x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Road Test: Muscular refinement in the Audi A7 Sportback

The German saloon with Italian style introduces a new work into the motoring lexicon of Neil Vorano: graceful.

Audi A7 during the road test at the Motor City in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Audi A7 during the road test at the Motor City in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

Is the term "graceful" an insult or a compliment when talking about a car? It depends on the type of vehicle; calling the Ford F150 "graceful" might incur some sullen stares from Bubba and Little Joe down at the feed store; implying a pimped-up Honda Civic at the mall car park is "graceful" could result in its 20-year-old owner running tyre-smoking circles around you, inching closer and closer with every pass. But in the segment of higher-end luxury saloons, grace is exactly what a buyer is looking for. And, if they weren't initially, one drive of the A7 would surely open their eyes.

But in fact, I'm pretty sure that, in all the car reviews that have come from these well-worn computer keys, I have not once used the term "graceful". Not from those reviews for a Rolls-Royce, or a Bentley, or anything else on four wheels you might associate with the term. So, this review, dear reader, is something of a milestone because coming away from a few days with the Audi A7 Sportback, the most prominent impression the large saloon left with me was how graceful it really is.

Just sit back and look at it: this feeling starts at first blush with the exterior. The design is stylish yet subtle; hip, yet classic. From the front, with its gaping grille and jewelled headlamps, straking back with a sharp midline to the sloping rear window, cut-off tail and neon-look rear lamps, it's a design that, years from now, will still be regarded as beautiful - something you just can't say about most cars. In fact, many people who saw the car for the first time commented on how striking it was. Everything seems in harmony and there is not a stray line, fold or crease to be found anywhere; it is true beauty borne from simplicity. Consider this the car an upscale architect or gallery curator might drive. Or a certain Motoring editor, should his pay packet increase sharply.

And, yes, it is an unconventional shape; a hatchback, no less. Audi's model line-up seems to be multiplying by the month, and some might ask why bother with the A7 when you have the A6 or the A8 to bookend it? But a more relevant question may be why bother with its more conventional cousins? I'd take the swoopier Sportback any day over these already good-looking saloons.

And if the exterior is a step above its rivals, its interior is surely in a class of its own. Audis are revered for their high-quality interiors, but they sometimes come off as a bit drab and devoid of colour and character. Not so at all with the A7; this one has a perfect mix of different textures, rich woods, soft leather, brushed aluminium and high-end plastics, with a clean design to make it stylish and functional at the same time. It is opulent without being over the top, carrying the simplicity theme from the outside within. And the mood lighting and red-lit gauges make you want to drive after the sun goes down. With road and engine noise well insulated, it truly is a place a driver and passengers will feel comfortable in - even the rear passengers, if they aren't too tall; headroom is surprisingly generous there despite the sloping roof. The heated/cooled front seats with massage feature should also add to the serene atmosphere.

The powertrain seems a perfect match for such an appearance of grace and dignity. A supercharged, direct-injected 3.0L V6 sits under the bonnet, pumping out a very respectable 300hp, along with 440Nm of torque coming at just 2,900rpm. What's more, the delivery of this power can be described more along the lines of a Rolls - it doesn't snarl and growl when you stomp on the throttle; instead, the car just pushes ahead with more of a dignified "whoosh", very quietly yet pointedly. Normally, I like to hear a powerful engine at work, but in this case I welcome the serene calmness of it all.

The V6 is mated to a seven-speed gearbox with two clutches bathed in oil - there are paddle shifters if you want to feel more connected or for those "sportier" moments, but in automatic mode, the gearbox is exemplary, with smooth, quick shifts that are pretty well spot-on for the driving manner. Depending on your mood, the electric-powered steering, gearbox and engine mapping and suspension stiffness can be adjusted for comfort, normal or sport, and I found the comfort selection just fine for everyday driving - especially for the steering, which gets a bit heavy in the sport mode.

The A7 rides on a steel-and-aluminium chassis that will be the same underpinning for the next A6, and that only bodes well for the upcoming car. It's a composed and sedate ride, yet it can get instantly aggressive in tight corners, with its quattro all-wheel drive constantly adjusting the torque at each wheel and helping limit understeer so common in AWD cars.

A German car with Italian flair? It's been done before, with the Mercedes CLS leading this new trend a few years back. But I don't think it's been done as well as this latest Audi; the A7 Sportback is now the benchmark in stylish and, yes, graceful, saloons. Grace had never been high on my list of characteristics I would look for in a car, but that might change now.