Da Bang! ~ Greatest Vehicles

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Da Bang!

Consumerism has ensured we can now buy ten types of curd, twenty types of cereal, thirty kinds of hot beverages and nearly fifty kinds of cookies at your local grocers. If you drove into a supermarket the choices will swamp you until you’re a mental mess of selection.
That sort of mental calisthenics extends to the automotive market as well. Maruti began the trend by offering a different car for just 25K rupee increments. Then Tata Motors followed suit and so did Hyundai and before you knew it at similar price points you have more than half a dozen choices. Now the bug has caught the luxury car manufacturers. So Porsche, BMW and Mercedes sell everything they make globally in every variant available at a dealer near you. And joining this bandwagon for a merry old jamboree is Audi which has finally sensed that a pot of gold exists at the end of this multi-coloured rainbow. So within a span of just three months it has brought us the new A8 and the R8 V10 Spyder and now we have the A7 Sportback, Audi’s spanking new take on the grand tourer theme and the RS5, a hyper coupe to blow away all else. In the next few months there are a couple more cars expected, but what’s interesting to note is that Audi seems to have done a complete volte face on its philosophies though it isn’t expressing it very transparently.
In the last year and a half, Audi has finally begun to get aggressive on its market position. We always felt their ‘we aren’t looking for numbers but want to provide a quality experience to our customers’ stance is as good as saying ‘I’m not interested in breathing as long as the less carbon dioxide I exhale results in a healthier planet’. No more. Within a very short span Audi has upped the numbers in their no-numbers game to the effect that they’re all now wearing number 1 suit-pins, all their employees have signed the number 1 pledge, a firm commitment has been made to hit the number 1 spot in India by 2015 and press releases spewing out numbers have begun to, well, spew out. 
But coming back to the car, did I get the grand tour in the A7? No, that is a rite of passage I have reserved for later once the weather is conducive to touring again. But as an eye opener to the A7 in India a few months after I experienced her abilities in Sardinia, I must say I’m just as deeply impressed now as I was then.
What makes the A7 different from the others in the Audi fold isn’t her legacy which is a throwback to the days of the Audi 100 Coupe S. The A7, yes, is a return to the coupe form, but its inspiration truly lies some 230km away in Stuttgart - in the Mercedes-Benz CLS. The pupil however must surpass the master and that is what the hullaballoo surrounding the A7 is all about. The A7 Sportback’s primary intention is to displace the CLS as the largest selling 4-door coupe in the world, which is the only agenda.

Now displacing perhaps one of the most iconic 4-door coupe designs of modern times, a trendsetter, is not going to be an easy task. On the styling front, the A7’s fluid fastback form isn’t as distinct as the CLS. Where the CLS set the tone for elegant coupes of the future, establishing itself as a benchmark, the A7 is merely a well designed yet beautiful to look at coupe. Are you for instance going to remember an A7 over a CLS say ten years from now? Frankly I doubt the CLS’s ground-breaking aura could be eroded that easily.
What the A7 does for Audi though is present a much nicer, cleaner and likeable persona compared to when it was first showcased as the Audi Sportback concept. Having seen the enormous goatee grille, the one thought that must have passed through everyone’s mind was a definite ‘WTF’. Smartly, Audi accepted the fact that such a magnificent edifice of masculinity couldn’t overpower the central design element of the A7 - which is not the nose but the arse. So the goatee was trimmed and it got the bejewelled, kinked LED headlamp treatment as the other cars in the range but with a simpler air dam. But what makes it truly outstanding is the elegant and seamless recession of its roofline as it slopes towards the boot. It’s a voluptuous roofline you want to slide you hand over, feeling the taut muscle where it meets the shoulder line begging you to continue tracing a path right down to the slight kink in its boot.
That kink in the boot is distanced from the LEDs at the front by a length of some 4.9 metres, placing it right between the A6 and the A8 globally as well as in India. That’s a very exclusive position to find itself in because there really isn’t anything you could call competition (until the 6 Series Coupe and new Merc CLS come in). By doing so Audi is strategically attempting to target consumers in the luxury segment who are looking at just such niches.
So to keep that level of interest going, the A7’s interiors are quite unique though you’d immediately recognise the strong family DNA. You do get this sense that there is a strong tie-in to the A8 until you realise that it’s not the entire package but certain details that bear a family resemblance. So if the A8 seems a lot more mature, orderly and dare I say a bit regimented, the A7 is flirtatious, a bit raunchy and at the same time a lot more inviting. It invites you for a night of fun, with a lot more colour and noise, not exactly a night of champagne and Kenny G. I, for one, loved the slight sense of chaos, the sleekness of the dashboard which is refreshing compared to the chunky teutonic fare we are used to and the seats that are firm and grippy where they ought to be supple. Quite like the Sen sisters, one good at making it in quality cinema and the other good at making it 

That said, this isn’t a shabby torn jeans and scuffed jacket kinda cabin. It is well appointed, the leather is of the finest quality, the wood veneer you just know is expensive, the space generous and the gadgets such as the head-up display which shows navigation in addition to speed and warnings and the new MMI, are rich in both features and feel.
Now where the cabin is quite unique as far as Audis go, the A7’s internals are pretty much the standard fare. Though if you thought the 3.0-litre TDI diesel engine is now as familiar as Poonam Pandey, you’re wrong. So there is a need to bare it all or at least some of the vitals. The basic architecture has been used in almost every Audi in India from the A4 to the Q5 and even in the Q7 though in various states of tune. For the A7, this 90-degree V6 engine has been lightened and tightened. It has lost 25 kilos compared to the previous diesel, nearly six kilos of that saving coming from the new vermicular graphite cast-iron crankcase which is also a much stronger unit than anything Audi has constructed before. The intake and exhaust systems were then tuned further, the common-rail injection system now uses 1800 bar injectors with eight-hole nozzles, and there’s an even more refined VGT turbo which kicks in so early you never perceive any turbo lag at all. But key here is the brake energy recirculation system that fills any holes left in the acceleration map.
With all these improvements, the engine makes 247PS of max power with an extremely robust 500Nm of max torque, the latter incredibly juicy when you want to make those split second overtaking maneuvers. Simply get the rev needle to 1400rpm and every one of the 500 Newton-meters are at your disposal. 
This engine is also very well balanced between petrol-like feel and a sports car-like enthusiasm. So it is refined, smooth and extremely quiet; with the windows rolled up you just don’t hear the engine ticking over. In fact, prod the throttle hard and you even get petrol V6-like roar from the pipes; it makes the A7 even more engrossing. And then the performance is simply astounding. The diesel’s mighty torque takes it to a 100kmph in 6.8 seconds, and given enough room it will comfortably cruise at 200kmph or even hit its 250kmph limited top speed with ease.
The 7-speed transmission is also tuned to moderate efficiency and performance, so shorter ratios in lower gears ensure some truly epic, heart throbbing moments while taller ratios in higher gears will soothe your BP not by much but enough to extend your life by a few weeks. In fact the A7 is the first diesel I have seen whose fuel gauge fell at such a tremendous rate when driven enthusiastically, it actually made me check and recheck if the car was really a diesel or someone just swapped engine covers by mistake. But the fact of the matter is that this diesel has an overall figure of just 6kmpl so if efficiency is what you want you’re barking up the wrong 3.0.
Not much however is said about Audi’s underpinnings. Almost everyone mentions its Quattro all-wheel drive system with its 40:60 torque split and we’ll leave it at that. And now that I’ve mentioned it as well, let me add that the A7 might benefit from all-wheel drive, but the way the suspension is set up at both ends exorcises any devil in the details. The five-link at the front with twin upper and lower wishbones and self tracking trapezoidal link axle at the rear blends ride comfort and handling better than a CafĂ© Coffee Day frappe. Dial in the amounts of aluminium it sports and the things it does for the dynamics, balance and performance and you’d firmly believe steel is best used as cutlery.
This is a terribly exciting Audi to drive and I really haven’t said this much about any Audi before. And that’s not because it can hold a line or make the corner perfectly without any body roll. It’s because the weight and torque transfer are so communicative you know just how much oppo is required on the electromechanical steering to keep it aligned perfectly for the next set of corners. 
And if you just want to get a bit more serious switch off the traction control, flip up the spoiler, go to the car settings on the MMI, select individual which allows you to set different dynamic levels for the steering, the engine, suspension and of course to keep it safe, the seat belt tension. Once done, bang the throttle down, watch the tacho needle get friction burns and revel in motoring exhilaration that the A7 delivers barrels full of.
So is there a point to this four-seater four-door coupe at all? Well, at Rs 64 lakh ex-showroom, I’d pick it any day over the similarly priced and similarly posh people-carrier I’ve also driven in this issue. This is a sensational looking Audi, and its magnificence allows Audi to showcase a whole new level of cool, though I’d stop shy of terming it iconic. But before I drool some more, there’s a few more corners coming up. I’ve held my breath (saving the planet, you see) only because consumerism is letting me light up a raging bonfire! 


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