The Audi A7 came out in 2011 as a stupendous tech car, featuring an always-on data connection feeding maps from Google Earth into the navigation system. Now the A7 gets the "S" treatment, which in Audi terms means a higher output engine and sport modifications.
In 2013 Audi S7 form, the body style remains the same as the less-ferocious A7. Termed a four-door coupe by Audi, the S7 sedan includes a hatchback instead of a proper trunk, with a roofline running down the back in a gradual, aerodynamic slope.
In the Glacier White Metallic paint of CNET's car, the hatch cover looked like a bunny slope, ready for a crowd of beginning skiers snowplowing awkwardly into each other.
The front is pure Audi, with a big grille running from the leading edge of the hood down to the lower fascia. Audi's signature LED parking strips underline the headlight casings, which showed off a new feature for Audi, optional LED headlights. The lights cast a nicely defined pattern and have something like 10 times the longevity of the standard high-intensity discharge lamps, while using less electricity.
Driving on a foggy night, the S7 automatically adjusted the lights so as to reduce glare, a feature that worked surprisingly well.
Power with little sacrifice
The A7's engine strikes an excellent balance between power and efficiency, but the S7 shows some near-miraculous engineering. Although adding two cylinders, a whole liter of displacement, and generating 110 more horsepower than the A7's engine, the S7 only comes up short by 1 mpg in EPA tests.
Specifically, Audi fitted the S7 with a twin-turbocharged, direct-injection, 4-liter V-8, good for 420 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque. Mated to its seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, what Audi calls S Tronic, the S7 gets 17 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. That latter number is not only impressive, but appeared achievable in my testing.
Cruising down the freeway, I saw the instantaneous fuel gauge read close to 30 mpg. However, my average ended up at only 19.2 mpg, a result of the S7's Dynamic mode. More on that later.
Despite the big engine and the twin turbos, the S7 managed much more even acceleration in normal driving than the BMW 750Li I reviewed last month, which has a similar engine configuration. That difference is likely due to the S7's Comfort and Auto settings from Audi's Drive Select feature, which detune throttle response, transmission, and a host of other performance components to make the car manageable in day-to-day driving.
As a daily driver, the S7 has a lot to recommend it. The cabin treated me with luxury features, from four-zone climate control to heated, power-adjustable seats. I particularly like the diamond-pattern leather seat coverings. One strike against it is the plastic tray Audi embeds in the rear bench, effectively making the car a four-seater.
Real satellite navigation
The fold-out LCD in the dashboard shows off the tech star of the S7, Google Earth maps integrated with the navigation system. Although I have seen it repeatedly over the last couple of years in different Audi models, my geek guts still experience a thrill watching the car travel through satellite imagery of my surroundings. Seeing the skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco or the spectacular cliffs of the coast roll by on the S7's screen was just cool.
A recent addition to Audi's navigation system is the incorporation of Street View. When I browsed the map and zoomed in, it brought up a street-level image of the surrounding storefronts. On reaching a programmed destination, the LCD showed a little Street View image of the location on the map.
That imagery comes courtesy of a dedicated 3G data connection into the car, something owners will have to pay a monthly fee for after a six-month complimentary period.
Audi also used the data connection in the S7 to enable Google local search, a feature I greatly appreciate, along with apps for weather and fuel prices. However, Audi has not yet worked out a scheme to incorporate popular third-party apps, such as Pandora, Yelp, Twitter, or Facebook.
Behind the vibrant Google Earth imagery, Audi keeps a set of stored maps in the car, more typical graphic representations of the roads in plan and perspective views. Those maps include 3D renderings of buildings in downtown areas.
Audi's cabin tech interface makes finding destinations with Google local search or entering addresses easier than most. The interface's dial controls a rotary paradigm for alphanumeric input, which is tedious to use, but two other entry methods work much better.
The revolutionary pad mounted on the center console let me trace letters with my fingertip, so I could quickly enter street names, cities, and ZIP codes. Voice command also worked very well, letting me say a street address and city all in a single string to program a destination.
Voice command in the S7 was fairly comprehensive, letting me control navigation and place phone calls by name, but it did not let me request specific music from a USB drive or iOS device plugged into the car.
Under route guidance, I liked the instrument cluster display, which showed turn-by-turn graphics and lane guidance. The center LCD shows similar graphics, but I had to dig through the settings to get them to show up.
Audi also seems to have expanded its traffic coverage in the navigation system to cover more surface streets. However, I was less impressed with the car's routing when it sent me onto some of the most congested streets in downtown San Francisco, when there were perfectly good alternate routes that would have been quicker. To be fair, few navigation systems can equal the acquired knowledge of local residents.
For music to soothe the frustrations of driving in heavy traffic, the S7 comes standard with Audi's Bose premium sound system, comprising a 630-watt amp and 14 speakers. I was not blown away by the sound quality from this system, finding some of the midrange reproduction a little muddy and the highs too shrill. Serious music lovers should look into the optional Bang & Olufsen audio system, which is pricey but very enjoyable.
Audio sources are many for the S7's stereo, and include two SD card slots, an internal hard drive, and HD Radio. Bluetooth streaming audio is complemented by Wi-Fi audio, a unique feature. As I mentioned above, Audi has not integrated Internet-based audio sources.
Where Audi loses me is with its annoying proprietary port for external devices. In the S7, this port had an adapter cable with a 30-pin iOS plug. I have also seen Audi adapter cables for USB drives. I plugged in my iPhone 5 using a 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter, and everything worked fine, but Audi needs to scrap its port and standardize on USB, like every other automaker in the world.
The S7 also serves to show off some new driver-assistance technology from Audi. Although our car did not come equipped with it, Audi is now offering a head-up display, keeping it competitive with BMW. There is also an available night vision feature.
What the car did come with was blind-spot monitoring and a new adaptive cruise control system capable of bringing the S7 to a complete stop. As with systems from Ford and Mercedes-Benz, I could set the S7's speed and it would automatically slow down for traffic ahead.
With my foot hovering over the brake pedal, I let the car approach stopped traffic and felt it apply the brakes and hold position. When traffic started moving again, the car was slow to pick up the pace, so I coaxed it off the line with the gas pedal.
Approaching a line of stopped cars at speed, the S7 seemed like it was going to pull an emergency stop at the last minute. Not willing to test that capability, or its airbags, I resorted to my own brake work.
'S' means sport
Of course, the cabin electronics and driver assistance features are all available in the Audi A7, too. What sets the S7 apart is its engine and performance gear.
Through the Drive Select feature, I could customize the performance to a ridiculous level. On the LCD, the car offered Comfort, Auto, Dynamic, and Individual modes. Within Individual, it let me adjust throttle, steering, suspension, and even the exhaust sound.
Putting the car into Dynamic mode also put the transmission into Sport mode, a nice, one-touch sort of feature. Too many cars require hitting three or four buttons to engage all the sport settings.
Dynamic mode tends to kill fuel economy, as the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, a different gearbox than in the A7, keeps the revs up above 4,000.
I was impressed with the transmission whether in normal, Dynamic, or manual mode. It was a little slow to downshift in normal mode, but with Drive Select in Dynamic, it grabbed lower gears when I braked ahead of a turn, resulting in satisfying exhaust notes.
Quattro all-wheel drive comes standard on the S7, as it does on the A7, but the S7 also gets Audi's rear sport differential, which vectors torque across the rear wheels. Slewing the S7 down a twisting track, I could feel how the extra torque at the outside rear wheel helped push the car around the corners.
I found that the S7, like other high-strung sports cars, corners best under power. Letting it freewheel through the turns, something the Scion FR-S handles quite well, I could feel the S7's traction control systems stepping in to keep the car from sliding across the road.
The S7's electric power-steering system led to very precise control, but lacked the feedback of a hydraulic system. Most cars these days, even the Porsche 911, are going to electric power steering, something drivers will have to get used to. Even in Dynamic mode, the steering wheel felt very easy to turn. I would have appreciated at least a little more heft, which could have been programmed in.
One bit of gear in the S7 I found less impressive was the air suspension. Audi has used magnetically controlled dampers in other S models, which do a fantastic job of constantly adjusting the suspension to prevent sway. The air suspension firms up in Dynamic mode, but does not control the damping at individual wheels. In the turns, the S7 did not stay as flat as I would have liked.
The Dynamic exhaust sound was also not all that aggressive, at least from inside the cabin. When I opened the windows to let in the sound, the exhaust note, while definitely a stronger growl, seemed distant, as if it was coming from some other car. I suspect that Audi's sound damping, and the S7's active noise-cancellation system, worked against the Dynamic exhaust note.
Better than its precursor
The 2013 Audi S7 may not be the hottest sports car around, but it works as an impressive upgrade over the A7. Although about $10,000 more than the top A7 trim, the S7 comes standard with many worthwhile features. I particularly like the sport differential and dual-clutch transmission. The 1-mpg fuel economy sacrifice for an extra 110 horsepower shows some excellent engineering.
The connected features in the cabin are very impressive, especially the Google Earth integration, a feature unique to Audi at this time. I would opt for the Bang & Olufsen sound system, as it provides a dramatic increase in quality over the standard system. Where Audi falls behind BMW, its main rival, is in app integration. And there's Audi's stupid proprietary audio port.
The S7, with its hatchback sedan body, is one of the best-looking cars on the road. It offers practical interior space and I never tire of the aesthetics. The best thing about the S7 is that it works in so many capacities: daily commuter, road trip cruiser, and weekend sport driver.
|Model||2013 Audi S7|
|Power train||Turbocharged direct-injection 4-liter V-8, 7-speed dual-clutch transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||17 mpg city/27 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||19.2 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard hard drive-based navigation with traffic and Google Earth integration|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard, includes contact list integration|
|Digital audio sources||Bluetooth streaming, Wi-Fi, SD card, internal hard drive, iOS device, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Bose 630-watt 14-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$85,570|