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Wheels: Rolling A7

It seems as though every year Audi introduces a new model that rises to the top of its category. In 2007 the R8 mid-engine sports car debuted. The latest generation of Audi’s best-selling A4 sports sedan arrived a year later. In 2009, the Q5 became king of the crossovers. The S5 Cabriolet, a top-down temptress, came on the scene in the summer of 2009. Then last year Audi put other luxury sedan makers on notice by introducing the revamped A8.

The popularity of these and other Audi offerings enabled the automaker to sell more than 100,000 vehicles in the United States for the first time ever last year. The record-setting sales numbers topped the company’s own projections by about 10 percent.

Now comes the all-new 2012 A7. Audi calls the car a five-door coupe (including the hatchback), and it promises to extend the company’s streak of successful introductions. (A7s have arrived in American showrooms carrying a price tag of about $59,000.)

Numerically, the A7 falls between Audi’s A6 and A8 models, and it shares some elements with the forthcoming next generation of the world’s best-selling midsize luxury sedan and the revised flagship. But Audi designed the A7 to appeal to people who are different from those drawn to the subdued styling of its four-door models. This car is for extroverts, people who like to be noticed.

“It’s the kind of car that other drivers on the road will want to stop and ask its owner about,” says Audi of America president Johan de Nysschen. “Looking at our three new vehicles together, if they were part of a workout video, I could probably claim that we have strengthened our core with the A6 and A8. But we’ve added some muscle tone and real beauty to our body of cars with the A7.”

Confident of the car’s ability to impress with more than just its seductive silhouette, Audi invited a small group of auto writers to drive it this past spring in and around Sebring, Fla.—on city streets, highways, and the famed racetrack. My ride for the week, one of five euro-spec vehicles available for review, was painted in alluring Oolong Gray, which looks like either charcoal or deep brown, depending on the time of day.

As de Nysschen suggests, the car’s lines lend it a sleek, muscular look, with rear haunches flowing perfectly into the tapered backside. More whimsical is the design of the brake lights, which subtly mirrors the shape of the numeral 7 in the car’s chrome badging.

Though Audi classifies the A7 as a five-door coupe, it is comparable in style and performance to the four-door coupes from Mercedes-Benz—which coined the classification when it launched the CLS in 2005—Porsche, and BMW. Unlike the Porsche Panamera and the BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo, both of which sacrifice style for spaciousness and beauty for boldness, the A7 manages to remain pragmatic without losing its bravura. The only four-door coupe that looks better is the Aston Martin Rapide. But the A7, in contrast to the Rapide, is fitted with adequately sized rear doors and has enough space in the back to fit two grown adults. The A7’s rear seats not only accommodate passengers comfortably, but also fold down to more than double the car’s cargo space.

The A7 rides on a lightweight, mostly aluminum chassis, which Audi also developed for the new version of the A6. In addition to the underpinnings, the A7 shares a 3-liter, supercharged V-6 engine with the A6. The engine produces 310 hp and 325 ft lbs of torque, which enables the A7 to reach 60 mph in a respectable time of 5.4 seconds and achieve 28 mpg on the highway. Like the A8, the A7 is equipped with Audi’s new 8-speed automatic transmission. For city travel during the Florida test-drive, the engine employed a stop-start function that saved fuel at red lights. However, this is a new feature from Audi that is not available on the U.S. model.

With the adjustable suspension in its default Comfort setting, the A7 ab-sorbed much of the rougher city-road surfaces around Sebring International Raceway. The Dynamic setting was well suited to the wide-open highways.

The A7 might be a five-door, but it responds to driver input more in the manner of a sports car. The steering is tight and heavy, allowing the driver to feel in tune with the car, and the quattro all-wheel drive (an Audi signature feature that is standard on the A7) handles corners at speeds fast enough for you to feel the lateral g’s in your stomach.

During two laps on the Sebring track—where the Audi R15 TDI Plus prototypes would race in the 12 Hours of Sebring shortly after my test-drive—the A7 seemed capable of handling speeds much faster than the 100-plus mph that I reached.

The A7’s impressive performance can be attributed in large part to the chassis and engine developed for the A6. But credit for the level of comfort the car offers goes to the A8, the source for the A7’s more notable interior design elements. Every aspect of the dash display—from the leather stitching to the Multi Media Interface (MMI) navigation screen—is aesthetically or ergonomically perfect. The MMI system links the car’s Google Earth navigation system to an easy-to-use touch pad located on the center console. The A7’s optional features include a 1,300-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system (with 15 speakers), night-vision technology, T-Mobile wireless Internet capability, and a head-up display, which is a first for Audi.

The A7 also debuts an array of innovative safety features from Audi. Most notable is the Audi pre sense technology, which monitors traffic and activates alerts for the driver in the event of danger on the road ahead. If the system detects a potential collision, it tightens the car’s seat belts, rolls up the windows, loads up the brakes, and begins to stop the vehicle. The system is designed to keep passengers safe, but it also could prevent the car from being blemished. Considering the A7’s beauty, the latter is a function that owners should also find comforting.

“We pride ourselves on fit and finish, infotainment, performance, and handling,” says de Nysschen. “But the thing that trumps all of that is the car’s provocative styling. I truly believe that the biggest factor that differentiates us from our other luxury competitors is the pure emotional power of our designs. Our vehicles offer that certain thing that gets people to turn their heads and walk circles around a parked car, giving it admiring glances. I mean, just look at the A7. You just know that when you pass people on the road with this car that they are going to want to accelerate to get a closer look.”

Audi, www.audiusa.com