Editors' note, July 25, 2012: One year later, we've taken a second look at our Editors' Choice award winner and the 2011 Tech Car of the Year, the 2012 Audi A7, and have updated this review with more photos and even more detail about the Audi Connect system, including its Wi-Fi hot-spot functionality.
As Audi neatly fills in the odd numbers of its passenger car model A designations, it pushes the technology to new heights. The all-new 2012 Audi A7, which slots in between the A6 and A8, is the latest Audi tech tour de force. And this car carries such impressive technology that it sets the bar for other automakers to reach.
It comes with the best navigation system available among current cars, using Google satellite maps to show the position of the car on a photographic landscape. The A7 is the most connected car around, integrating Google local search with the navigation system, and even listing nearby landmarks with descriptions downloaded from Wikipedia.
In style, the A7 follows the form of theand , with a four-door sedanlike passenger compartment and a hatchback cargo area. However, Audi managed to keep the car's looks tame enough not to inspire the same sort of negative reaction stirred up by the Panamera. The A7's fastback design does not look bulky or awkward.
At first glance, the cargo area under the hatchback doesn't seem to take advantage of all the space afforded by the design. But Audi gave the A7 removable rear deck panels that change the cargo space from a traditional trunk to a wide-open hatchback. It is a surprising bit of practicality in a big, luxury sedan.
The front of the A7 uses the more three-dimensional grille design first seen on last year's. The LED parking lights under the headlights have an evil-looking hook at the end, and the turn signals mimic the look and line of those parking lights, only in yellow.
Similar to on the Audi TT and R8, an automatic rear spoiler rises out of the hatchback as the A7 gains speed. And in a new feature for Audi, the cabin's main LCD motors down and into a dashboard slot when the car powers down. You can also make the LCD disappear at the push of a button.
No better navigation to be found
But with gorgeous Google satellite imagery in place of artificial maps, why would you want to hide the LCD? The navigation system shows essentially the same imagery that you'd see in a Web browser with Google Earth, but it also shows the car moving through the photographic landscape. Audi overlays road graphics with street names, traffic flow and incident information, and a blue route line when the car has a destination programmed.
The car uses its own dedicated data pipe, through T-Mobile, to load the maps. It initially loads maps in a 25-mile radius around itself. When it moves beyond that range it downloads more imagery, but if there is no cell phone signal, it merely shows a blurry background image.
The navigation system maintains a set of locally stored maps, with all the topographic detail and 3D rendered buildings of other Audi models' navigation, useful for people who don't care for the satellite look or who don't want to use a phone's data plan. Switching between maps is as easy as changing the map view from 2D to perspective. But it would be nice if the navigation system automatically switched back to its locally stored maps when the data connection fails.
Audi uses the same data connection for another set of services: traffic, weather, gas prices, news, and an entry labeled Travel Information. That last category finds a set of landmarks near the car or another location, sorting them by distance. Each entry includes photographs and descriptive text culled from Wikipedia. As these entries are downloaded from the Internet, it can take a little time for the list populate. To prevent distracted driving, the list of landmarks blanks out when the car is moving.
The A7 is also able to share its connection to the Internet with up to eight wireless devices when its Wi-Fi hot-spot feature is activated. The 3G pipe doesn't offer those devices the fastest connection to the Web -- streaming eight simultaneous YouTube videos seems out of the question -- but it's certainly good enough to allow backseat passengers to tweet, check Facebook, and check e-mail to their hearts' content.
As in the A8, Audi includes its new Multimedia Interface (MMI) controller, which supplements the dial and surrounding buttons with a touch pad. Drivers can trace with a fingertip on the touch pad to input letters and numbers, as when entering search terms and street addresses. This touch pad works extremely well, translating the sloppiest handwriting accurately. And the interface is easy to use while driving, without having to look down at the touch pad or even at the LCD thanks to audible feedback of each input character.
Audi added new capabilities to the voice command system in the A7 as well. As before, drivers can place calls by saying the name of anyone in a paired phone's contact list. But voice command also works with Google local search. You need merely say "online destinations" followed by search terms, such as "Chicago pizza," and a list of relevant location results will download, showing up on the LCD. Audi also implemented vocal music requests by album or artist name for songs stored on the car's hard drive.
Along with hard-drive storage for music, Audi includes its proprietary interface, a port to which you can attach cables for iPod, USB, Mini-USB, and auxiliary jack. This port resides in the console in a spot easily reachable by the driver. Audi also persists in including SD card slots as a music source in the car, a little overkill considering all the other audio sources. But Audi has not jumped on the Bluetooth streaming bandwagon yet, so a wireless connection for MP3 players is still not an option.
The base Bose audio system boasts impressive specs, such as 14 speakers and a 600-watt amp. In any other car that would be the premium system, but buyers have the option to kick it up a notch with an audiophile-quality Bang & Olufsen system. The car delivered to CNET only had the Bose system, which delivered better quality sound than most, yet it did not make the listening experience as sublime as it could have been with the Bang & Olufsen system. The Bose system adequately filled the cabin and delivered good audio separation, but the bass never felt punchy, and the highs never reached ear-elevating glory.
CNET's review car also lacked the night vision and head-up display options, new driver assistance features for Audi. In a separate demonstration, the head-up display looked very good, using full color to show digital speed, route guidance, and other information.
This A7 came with blind-spot detection as part of the Audi Side Assist package, which includes power folding mirrors. The blind-spot detection worked very well, lighting up a row of LEDs in the side mirrors when cars were in the A7's blind spot. And, of course, the A7 had Audi's excellent backup camera, which displays trajectory lines that show where the car will go depending on how the wheels are turned.
Although the flagship A8 has a V-8 engine, Audi, in its quest for fuel efficiency, fitted the A7 with a V-6. But instead of merely cutting out a couple of cylinders, Audi fits this direct-injection 3-liter V-6 with a supercharger, pumping it up to 310 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. The same engine used in the new , it gets the A7 to 60 mph in a respectable 5.4 seconds.
Along with direct injection, Audi throws in an eight-speed automatic transmission and electric power steering to boost fuel economy. The result is 18 mpg city and 28 mpg highway in EPA testing; not bad, especially given the size of the A7. In testing over freeways, mountain roads, and city traffic, CNET's A7 showed an average of 17.5 mpg, below the EPA range, and probably due to overuse of the thirsty supercharger.
The car performs very differently depending on its settings. Audi makes its Drive Select system standard on the A7, which lets the driver tune the steering and engine response for sport or comfort. Likewise, the eight-speed transmission has Sport and Manual shift modes.
Set everything to Comfort, and the car trundles smoothly forward, with a detuned throttle making for leisurely input and the transmission reaching for its highest gears. The steering feels pleasantly powered, making for easy turning even if the car is stopped. However, as CNET's A7 had the optional sport suspension (which comes bundled with larger 20-inch wheels with summer performance tires), the ride quality became harsh when driving over rough pavement. Adaptive suspension technology is not available on the A7.
With the car set to Dynamic and the transmission in Sport mode, the A7 takes on a subtly different character. It doesn't suddenly become a growling, tense sports car. Instead, the throttle becomes more enjoyable and the steering tightens up. The transmission is more prone to holding low gears, letting the engine speed rise.
The car's full acceleration becomes available, and it slips through corners as if that were its career. Given the size of the A7, it seems like it should get out of sorts when thrown into a corner at speed. But the sport-tuned suspension does a good job of keeping it grounded, while Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive, standard on the A7, contributes to the handling.
The A7's Quattro comes standard with a torque-vectoring rear differential, and Audi combines that capability with the braking system. In a corner, the A7 lightly touches the brakes on the inside wheels. The result of all this technology is that the car rotates neatly at corner apexes, with a palpable sense of its rear shuffling out to point the front of the car in the right direction.
Like many sport luxury cars, the A7 lessens power assist for its steering system as speed increases, to enhance road-feel. But Audi leans toward a luxury feel, even when the car is in its Dynamic setting. As such, the steering always feels a little too easy, lacking serious engagement.
With its Google Earth navigation system, connected features, Bang & Olufsen audio system, and array of driver assistance features, the 2012 Audi A7 earns a perfect score for cabin tech, raising the bar for future cars. The lack of Bluetooth audio streaming is a small drawback for the stereo, although some will miss that more than others.
The performance tech also achieves an outstanding rating. The engine and transmission are as cutting-edge as they come, short of electrification. Audi chose not to put adaptive suspension technology in the A7. However, Quattro and the braking system make up for it in the corners.
The cabin tech interface is also near-perfect, with the touch pad making it very simple to enter alphanumeric characters and the elliptical onscreen menus being easy to navigate. The car is very good-looking with a unique design, while the hatchback gives the sedan form a practical edge.
|Model||2012 Audi A7|
|Power train||Supercharged direct-injection 3-liter V-6, 8-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||18 mpg city/28 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||17.5 mpg|
|Navigation||Hard-drive-based with traffic and Google integration|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||Single MP3-compatible CD player, optional MP3-compatible 6-CD changer|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Onboard hard drive, USB drive, SD card, HD radio, satellite radio, auxiliary audio input|
|Audio system||Bose 600-watt, 14-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Night vision, adaptive cruise control, head-up display, blind-spot detection, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$66,080|