Review: 2012 Audi A7
After I went to California and induced some dude at Toyota to loan me a Hot Lava Orange Scion FR-S earlier in the month, I figured I’d see if Audi’s PR types had forgotten how I compared the R8 to my hooptiefied ’92 Civic. Sure enough, Audi’s institutional memory proved to have some threadbare spots, and so I was able to arrange for the use of an Audi A7 for my trip to California for the Vodden the Hell Are We Doing 24 Hours of LeMons at Thunderhill Raceway. That meant a lot of rural highway driving, a lot of loading of race equipment into the cargo area, and exactly zero pushing-the-edge-of-the-performance-envelope 11/10ths-tyle driving. We’ll follow up Mr. Karesh’s impressions of the A7 from last year with a few of my own.
First of all, the idea of a car with a bootsplash screen when you fire it up— not to mention the 10-second delay before all systems are ready— tells you more than any single cue that we’ve gone past the era of computer-enhanced vehicles and into the computers-on-wheels era. I haven’t looked at the wiring diagram (i.e., I didn’t feel like spending a couple of months navigating the Audi bureaucratic labyrinth in order to avoid spending a bunch of my own cash for a shop manual), but I’ll bet this car boasts plenty of multiplexed control systems. We’ll get back to some of the implications of this a bit later in this review, because right now I want to talk about good old-fashioned switches.
See, regardless of what goes between a switch and the device it controls, be it a length of wire or a digital control unit, you still have a brute-force physical electrical contact that a human touch will control. The A7 has a bewildering quantity of switches available to the driver; in fact, it has so many that I made bad LeMons drivers count them as a penalty during the race.
So, what happens when schmutz gets into the switch contacts, when corrosion and normal mechanical wear take their toll a few years down the line? I’m not saying that Volkswagen Group products have a well-documented history of electrical-system glitches stretching back decades, because that gets us into anecdotal territory best explored by our readers, but the sheer number of such opportunities for failure here means that maddening electrical gremlins may crop up early on in the A7 ownership experience. Right, that’s not what new-car reviews are for, so let’s move on.
When I got this car, I was all set to make a very clever comparison between Apple and Audi, based on my observations that the crossover between owners of products from both companies is so high. However, that idea crashed like a Quadra 650 showing a Sad Mac when I saw the head-spinning complexity of this car’s controls and displays; take a look at about 10% of the information available to the driver under ordinary conditions. Steve Jobs figured out that ordinary users of electronics (e.g., your grandma) don’t want complexity. They don’t even want on/off controls, it turns out, because they don’t want to learn new stuff. If Jobs had consulted on the design of this car, it would have about six controls and one big primary-color gauge showing Driving Situation Quality or some such Cupertinonian metric.
However, the thing that Audi products do have in common with Apple products is compelling design. The A7 is beautiful, of course (just as the packaging around your new Macbook is beautiful), and it features intimidatingly correct ergonomics throughout. At this point, we need to think about the person the A7 buyer wants to be; in my mind, this person is a man with cruelly small rimless glasses who works as a “creative” in some discipline that requires him to be conversant in the work of impenetrable philosophers like Lacan, while demonstrating insider knowledge of obscure facets of urban popular culture (say, the acid house scene of Minsk). He lives in an edgy neighborhood in some unearthly expensive city (Helsinki, Singapore, etc.) and he experiences physical pain when exposed to a piece of bad design. In other words, the kind of guy who always made me feel like a total ignorant, mouth-breathing schlub in grad school and even today reduces me to a state of excessive italicization. I’m not saying this is what actual Audi buyers really are, any more than real-world Corvette buyers match the idealized Corvette owner (no, we’re not going there… this time).
Unfortunately, Audi’s need to reduce the level of existential terror in its target demographic while keeping the sticker price of the A7 below six figures (the car I drove lists at $68,630) means that there’s a lot of cool-looking shit that gives off a strong “I’m gonna break” vibe. Say, the plastic covers that hide the unsightly hinge mechanism on the hatch; 15 years ago, when deconstructionist thought was the postmodern flavor-of-the-month, you could get away with mechanical innards showing. Not today.
Still, though, we get back to that good-design thing wherever one looks in the A7. These little tie-downs in the cargo area would get a lot of use, were I to daily-drive an A7. Yeah, sure, they’re more fragile than they need to be, but Audi seems to believe their drivers would feel that their senses had been flayed with an electrified cat-o-nine-tails if they caught sight of some dowdy J.C. Whitney-grade tie-down.
The cargo area beneath the hatch is usefully large; in fact, I was able to fit more LeMons Supreme Court bribe booze in here than I was able to fit in the ’11 Escalade.
The power hatch was kind of neat at first, but then became utterly maddening once I realized that all opening and closing of the hatch must be done by the car, at its own pace. When I tried to close it manually and felt the car refuse to allow such manhandling, I felt shamed. Shamed like I was some gristly sunburned toothless uranium prospector in Nevada bashing the tailgate of my ’61 IHC Travelall, after rinsing my bloody gums with a deep swill of generic vodka out of a plastic bottle, and a stern German engineer caught me at it and frowned sadly at the spectacle.
My feelings of disapproval in the view of imaginary cold-eyed German engineers just grew as the weekend with the A7 progressed, because this car knows better. For example, those who read LeMons Judge Magazine’s review of the Escalade Platinum Hybrid may recall that the Cadillac did pretty well as the mobile sound unit in the Macho Man Penalty. Not so with the A7. I cued up “Macho Man” on the iPod, made the miscreant drivers don the hats and mustaches, and began a disco-dancing tour of the Thunderhill Raceway paddock. The E30-driving Macho Men weren’t putting their hearts into it, so I did what any self-respecting LeMons Supreme Court Judge does at that moment: popped open the driver’s door to harangue them. Unfortunately, the programmers of the A7 decided— in the name of sicherheit— that opening the driver’s door should apply the parking brake, and the Macho Men ended up staggering into the Audi’s rear bumper. After that, the car remained bitter and resentful over my scandalous breach of common sense, ignoring the gearshift’s position, turning down the music, and so on. Naturally, this got me to thinking about the mischief that could be caused by nihilistic hackers, were they to get into the A7’s code; we’ll discuss those possibilities in a later post.
Now that we’ve veered into (or at least glanced off of) the subject of the sound system, the A7’s standard “Multi-Media Interface” setup sounds very good and has a less frustrating interface than most systems I’ve seen in my somewhat limited experience of 21st-century automotive entertainment-system technology. There’s less lag between input and result than in most such systems (though a $150 smartphone manages to have no delay in its touchscreen input). The only real weakness is the lack of serious audio power; I felt that I needed to listen to a lot of bass-heavy Massive Attack to really get into the European-ness of the A7, but even top volume wasn’t loud enough. I suspect that the system is capable of pushing more watts through its excellent-quality speakers, but that an invisible German safety monitor knows that excessively loud music is deleterious to one’s health and keeps audio levels down.
On the plus side, the interior of the A7 looks gorgeous. Everything you see and/or touch is made of top-shelf materials, and the overall effect is of being in the totally sensible (yet gangsta-grade) office of the Lacan-quoting dude with the Cruelly Small Glasses.
Just look at the visual composition of this door panel (and pay no mind to the 29 electrical contacts in all those switches that will spend their lives enduring temperature extremes, vibration, and moisture).
The back seat works as well, though I didn’t get a chance to put any very tall passengers back there. On the subject of comfort, the A7 delivers a reasonably smooth ride for such a sporty-handling machine, but the road noise is pretty bad when you’re on not-so-smooth rural two-laners (as I was for much of the weekend). In fact, the tire noise was so loud I had to wonder whether there might have been some problem with the tires on this 11,000-mile press car.
I didn’t come close to flogging the hell out of this thing and learning all that race-y stuff that automotive journalists are supposed to write about, but the A7 certainly is a powerful and asphalt-gripping beast.
The 310-horse supercharged V6 and 8-speed automatic deliver respectable and usable power, roaring safely through even the hairiest passing situations involving drunks towing horse trailers behind space-saver-spare-equipped F-150s on State Highway 162. Because only Alfa Romeo seems capable of making a V6 that sounds great, you don’t get the kind of engine noise that a good V8 or I6 gives you, but the power is real. In 345 miles of mostly highway driving, I achieved a genuine 23.35 miles per gallon (of 91-octane), which is about five MPGs better than I’d expect from a biggish car with this kind of acceleration.
The navigation system, with its Google Maps integration, manages to be both cool-looking and helpful, though the interface is as busy as everything else the A7 driver sees.
Could I see driving the A7 every day? Sure, I’d be willing to put up with the Safety Police overseers and road noise in exchange for the blown V6 power, all-wheel-drive, and cargo-hauling practicality. However, I’d be sweating over the complexity and expecting hefty annual maintenance bills once the car hit about age four.
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Like everyone else here says,I'd tap that lease option.I wouldn't buy it unless it offered some sort of optional button management & maintenance system-BMMS.To remind owners if they haven't pressed a button lately so the contacts won't corrode,or just so the button wouldn't feel ignored.My own observance of German Road Sedan Owners of Ruthless and Unyielding Discernment,are that they eventually get worn down.You'll often see late model examples of Fatherland's Best with the bottom driving light trim missing,at the very least.On the inside,its a trim piece here and there,along with amenities too expensive/inconvenient to fix in relation to the amount of use they get(I'm talkin' to YOU,rear power sunshade.). Owners in this demographic,as they will inform you,are very busy. What often keeps them so busy,is telling everyone within earshot that they are in fact,quite busy right now. Audi is also smart to know that no matter how much structural rigidity you build into a vehicle,808 SUPER BASS sound systems will invariably accelerate trim shedding,and erosion in NVH.
I had made the decision to buy this car, but thank you for reminding me of the electrical/computerized problem. Had the impression, from the pictures, that Audi had returned to produce cars and not computers. Martin is right in his concern, took a look at his web site, and understand why - my self being former owner of a MB 190E 2.6 for 18 years, without a single call to the dealer, where a switch for activating the El-window is connected directly to the motor system, and not to a computer board, where the speeder pedal is not connected to a computer, where the switch to the sun ruff is cabled directly to the motor and not to a computer. I totally agree, to stuff in digital multiplexed communication and km´s of cabling, computer boards in each door, under each seat, PCB´s about every where, in a car environment, is to ask for trouble. The cables it self is a hazard, prone to begin failing after not so many years, average life time of digital electronics is 8 years. They proudly show videos of the galvanizacion of parts of the car, to last 40 years, which is a wast of effort, since it will be the electronics which trash the car before 10 years. At about 4 years first troubles will begin, and take you to the dealer for service at a timely manner, the timely manner depends on how the "end-of-life" programming was done in the small CPU devices placed in all censors and PCB boards. Perhaps they have gone so far, that the central computer manage all "end-of-life" settings in the 100+ CPU´s, they surely read them, and might also write to them. Placing buttons and switches horizontally instead of vertically, just below your arm and next to a cup holder, is a design flaw, smutz and dirt will land, I say chance of spilling a cup of CocaCloa within 2 years is above 80%. No need to explain what happens when a cup of CocaCola runs into such electronics horizontally placed panel with 50 openings ... Everything has to be disassembled, all has to be replaced, also the nice wood - the computer board will have to be programmed, by special programming equipment, where each PCB has a unique serial number, and connected to the central computer. All digital parts having a CPU have a unique serial number today, if a part is replaced in a car, this part has to be exchanged with a new, a new cant be ordered like that - they do not allow for second-hand parts circulating, some may begin to repair or deactivate or reset the "end-of-life". Similar as in printer devices, which typically have a digital counter, stopping the printer to work after a count of copies. This makes me sick. The alternative is Toyota, Mazda who still deliver cars and not computers, but not for long, even they are also seeing the huge business in computer and serialized computerized parts having "end-of-life" in timely manners. - or get an old BMW 728i or MB C240 from 2000 for 3000 Eur, and spend 5.000 on a restoration, and you have a car as good as new which will not drag you to the dealer every month - this is what Ill do, instead of using 60.000 Euro on a car which will be a pain in the ass after 4 years, and to trash after 8 years.