The Audi A7: A High-Tech Test Drive

In our day behind the wheel of the A7 (thanks, Audi!), we checked out "smart car" technology that helps you parallel park, learns your driving preferences, keeps you out of accidents, connects you to the Web, and does a whole lot more.

A7 Pushes 'Smart Car' Envelope

Automakers are adding more “smart” features to their cars as the technologies get cheaper, and as car buyers express more interest in them. Audi has taken that tendency to the next level, adding an impressive amount of high-tech features to its new 2012 A7 “sportback” sedan. The car carries a hefty $59,250 sticker price for the base model, but can run to $65,580 or more for a top-of-the-line model with all features included.

Regardless of its price, we were impressed; and if you like a vehicle decked out with the latest technology, the A7 may be the car you’re looking for. I had the pleasure recently of seeing these technologies in action, and here’s what I found. (All images courtesy of Ed Oswald, except "Night Vision" courtesy of Audi USA)

About the Car

Before diving into the technology behind Audi’s “smartest” car yet, let's look at the 2012 A7 itself. In few words, it’s a beast. The easiest way to describe it is as hatchback meets luxury sedan meets wagon meets sports car, though Audi refers to it as a “sportback.” Under the hood is a 3.0L TFSI V6 engine with belt-driven supercharger and direct fuel injection. The engine is capable of 310 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque--and that power is something to feel.

Even though my main goal was to look at technologies built into the car, the auto enthusiast in me wanted to see what this car could do. When I stepped on the gas the car responded with little lag. But give the supercharger 3 or 4 seconds to kick in, and you’ll be thrown back in your seat. 0 to 60 miles per hour? The A7 does it in 5.4 seconds. For a car of its size, that’s pretty impressive.

Control Panel

The A7's control panel isn't a touchscreen as I had hoped (less expensive models from sister company Volkswagen have already adopted touchscreens). Instead Audi supplies a thumbwheel dial and buttons for navigating through the cars functions. I found this setup unintuitive at times, especially since I was inclined to turn the wheel clockwise to move down through menu options--only to find that doing so moves the cursor upward.

Multi Media Interface

Central to the smart features of the A7 is Audi's Multi Media Interface (MMI), which serves as the computerized brain of the car. A display located in the center of the front console handles vehicle features such as navigation (covered later), radio, telephone, and media.

Drawing With the Trackpad

Another way to interface with the MMI, where the functionality is available (such as in the telephone directory or in navigation), is to use the trackpad, located to the left of the gearshift in the center console. I used my finger to draw letters, which I found that the system learned to recognize rather quickly. It may be unwise to try to spell out an entire name--you’re probably better off drawing the first letter and then using the thumbwheel to zero in--but using the touchpad may help in certain situations.

Tweaking Car Performance

Another neat MMI feature is the ability to let you tweak the car's performance settings based on your driving preferences. The Comfort option is your basic setting, while the Dynamic setting supports for more-spirited driving. The Auto option will change the settings based on how you're driving the car at any given moment.

If you’re a real tinkerer, select Individual, which allows you to modify transmission, steering, and engine settings individually, thereby affecting your shift points, steering boost, and throttle performance, respectively, according to Audi.

Built-in Cellular Capability

Audi was quick to point out to us that the A7 is the first car with integrated Google Earth, which also supports Google’s local search capabilities. This is all possible because the car comes with a built-in cellular data capability, provided by T-Mobile. It worked fairly well in my experience, and I was driving in an area that's sometimes starved for coverage by the nation’s fourth-largest carrier.

Audi didn't explain its choice of T-Mobile, whose service isn’t stellar, but both Audi and so is T-Mobile's parent company Deustche Telekom are German companies. Either way, integrated wireless data carries another benefit: in-car Wi-Fi. So as long as you have service, you’ll be able to keep your passengers happy with Internet goodness for the long trip.

Voice Recognition

Basic voice commands let you navigate the A7's most commonly accessed features by pressing a button on the steering wheel. Nevertheless, Ford’s SYNC system, available in much cheaper cars, has Audi beat here.

At times the system had trouble understanding my commands, which I attribute to excessive background and road noise. But it's a start--and something the German automaker can likely improve on in the future.

Heads Up Display

Audi put a lot of effort into making the A7’s long list of high-tech features as nondistracting as possible. One way it accomplished this was by placing a stripped-down version of the MMI--the "heads up display"--in the center of the instrument panel. A smaller navigation jog wheel for this screen sits on the left side of the steering wheel. From here you can change radio channels, see navigation instructions, view speed in digital form, and access a wealth of other trip-related information.

Economy Program

One feature that I found really cool was the “economy program,” which tells you how many gallons of gas per hour you are using to power certain features. In the screenshot at left, the economy program is reporting that at that running the air conditioner was costing me a little over 1/8 gallon of gas every hour. But hey, it was 89 degrees out!

Accident Avoidance

The A7 has plenty of features to keep you safe on the road. Accident avoidance uses sensors located in the front of the car to detect objects. If you get too close, the car automatically slows down or stops in order to prevent an accident. These same sensors help the car maintain a safe distance from other vehicles while in cruise control: if the car in front of you slows down, your car will follow suit, until the car is out of your way.

Night Vision

Audi also includes a fascinating feature that I couldn’t test (as I did my driving at midday and early evening) called night vision assistance. Essentially the car's systems use night vision technology to detect pedestrians in the car's path, highlighting them in the heads up display to alert the driver. My understanding is that the automobile's accident avoidance systems will work for live objects such as pedestrians as well.

Side Assist

Another safety feature that I appreciated when I was testing the A7 in traffic was called Side Assist. Sensors on the side-view mirrors look for vehicles passing into the car's blind spot. When they do, the system illuminates a yellow light on the side-view mirror on that side of the vehicle. An advanced version of this feature is available on top-end models of the A7, but not on the car that I was driving. If you ignore the warning and attempt to pull into a lane where the car would collide with another vehicle, the Audi forces you back into its original lane to prevent the collision.

Parking Assistance

Bad parkers will love this feature. On the main MMI display, as you back up, the car's rearview camera will show what's behind you and provide a guide to where the car will be. I found this feature a godsend for backing out my cockeyed driveway--perfect every time--something I couldn’t do consistently well the traditional way. The back of the car has sensors, too, so the A7 has you covered on that end as well.

Somewhat surprisingly, despite all this technological wizardry, you still have to parallel-park on your own; there's no active parallel-parking assistance on the A7 as on other cars in its price class.

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