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6 August 2010

“The car is just wow (inhale)… I mean… w-o-w,” says the woman presenting the new Audi A7 at Munich’s hip Pinakothek der Moderne museum. Okay, maybe it’s in the script and maybe she’s being a bit overdramatic, but the point is still made. Audi’s latest niche product is a very attractive sedan. Or should we be calling this four-door a coupe as well?

As Audi moves to fill in the white space between its models, the new A7 will most likely elicit such an effect. Think about the sex appeal of the S5 combined with the luxury of an A8 and you start to understand the presenter’s tone.

Progressive design, of course, is the most obvious element of the new A7 and that’s why Audi design bosses Wolfgang Egger and Stephan Sielaff begin the car’s presentation with a bit of designer speak, using design tape just as they would when forming a new model in order to emphasize the key lines overtop a giant suspended drawing of the A7 in profile. There are more drawings, poster-sized prints stacked on every table in the hall and post-card-sized miniatures lining the stairs of this cavernous design museum. The message is clear — this car is all about expressiveness.

“That C-pillar reminds me of the Audi Coupe S from the 70s, but not retro,” I comment afterward to Audi exterior designer Cesar Muntada Roura as we stand admiring the new Audi A7 following its reveal. The Spaniard smiles and responds, “Of course, there are basic ties but it is not retro in any way. There is no reason to look back.”

Roura shows us around some of the design elements and details that may be lost in print or pixels. The elemental Audi shoulder line along the side is defined by a sharp crease that emphasizes an impressively precise and narrow bit of horizontal bodywork. The shaping of steel done here is pretty remarkable, but what is even more improbable is that it lines up perfectly with the rear door, then front door, then front quarter panel. These latter three are all made of aluminum he points out, and those two metals don’t just bend the same way. They have completely different properties. Audi’s decades of shaping aluminum have paid dividends in its ability to press the A7’s shape and let some of the 2009 Sportback Concept’s best elements come to life.

Turns out there’s plenty of aluminum bodywork on the car, including the hood, front quarter panels, doors and rear power lift back. The frame itself is steel, a larger take on Audi’s versatile MLB modular longitudinal platform that’s quite close to the next-generation A6 in composition and footprint.

The design theme continues inside where the cockpit is Audi’s most dramatic in the current product line. From the new A8, the car gets the new Google Map-enabled MMI system with onboard WiFi hot spot, as well as that car’s shift-by-wire gear selector and audio-gluttonous Bang & Olufsen sound system with retractable sound lenses. Opt for the layered oak trim and the environment is even more opulent.

Like the exterior’s look, that interior trim isn’t far off from that of the concept car shown last year in Detroit. Interior designer Johanna Hoch smiles as she explains. “There was this journalist who wrote about the concept,” she tells me with a very satisfied smile. “He said, ‘it’s very pretty, but this will never make it into production’.”

“Did you plan to produce it when you put it in the concept?”

“No,” she responds with another smile, “but when he said it couldn’t be done…”

That unnamed journalist basically called out Johanna Hoch and, more generally, Audi. Fortunately, both the designer and the company delivered. Like the original TT, the layered-oak-trimmed dashboard is nearly identical to that of the concept car’s and is perhaps the most stunning element in a very rich cabin. The wood, we hear, will be optional — a late intro for Europe but just in time for the car’s North American debut.

Slotted between A6 and A8, with a so-called Sportback lift gate, suggestion of the car’s direct competitors is immediately debatable. Low-slung and sexy but still very approachable, the car is more Porsche Panamera than Aston Martin Rapide. We posed the question to Audi AG CEO Rupert Stadler and his list is more targeted. Stadler mentions the BMW 5-series Gran Turismo, the Mercedes CLS and its closest rival from Jaguar, the new XJ.

In Europe, where the car will go on sale later this year, the A7 will make use of Audi’s 3.0T FSI paired with quattro and a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. The car will also be fitted with Audi’s 3.0 TDI that, when paired with front-wheel drive and a CVT, will be capable of 5.3 liters per 100 km. That converts to 44 miles for every American gallon, a figure that’s indeed mighty impressive.

North America, however, will get its own unique drivetrain that pairs a supercharged 3.0T V6 with the A8’s quick shifting eight-speed Tiptronic transmission. A Sport Differential, as seen in the S4, will also be offered as an option. North American buyers will get their first shot at the new model sometime in the first quarter of next year.

Audi plans to sell 200,000 A7s over the car’s lifecycle; that amounts to about 30,000 per year, with most cars bound for Europe, the USA, and China. This number likely includes the expected S7 and RS 7 variants which will be powered by the upcoming 4.0T FSI. The stories of these two variants, however, are for another day. For now, the A7 is a giving everyone plenty to talk about.

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