DETROIT – Audi styling takes the next step with the new ’19 A7 sportback model making its public debut at the North American International Auto Show here, but the real design drama isn’t apparent until you open the door.
Audi’s flagship pair, the A8 sedan and A7 hatch, both bring to life the brand’s new design language first seen in the Prologue concept unveiled at the Los Angeles auto show in 2014. But it is the A7 with its sloping roofline and taut, sculptured sides that is the concept vehicle’s most direct descendant.
Like the Prologue, the A7, shown earlier to media in Germany, features an even more athletic stance, with a new grille design, high-tech headlamps and a body devoid of brightwork.
Good looks are a key driver of U.S. A7 sales, which have held relatively stable over the years despite the market’s dramatic migration toward CUVs and away from sedans and coupes. Since launching in 2011, Audi has sold 50,573 A7s in the U.S., including 4,810 last year and 8,598 in its peak year of 2012.
“The No.1 purchase reason for customers is the design of the car, the exterior design,” says Anthony Foulk, senior product manager for the 4-door hatchback with coupe design cues. “A lot of coupes, their lifecycle (sales) drop off, (while) ours have been pretty (consistently) strong.”
But the bigger evolution for the new model takes place inside, where Audi has ditched its dial-centric man-machine interface for a smartphone-inspired touchscreen that serves as the focal point of its revamped interior design.
The new MMI actually consists of two screens, a main 8.6-in. (21.8-cm) display with haptic feedback that is used to control most functions and a second smaller console-mounted display below that functions as a control panel for the climate system and seats and as a pad for handwriting inputs, a feature that has existed in Audis for several years.
In demonstrating the handwriting function, Foulk scribbles “COFFEE” on the screen and names of nearby coffee shops pop up on the upper navigation display. Use of the screens, including a small panel at the left of the steering wheel to control lights, allowed Audi to eliminate 32 buttons, Foulk says.
Audi made the switch because it believes the touchscreen will be more intuitive for its customers to use.
“You’re not learning a new methodology,” Foulk says, comparing the setup to a smartphone turned sideways. “This is the way people are used to it working. Other touchscreens have been out longer, but they’ve made you learn their (unique) functionality. You don’t have to learn how our MMI works.”
The screen allows users to set up the home screen with their preferences, and up to 32 cross-functional shortcuts can be stored as well that allow drivers to access designated navigation destinations, tune to a favorite radio station or call a frequent contact, for example. Notifications such as incoming text messages or warnings to stop for gas, will pop up on the center screen similar to the way a smartphone functions.
Up to seven driver profiles also can be saved with up to 400 different settings for such things as the driver-assistance systems, radio presets, seat positioning and cabin temperature.
The A7’s interior is skewed a little more toward the driver than the more-linear design of the A8 sedan, but both models are jam-packed with technological bells and whistles.
Unlock the car and front and rear LED lights begin a sequence of animations (which will be different for an A7 vs. an S7 or A8, for example) and puddle lamps turn on. When the door is opened, infotainment screens display personalized welcome messaging. Vents open, sound-system tweeters emerge from atop the dash and ambient lighting is triggered.
“The car is basically saying, ‛I’m ready for you,’” Foulk says. “There’s this whole sense of ceremony to give you this emotional attachment to your car and make it feel very luxurious and customized to the way you want it.”
The A7 comes stocked with advanced driver-assistance technology. New is what Audi calls “maneuver assist” that will add steering input or apply the brakes if the car appears likely to hit a pole in a parking structure, for example. It also will sound a warning if there’s likelihood of scraping the wheels on a curb. Audi has added radar up front to provide forward cross-traffic alerts and braking the car at an intersection or when leaving a parking spot to avoid colliding with a vehicle approaching from the right or left.
Audi’s Level 3 on-highway self-driving system called Traffic Jam Pilot isn’t planned for the U.S. at the moment, a delay Foulk blames on regulatory issues. Traffic Jam Pilot allows hands-free driving up to 35 mph (56 km/h). A Level 4 system that will allow the car to pilot itself at posted highway speed limits is due in 2020-2021, Audi says.
“It’s really whether the legal framework is ready or not,” Foulk says of the hesitation to offer the technology in the U.S. “We’re evaluating it and as soon as we think it’s the right time, we’ll bring it. The car is engineered for it, but there are too many open questions about the environment of driving – laws in different states and everything. We developed the car, and a lot has changed in the past two years when it comes to that.”
The A7 comes with a 340-hp 3.0L V-6, 8-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and 48V mild-hybrid system, as well as standard all-wheel drive.
U.S. sales launch is set for this fall. Pricing has not been announced.
[email protected] @DavidZoia