Flying under the radar
There’s something to be said for the concept of an automotive sleeper – a car which appears unassuming and understated at first glance, yet hides some serious punch underneath a sober suit. Sleepers don’t attract much attention from either our friends in law enforcement or from the boy racers, meaning that you’re generally able to enjoy the serious performance at your disposal without being hassled by any undesirable elements.
This is the kind of car that Audi does so well: the kind of flyer which doesn’t advertise its abilities at all yet manages eye-watering point-to-point speed. But then the RS-cars came along, and suddenly bulging wheelarches and aggressive air intakes became par for the course. The new RS3 has a visage which brings the offspring of a biltong slicer and cheese grater to my mind, for instance. You know that an RS Audi is monstrous just by looking at it, and it definitely hits a bull’s eye with its target market, but it might just be a bit much for the buyer who prefer their fast Audis with a bit less cockiness.
Fortunately, Audi hasn’t abandoned this fanbase: their S-cars (not to be confused with S-line trim packages) might sit one rung below the RS-cars on the Audi performance ladder, but they still offer the desirable combination of stonking performance with a relatively anonymous appearance. Unless the Audi S-car in question is a dark blue S7 Sportback with 21-inch alloy wheels, that is.
I can’t recall driving anything with more than two doors which garnered so much adoration from onlookers in years – Audi’s interpretation of the big 5-door coupé theme certainly goes down well with the spectators. Taking some styling themes from the 1970 Audi Coupé (that kicked-up rear side glass and fastback design) and mixing them with a sleek, tapered form results in a shape that is both modern and timeless, especially now that its mid-life update has added swanky sequential indicators and amazingly effective LED headlamps to the mix (along with some extra power and upgraded cabin electronics).
Stepping inside, you meet a typical Audi interior: stylish with generally sound ergonomics, and assembled with top-quality materials. The A7/S7 design’s age does show in minor areas such as the multimedia interface (not quite as intuitive as an A3, for instance), but it’s still a very nice place to be. There’s plenty of room for 4 occupants, a truly cavernous luggage compartment, and the lowered seating position (compared to a normal sedan) imparts a sporty feel to the proceedings.
This sporty feeling is wholeheartedly supported by the way the S7 moves down the road. Putting it bluntly, it goes like stink. Motive power is provided by a twin-turbo charged 4.0-litre V8 engine (also found in the RS6/7, S8 and some Bentleys), tuned to deliver “only” 331 kW and 550 Nm in this application. That’s according to Audi, but I have a suspicion that those figures are somewhat conservative – or maybe it’s just the sonorous rumble coming from the optional sports exhaust system fooling my perceptions.
The 0-100 km/h sprint is officially dismissed in 4.6 seconds, but it feels even quicker, especially when using the very easy launch control function – a fact borne out by my smartphone app, which registered 4.1 second runs over and over. It doesn’t peter out at higher speeds either, charging past the national speed limit with disdain and rocketing into the range where you would become headline news on the morning news, should the metro cops have a radar camera handy. In short, the S7 is so rapid that it actually becomes hard to justify the existence of the much pricier, even more powerful RS7.
The 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox deserves as much praise as that brilliant V8 engine, being equally responsible for the S7’s sparkling performance. Unerringly smooth and well-mannered in gentle driving, quick to respond to sudden throttle inputs, and incredibly quick-shifting when the accelerator pedal meets the carpet, it just about equals Porsche’s brilliant implementation of a similar transmission in the 911 turbo.
It’s not all fire and brimstone however, for the S7 also has a gentler side to its personality. Selecting Efficiency- or Comfort modes on the Audi Drive Select menu relaxes the air suspension, adds extra assistance to the steering, mutes the exhaust, and changes gearbox- and engine programming. In these modes, the S7 turns into a (slightly more) efficient cruiser, wafting along on a wave of low-rev torque and simply ignoring road surface imperfections.
Not even the combination of Gauteng roadworks and 21-inch tyres upsets its composure in these efficient modes, even as it tries to save fuel by switching off half of its cylinders while cruising. This cylinder-count change-over is absolutely imperceptible, due in part to the clever active engine mountings, which basically vibrate just enough to dampen any engine vibrations. There’s similar technology inside the cabin too, where a computer “listens” to the ambient noise and then plays the exact opposite sound waves to create a noise free zone around the occupants. These kinds of thoughtful yet invisible technology abound in the S7, but to document them all would take up whatever’s left of my column space.
If the engineers applied clever technology to turn the S7 into a luxury car as much as it is a straight-line stormer, they invoked magic with the handling dynamics. Simply put, the S7 handles like no other Audi I can remember (R8 excepted, of course). There’s the massive road grip you’d expect from a quattro Audi – whatever the surface, it never scrabbles for traction – but then there’s also the way it goes around corners. Forget about under- or oversteer, for this machine just steers.
A large part of the credit for the S7’s impeccable behaviour goes to its very clever all-wheel drive system, which not only shuffles torque between the front- and rear axles, but also side to side on the rear axle via an active rear differential. This ensures that not a single kilowatt goes to waste, and helps the car to go around corners by applying torque to push the car in the desired direction. There’s a lot of computing power and even more genius programming at work here…
The really brave might explore the outer limits of its considerable cornering prowess, where the nose would gently push wide under steady-state conditions or the rear end might casually swing around under heavy throttle applications (all this only happens with the ESP off though, and with a lot of provocation), but for the most part, the S7 simply goes exactly where you point it. There isn’t any real feedback from the front tyres through the steering wheel, but the car’s overall behaviour is so confidence-inspiring that the driver soon learns to trust the car’s inherent balance. The brakes are likewise trustworthy: even though the S7 uses traditional steel disks, retardation is consistent, fade-free and very powerful.
So the Audi S7 goes, stops and handles like a sports car, and it can be as comfortable as a luxury car. It’s also very good-looking, opulently trimmed and loaded with technology. Could this be the perfect car? Almost – but the perfect car is yet to be made. The truth is that any gripes with the S7 are so minor as to be nit-picky, but they must be noted nonetheless. The luggage compartment might be capacious, but its shape means that it’s a major stretch to reach anything which might have slid to the front of the boot.
It’s also a bit of a pain to park, because those stylish, slim side windows don’t allow much of a view to the outside world. And finally, the sunroof looks like an old-fashioned afterthought – its small aperture is unusual in an era of large-pane panoramic items. Oh, and it’s still pretty thirsty, efficiency mode and cylinder de-activation notwithstanding: Audi’s official average consumption figure of 9.3 ℓ/100 km will probably only be matched after a gentle freeway cruise, while real-world figures will be nearer the 13.5 ℓ/100 km mark.
And that’s about it. I honestly can’t think of any other car that does so much, so well, and with so little effort for either driver or vehicle. With such a broad spread of talents, it even looks like a bit of a bargain: you definitely won’t be disappointed if you dropped R1 221 000 on this German masterpiece.
– Martin Pretorius
Audi S7 Sportback 4.0 TFSI S-Tronic
Price: R 1 221 000
Engine: 3993 cc, V8, twin-turbo petrol
Power/Torque: 311 kW @ 5800-6400 r/min, 550 Nm @ 1400-5700 r/min
Gearbox: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Drive: Permanent AWD, 60/40 default rear-bias torque split
Performance: 0-100 km/h in 4.6 seconds, 250 km/h maximum speed (limited)
Consumption: 9.3 ℓ/100 km (Claimed average)
Also consider: BMW 650i Gran Coupe, Mercedes CLS 500