fit more logically into the Audi language — a bit more plug-and-play into the family system — which makes it feel less unique and makes less of a design statement than it did before. Still, take that away and you’re left with a near-perfect car. Brilliant for long distances, it’s also good in town and can be optioned up to park itself or, when the law allows, drive itself with Level 3 autonomy on highways.

It’s heavily based on the A8, but takes the limousine’s mechanical layout and offers even more chassis options. About 170mm shorter than the A8, it shares the same 2,926mm wheelbase as the 2019 A6 and most of its dash technology.

It will score 48V mild-hybrid power as standard equipment on all of its petrol-powered cars, rear-wheel steering as an option, airbag suspension as an option and its biggest wheel-and-tyre package is now 21 inches instead of 20.

When it arrives in the third or fourth quarter of 2018, it will carry two engines: the 3.0l 250kW V6 petrol motor and the 650Nm 3.0l V6 turbodiesel, both of which we tested on the international launch in Cape Town.

The lift back design remains and the A7 gets some truck rear lighting. Picture: AUDI
The lift back design remains and the A7 gets some truck rear lighting. Picture: AUDI

There will be others, too. A 4.0l biturbo V8 S7 is confirmed, as is an RS7.

It starts life as a chassis with steel springs and a fixed damper rate, rises in price to a combination of steel springs and dynamic variable dampers and finishes here, with our test cars and their constantly variable air springs and variable dampers.

Our cars both had all-wheel drive, both had sport differentials, and both used the electronically controlled rear-wheel steering. The system effectively shortens the wheelbase at low speed and lengthens it in high speed corners for added stability by turning the same direction as the front wheels at low speed and the opposite direction at high speed.

Audi claims it sets new benchmarks for noise suppression, refinement and ride comfort. It’s right, right again and the jury’s out on the last part. There is acoustic, double-glazing on every see-through surface, even the frameless side windows. The rear end is more immune to intrusions from chunky or coarse-chip road surfaces.

But we aren’t so sure of the ride quality. The roads around Cape Town aren’t noted for their billiard-table smoothness, so that may be the core issue. Still, there were roads where, at low speed, we weren’t convinced it waltzed over shoddy surfaces with the aplomb it should have.

The handling, though, felt more than capable. It’s not a sports car. Never was. Its focus is grand touring with a slightly sporty bent, and so it proved.

The petrol engine is probably the pick of the two launch motors. That’s largely because while both engines were good, the added refinement from the petrol engine and the addition of mild-hybrid power made its responses crisper and its intrusions into the cabin’s civility less frequent or pronounced.

The V6 delivers 250kW and 500Nm, letting the big coupe burst to 100km/h in 5.3 seconds. Its standard powertrain comes with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and all-wheel drive, which only cranks up the rear wheels on demand.

The diesel is a little clunkier, but still barely noticeable. But diesel is still something of a dirty word in European cities with new car market share plummeting and it’s mostly because of Audi’s development work.