Powerful and distinctive are words that describe the Audi A7's styling, but they're apt also for its performance. Smoothly paired engines and transmissions let it build speed with a tremendous sense of confidence. It's engaging, even before you get to the S7 and RS 7 power rangers.
The standard engine in the A7 is Audi's 3.0-liter supercharged V-6. In the hatchback, it's rated at 310 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. In practice, it's a gutsy powerplant that's been muted from its first applications. Lots of low-end torque helps it accelerate the A7 to 60 mph in about 5.4 seconds, while it also achieves up to 28 miles per gallon on the EPA's highway cycle. It's that kind of versatility that's flattering to the A7's good looks, and vice versa.
For 2014, Audi's fine 3.0-liter turbodiesel six is the high-economy alternative. Just about as quick as the gas-powered six, the turbodiesel has the typically tight powerband and more noise and vibration. They're more than offset by a sky-high EPA highway number of 38 mpg, and a combined rating of 29 mpg—even with standard all-wheel drive. With so little performance distinction between it and the gas-powered six, the difference comes down more to price and preference. As with the other six-cylinder, stop/start is standard, and can induce a shiver in the cabin as the engine fires back up after a pause. Stop/start can be disabled via a dash-mounted button.
No matter which you choose, the transmission is a top-notch 8-speed automatic outfitted with manual-shift mode, and the latest performance-oriented version of Audi's quattro all-wheel drive system. It normally sends 60 percent of torque to the rear wheels, but it can send more to the front or rear wheels for better traction. It's configured to help optimize cornering and grip—and it's also a good choice for all-weather traction.
The A7 comes standard with Audi Drive Select, which lets drivers choose settings for transmission, steering, and throttle, through four different modes (auto, dynamic, comfort, or individual). It's most obvious in the steering, which weights up dramatically through the different modes, though there's very little if any road feel or feedback through the steering wheel. Sport-sedan fans will no doubt wish for a little more edginess, but those who want a fashionable, comfortable vehicle that also has a sporty side will be delighted.
Ride quality is on the firm side of comfortable, which could be too firm if your roads aren't in good repair. On tight mountain roads, urban streets, and a particularly coarse, choppy stretch of Interstate, we found the ride to be just fine—almost stoic, in situations that would have some sports cars and sports sedans working up a sweat. Yet its suspension managed to soak up both noisy surfaces and bigger jolts without ever seeming bouncy or too pillowy.
That combination of light driving feel, control, and composure is thanks, in part to the extensive use of aluminum in both the A7's structure and components; more than 20 percent of the body is made of aluminum, and the front fenders, hood, rear hatch, and doors are also made of it. Altogether, that helps the A7 weigh about 15 percent less than a comparable all-steel vehicle, according to Audi.
If your appetite calls for a more focused, performance machine, the Audi S7 may be your fit. The S7 is equipped with a 420-hp, turbocharged V-8 that Audi pairs with a 7-speed automatic and paddle shifters. According to the manufacturer, the S7 takes less than 5 seconds to run up to 60 mph and it includes an adaptive air suspension setup that can be tuned to sport for a firmer ride. The S7 also receives unique wheels and upgraded brakes to put all its power to the ground.
The twin-turbo V-8 uses a unique setup for the turbochargers, tucking them between the cylinders and placing the intercooler on top of the engine to improve response and packaging for the small engine. Audi says that it has one of the smallest footprints for an engine of its kind, and the V-8 uses cylinder deactivation to cut off half of its cylinders for more efficient running under light loads. The EPA rates the engine at 17 mpg city, 27 highway, which isn't bad considering its prolific power. The S7 pulls away from stoplights with gusto, and with enough room—on a closed course, obviously—the S7 will reach a top speed of 155 mph. In our drives, we've found the dual-clutch automatic transmission to be a little indecisive at start, exacerbated by the short lag that the turbos require to spool up.
Audi's Drive Select system, which changes the suspension setup, throttle response, and transmission behavior works well for us in the S7. The three distinct setups give the fastback a wide range of driving personality; in Dynamic mode the ride height is lowered, and the steering and throttle are quickened for a quicker response. Flick one of the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters and the transmission responds almost instantly, one of the benefits of utilizing a dual-clutch unit. The 4,000-pound sedan tucks neatly into corners, far better than its heft would indicate, and its enthusiasm is undeniable. It's no sportscar, but the S7 has great road manners and complementary driving modes.
If you're not in a hurry, the Drive Select system offers a Comfort mode for relaxed cruising that's suitable for everyday drives, we say. We found ourselves relying on the Comfort setting for most tasks, flicking it into Sport mode when the right window in traffic opens up.
Audi RS 7
For $105,795, the new Audi RS 7 puts the basic A7 into peak performance mode. The same silhouette gets stuffed with a higher-output version of the S7's twin-turbo V-8. Here, output soars to 560 horsepower, and the numbers skew better in all directions. The RS 7 can nail 0-60 mph runs in just 3.7 seconds, with some help from a beefy eight-speed paddle-shifted automatic and retuned all-wheel drive with a rear power bias. The RS 7's top speed is 174 mph.
For a taste of the 560-hp beast on the German autobahn, read MotorAuthority's 2014 Audi RS 7 first drive.