Audi A7 fills the page

“There is nothing more liberating than a blank piece of paper,” reckon Audi. “It’s the chance to create something original.”

The A7 may not be quite as groundbreaking as the marketers will have you believe. Cynics may (incorrectly) dismiss it as little more than a bigger A5 Sportback. And visually it harks back to the company’s 100 Coupé from the ’70s. But the stylish, sophisticated five-door coupe certainly sees the German manufacturer entering new territory.

Like the A1, launched in South Africa last month to entice New Polo buyers over to the four-rings brand, the A7 sees Audi target a market segment currently dominated by the Mercedes-Benz CLS, BMW 5 Series GT, Jaguar XF, and Porsche Panamera.

So the challenger needs the elegance and performance of a coupe, the comfort of a luxury sedan, and the space and practicality of an estate.

That’s a lot to ask, but the Audi A7 delivers handsomely on all counts.

Almost five metres long and two metres wide, the Sportback is, quite simply, big. But, at just under 1.5 metres tall, it’s also low and sleek – and very very good looking. From the familiar oversized single-frame grille up front, via the frameless doors and arching roofline, to the smoothly sculpted rear with its integrated rear spoiler that appears at highway speeds, the car is more striking in the flesh than in the photos accompanying this story.

Inside, the four-seater is as luxurious and refined as you’d expect a car in the R700 000 bracket to be. The low-gloss burr walnut trim looks nothing like an assembly-line product and is tastefully complemented throughout by fine Milano leather and aluminum finishes a la A8. Of course premium features like ambient lighting, sound system with Bluetooth multimedia connection, keyless entry, park distance control, and advanced MMI (Multi-Media Interface) operating system all come standard. The latter, featuring an LED screen that slides out from the dashboard 007-style, controls everything from the suspension settings and the radio to the optional satnav and heads-up display.

It’s not just the driver who’s fully catered for. The back seat – with space for three; clearly designed for two – is less spacious than the limo-like 5 Series GT, but nonetheless there’s still plenty of leg and headroom, without compromising on the vast boot. There’s 535 litres of space back there – which increases to 1390 with the rear seats down – easily accessed via the motorised tailgate.

So the A7 is pretty and practical, but how does it drive?

Built on the same chassis as the A6 sedan expected in South Africa later in 2011, the new Sportback feels quietly composed as we cruise effortlessly along the highways of Cape Town’s southern suburbs. But, despite the supremely silent cabin and ultra-refined performance, this isn’t one of those luxury liners simply designed to float through life, completely out of touch with the world outside the tinted windows.

Sure, with control and safety systems more numerous and advanced than those on the space shuttle, the A7 boasts such driver aids as active counter-steering assistance to help you stabilise the car. Yet – thanks to the grip offered by the quattro all-wheel drive system, the no-nonsense seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch gearbox, and the oomph of the 3.0-litre turbodiesel and supercharged petrol engine – the Sportback offers a responsive, exhilirating drive if you care to push it. As we hit the windy Franschoek pass – where the car’s poise and balance really come to the fore – or tear along the quiet backroads of Stellenbosch, the 220kW TFSI in particular stands out for its gutsy performance.

Hit the accelerator, flick up through the gears with the steeringwheel-mounted flappy paddles, and watch the needle rise up from zero to 100km/h in the space of 5.6 seconds. It’s no R8 barnstormer but you’ll have little luck getting as much fun out of the A8.

Despite such performance levels, average fuel consumption for the 440Nm petrol unit is 8.2 litres per 100 kilometres, while the effortless V6 TDI – equally comfortable trundling along Muizenberg’s main road as gliding along the N2 en route to the Cape winelands – uses just six litres.

It’s smooth, it’s sensible, but it’s no slouch. Thanks to the 500Nm of torque on hand, the turbodiesel A7 hits 100km/h from standstill within 6.5 seconds, en route to a governed top speed of 250km/h.

Speeds like that don’t have a place on South Africa’s roads but a sublime all-round package like the A7 – no longer a blank piece of paper – certainly does.

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