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You can spell Audi A7 without the letters C, L and S, but you can’t get far into a consideration about the five-door premium coupé without mentioning the Mercedes-Benz CLS.

The CLS effectively created the grand touring luxury coupé market sector in 2004, and the first-generation A7, launched in 2010, was a direct response – one that, for all its merits, never quite emerged from the shadow of its rival.

The second-generation A7 Sportback you see here arrives just ahead of the third-generation CLS. At first glance, both machines have taken a similar approach to nailing a difficult market niche, in which buyers demand a car that looks and feels sporting and dynamic, yet prize space and comfort above all else. 

Both share a platform with mid-size saloons (the forthcoming A6 in the case of the A7, the E-Class for the CLS), both feature new engines with 48V mild hybrid systems and both have been packed with technology taken from their marque’s flagship saloons (the A8 and S-Class respectively).

Both have also been comprehensively restyled inside and out, and it’s at that point that they begin to diverge, and in a manner that represents the current direction and priorities of each firm. While the latest CLS has been loaded with dramatic design touches bordering on the theatrical (at least for a company as traditionally staid as Mercedes), the A7 is all clean, crisp design – and doubles down on the use of vast amounts of technology.

It’s the second Audi model, after the A8, to feature the company’s new design language, with a focus on ‘pure progressiveness’ (rather than ‘prestige’ on the A8), although it’s not a truly radical departure from previous Audi design.

Exploring the Audi A7's design and interior changes

The front end is dominated by a single-frame grille, which gives the vehicle a sense of presence, with sharp edges, lines and creases that all flow to the titular Sportback. The swoopy design (Audi, slightly optimistically, calls it ‘yacht-like’) converges with a rear edge that’s 3cm higher than on the previous model and houses a spoiler that deploys at higher speeds. The cut-in underneath that rear edge gives the car a distinct profile from a side or rear three-quarter angle, although it is lost slightly when viewed directly from behind.

The other major external feature of the car shared with the A8 are the lights, including a flat light strip that runs across the rear. Top-spec S line trim cars get HD Matrix LED headlights, with an ‘X’ signature unique to the A7 built in.

At 4969mm, the new car is 5mm shorter than the previous model, although the wheelbase has been extended by 12mm, to 2926mm. It’s slightly narrower than the old A7 (1908mm compared with 1911mm) and, at 1422mm, is now 2mm higher. It maintains the useful 535-litre boot of the first-gen A7, with 1880 litres of capacity if the rear seats are folded – which Audi notes is enough for two golf bags (a hint at the car’s target audience).

The car’s slightly expanded dimensions also create a little extra space for passengers in the rear: a whole 21mm extra leg room and 5mm head room. It’s spacious enough in the back for two adults, although you’d wish to add the caveat ‘for a coupé’ as a warning to anyone planning to jump in the rear for a long journey. But the back seats aren’t where the focus of this car lies: unlike the A8, this is a car designed for driving rather than being driven in.

That’s reflected in the A7’s dashboard, which takes the minimalist design of the A8 and gives it a driver focus, which largely amounts to ever-so-slightly tilting the two central touchscreens – an upper 10.1in unit with an 8.6in one below it on the centre tunnel – towards the driver.

Virtually all of the car’s systems are controlled either via the touchscreens or glass-fronted buttons around them; the steering wheel is the only place you’ll find any old-fashioned buttons or dials – most of which are there to operate the distinctly not-old-fashioned Audi Virtual Cockpit digital display. The artificial haptic and acoustic feedback of the touchscreen controls works effectively (see panel, right), even if it does take some time to work out which screen controls which function.

The leather front seats are very comfy, as is the clean, minimalist cabin as a whole. There’s all the features you’d hope for in a car in this class, such as interior ambient lighting and dual zone climate control, and everything feels as wonderfully well-built as you’d expect from Audi. That said, it’s not the warmest of environments – it’s like spending time in a hip bar, as opposed to relaxing in your favourite armchair at home.

How does the A7 Sportback perform on the road?

The A7 Sportback will launch with a single petrol option: the 55 TFSI, a supercharged V6 producing 335bhp and 369lb ft of torque, channelled through a seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox. It will be followed shortly after (expect a delay of weeks, not months) by the 50 TDI tested here, a 3.0-litre V6 with 282bhp and 457lb ft of torque, which utilises an eight-speed tiptronic gearbox.

Both engines feature mild hybrid drivetrains featuring a 48V electrical system that can deactivate the engine when coasting at speeds between 34mph and 99mph. And both have quattro systems, with the 50 TDI, expected to account for the bulk of UK sales, getting a self-locking centre differential that can send up to 85% of the torque to the rear wheels.

If the two engine options sound familiar, it’s because they match the launch line-up of the A8. You can read our review of the 55 TFSI here. As for the TDI, as in the A8, it's remarkably refined and quiet once cruising, and only occasionally coarse or hesitant at lower speeds. It will reach 62mph in 5.3sec (with a limited top speed of 155mph) and offers a pleasing hit of power if you go searching for the torque. That said, it’s at its best when effortlessly cruising.

Our Sport trim car ran on 20in wheels (19s are standard) and was fitted with optional adaptive air suspension (as opposed to the conventionally sprung set-up). While smooth riding for the most part, it was slightly more unsettled than you might expect on the bumpier roads on our test route in Cape Town, even in the softest of the A7’s drive modes, accessed via the Drive Select function.

Audi claims to increase the differences between the drive modes, which range from Efficiency to Dynamic, reflecting the car’s broad appeal. Perhaps inevitably, the best compromise is found in the individual mode: we preferred to set the handling to its most responsive, with the suspension and ride in comfort.

Another option fitted to our test car was dynamic all-wheel steering. This turns the rear wheels in the opposite direction of the front wheels to improve low-speed manoeuvrability, and tilts them in the same direction at higher speed to boost stability. The system feels natural, and certainly makes the A7 easier to drive at low speeds than its not-insubstantial proportions might suggest.

Much like the A8, the A7 features a wealth of advanced driver assistance features and systems, including an auto stop/start system that reacts to the car ahead moving and adaptive driving assistant, which makes steering inputs to follow lines on the road. The combination of all those systems and the all-wheel steering does result in the steering feeling a little disengaged (and that’s before extra autonomous features such as self-parking systems arrive later this year), although it does make driving the A7 a comfortable, relaxed and easy experience.

How does the Audi A8 compare to its rivals?

That comfort and relaxed demeanour, you sense, will suit most buyers of the A7 Sportback just fine. It’s a car that, both in design and dynamics, carries an effortless, chilled-out charm – an inner confidence in what it does. It’s cool, and it knows it. And while that demeanour means it’s not the sort of car that will truly engage and set your pulses racing, it’s a comfortable, compelling grand tourer that you’d have no doubt would carry you in comfort for an actual extended grand tour – or simply a daily motorway commute.

The question that remains, of course, is how that driving experience will compare with the latest CLS. But while, inevitably, that comparison will shape views of the A7 Sportback, you’d imagine that, if all its clever tech made it capable of feelings, the A7 itself wouldn’t really care: it’s far too cool to worry about such things.

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