Few places are further from Canada than Cape Town is. It’s half way around the world and upside down. To fly there, as the crow does, is 13,100 kilometres from Toronto, or 16,400 from Vancouver. If you could drive there, it would take nearly six days, non-stop at 120 km/h, and flying commercial feels only slighter quicker.
It’s a long way to travel, but cruising along the winding coastal roads of the Western Cape — with only the Indian Ocean and Antarctica to the south, and all of Africa and Europe to the north — in Audi’s greatest grand tourer, the A7, makes the journey worthwhile. This is an experience worth having. The car simply flows, gliding serenely down the twisting roads with unusual confidence. And confidence has always been this car’s forte.
It’s difficult to follow up a classic, especially an instant one like Audi’s original A7. That car, which first appeared in 2010, is destined for, if not iconic status, then at least recognition as one of the best car designs of the new millennium. The first A7 perfected the nascent fastback sedan genre, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact it was Audi’s first crack at it. Not since the TT has Audi presented such a groundbreaking design. It may seem a little early to start canonizing, but the fact that the A7 still looks avant-garde today — eight years after it was first revealed — is a surefire sign of greatness.
Fastback sedans are a relatively new invention. They go by different names: four-door coupe, gran coupe, or — for Audi — “sportback.” These machines all combine the usefulness and interior space of a four-door sedan with the rakish roofline of a two-door coupe and the large trunk of an SUV. It sounds like a hideous Frankenstein mashup destined to fail — and it might have, if Audi hadn’t made the A7 so utterly desirable. It was an unlikely sales success at a time when everyone wanted SUVs. It helped that its proportions weren’t ungainly, but rather, perfectly elegant. It looked like a road-going Riva speedboat, carved from solid aluminum. That its designer, Stefan Sielaff, has since been promoted to head Bentley’s design studio speaks to his considerable talent and eye for luxury.
Today, nearly every automaker is jumping on the fastback bandwagon. For Audi, the question was: how do you top a car that defined a genre?
In an effort to outdo the original A7, Audi has thrown every bit of its technical knowhow into the new model — though their seamless execution makes it easy to miss these details.
So, take a moment to appreciate some of the ingenious engineering that’s working behind the scenes. A 48V mild-hybrid system harvests wasted energy during braking, storing it in a lithium-ion battery. It supplies power for imperceptibly smooth engine stops and starts at traffic lights. A rear-wheel steering system makes this large luxury car more nimble than seems possible. It pulls U-turns in tight quarters like a sub-compact, but feels as steady as a freight train at 200 km/h. The new seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox can kick down three gears in the blink of eye. A clever five-link suspension setup with next-gen pneumatic dampers allows the driver a greater level of control over ride and handling. And because of careful weight-saving measures, the new car is only 25 kilograms heavier than the outgoing one — despite all of these new features.
Much of this state-of-the-art technology has trickled down from Audi’s recently launched full-size A8 flagship sedan. Only one or two other mid-size luxury cars come anywhere near this level of technical excellence. The A7’s interior — with its all glass, dual-touchscreen dashboard — is the best you’ll find in any German car right now. It looks and feels like it’s from the future — the next evolution of the automobile.
What Audi has managed to do here is keep the old A7’s brilliant design, evolving it slightly, while adding new depth to the car’s talent. It’s as confident and lovely to drive as it is to look at.
Our tour of the Western Cape for the A7’s launch takes us from Cape Town, inland past the vineyards of Stellenbosch, and back along the coast via the stunning R44 highway. Picture California’s famous Route 1, but narrower, with more twists and blind corners. Of course, finding yourself suddenly upside down, in another time zone, on the far side of the world, in summer when it should be winter, is a disorienting experience to say the least. Not the ideal moment to begin a road trip on such a perilous road in a country where they drive on the left. But Audi’s new A7 has the effect of righting the world. What you feel behind the wheel is a rare kind of serenity — an easy confidence that belies the underlying mechanical complexity of this machine.