The fundamental concept of what a car is and how it should behave seems to have changed beyond all recognition in the modern era. The age of technology has led to computers being embedded in everything – and cars are no exception. From a humble saloon to a mighty supercar, the electronic brain at the heart of a modern car encroaches more and more into not just the engine and dashboard but also into the driver’s seat, often trying to interfere with the one remaining task for the contemporary driver: directly controlling a vehicle with your hands and feet.
But is this actually a bad thing? Back at the Spa 24 Hours race, Speedhunters had the chance to try out a shining new Audi S7 Sportback, the flagship luxury fastback coupé in the Audi range. This is a car that is a case in point about the application of technology; after all, this is a firm whose slogan is Vorsprung Durch Technik. From the very beginning, our minds would struggle to break through the information layer to get to the car itself.
Larry and I picked up the S7 from the spaceship showroom of Brussels Audi Center Zaventum. After struggling to fit all our kit into the cab on the ride from the airport, the general feeling was that we’d be spilling over into the passenger compartment of the S7. But the Audi’s long tail hid a surprisingly deep and copious boot that easily took our myriad of bags. Well, not easily, but successfully. Task one achieved.
The rear view wasn’t affected by the luggage – as there isn’t really much of a rear view. The heavily raked screen and dynamically-deployed rear spoiler means that there’s just a narrow slat to peer through from the driving position. But that’s because you are expected to interface with the mainframe. You are superfluous, human.
Now task two: how the hell does the car work? At least the turning-it-on bit was straightforward, as little else was…
The rest of the car’s operating processes took a briefing from the Audi rep via the medium of a UNIX course, which I took in good grace whilst Larry started snapping away on the outside.
Manoeuvring out of their tight car park was our first challenge, and straight away the almost overwhelming gadgets came to the fore – though in this instance in the best possible way. With a cherry-picker parked in what seemed a deliberate attempt at testing the Audi as quickly as possible, it meant reverting from eyes out of the window to eyes at the Audi’s big console display and trusting in the myriad parking cameras and sensors.
It has to be said that once you’ve driven a car with this level of parking aids, going back to actually turning your head seems like a real chore. As you switch between forward and reverse the cameras automatically shift, overlaying turning circles and highlighting warnings as you move, all with the option to change cameras manually.
The S7 is like driving with Big Brother: it’s covered in cameras. Forward, side, rear – even a virtualised overhead… So with alarms going off like the Audi was under missile attack, slowly we nosed safely through the obstacles and out to the open countryside beyond.
My GPS has an unnerving way of finding the smallest, least practical routes possible, and so it proved again: our first stretch of road for the S7 was a long, arrow-straight cobbled road that at least gave us an immediate sense of how smooth the ride ahead would be. Very smooth was the answer. Even on this bumpy surface the Audi was happy to glide along like it was on a cushion of air. Which it turned out it was.
Finally on a major road and ready to cruise along the autoroutes to Spa, we could relax and start paying more attention to the console controls. This is where the confusion started. I’m sure there are people who love the Connect system, but in the middle of driving I found it frustrating to use, with several different screens to look at to see the result of what you might be selecting and a clumsy, over-designed interface.
There were buttons everywhere. All over the central console, on the doors, on the wheel, behind the wheel, under the wheel… everywhere. There seems to be a deliberate effort put in to present every aspect of the car’s operation in data form, whether you want it or not, with an overwhelming number of screen display modes and outputs to choose from appearing on every available surface. But what if you wanted to concentrate on just driving the car? You had to focus ahead and just try and ignore the information that the S7 was trying to shovel into your brain.
The other thing was that our car was loaded with every accessory possible and fitted with the biggest V8 engine in the range – and yet it just wasn’t delivering the expected excitement. The stats said that it should embarrass equivalents from Mercedes and BMW – 414bhp through a seven-speed S-tronic twin-clutch unit, but we felt nothing…
Then we discovered The Setting.
This changed our outlook from merely pleased we were on the way to Spa to being giggling idiots.
In Dynamic mode the Audi came alive: it revved higher, the suspension stiffened, shifts through the auto box were faster and harder and everything more taut. Even better was the combination of Dynamic and using the sequential paddles. Suddenly we could hear that V8 engine roar and feel the power-delivery through our backsides. The data layer had been penetrated! We were out in the open!
The issue is that the Audi’s Efficiency mode effectively slashes the engine into being a 2-litre V4, cutting cylinders as necessary to make everything more sedate. But surely with a car like this you would always want it set to brutal, otherwise what would the point be? Buy a sedate middle-of-the-road saloon instead.
The S7 features permanent Quattro all-wheel drive: our car also had the sports differential which splits power between the rear wheels for even more rear drive-oriented traction.
This torque-vectoring nominally delivers 60 percent rearward bias, rising automatically to 80 when needed.
The adaptive air suspension can also change profile whilst on the move, lowering the car at speed to ensure a more streamlined stance. This could be set using the driving mode; for us, stabbing gleefully at Dynamic meant we stayed hugging the ground all the time.
The optional carbon ceramic brakes were insanely efficient at bringing this big car to a stop – not that we had to put them to the test in any serious circumstance, thankfully. They last four times as long as conventional steel disks and are highly fade-resistant, but most pleasing is the lack of dust they throw off. Cleaning wheels is my least favourite chore.
So it would turn out that we’d picked up a car of two very different personalities. On the surface, a technology-laden, computer controlled supercar, fighting against the driver to retain control of every aspect of operation. Underneath, a slavering beast just waiting to be let off the leash. This shouldn’t have come as a big surprise, bearing in mind the S7′s engine – a 4-litre TFSI twin-turbo V8 – it just took a while to find it underneath all the layers of control.
Another piece of technology that could not be faulted and was something we were all cooing over during our time in the S7 was its head-up display. This is such a no-brainer that it should be a default option for all cars (expense being a factor of course…): you keep your eyes on the road at all times, and Audi’s implementation was refreshingly simple, displaying just the key information required – completely at odds with the rest of the interior displays. Now in the right mode and with the head-up activated, we were getting closer to understanding this car.
At the Spa media centre, Larry and I did risk opening the bonnet, to see just what was underneath. Not the BlueGene supercomputer, but it was still pretty scary. The bonnet has a huge surface area, so the size of its contents was hardly a surprise. But it was how full the bay was that was just off-putting.
It might be the most compact twin-turbo unit in the world, but it’s still a big lump and it took up the entire bay: plastics shrouds covered all surrounding areas, presenting an almost unidentifiable solid mass of metal and plastic and a definite no-entry sign to tinkering.
So we took it out and had a look.
(Not really, Audi.)
We quickly shut the hood and moved on to pretty things again.
But what Dynamic mode and a twin-turbo V8 does mean is that when you see an S7 coming at you…
…in the blink of an eye it’s going to be on you and howling past. The S7 is a seriously fast car when that magic mode is selected.
That said, even in Dynamic things never seemed on the edge, despite all the extra power, and everything feels almost too safe. There’s little lag on acceleration – the maximum torque is delivered from 1,500rpm – but it does have an awful lot of weight to shift: almost two tons. This makes the light steering even more surprising, though I found it a little too light and remote.
In front of you is that leather-bound three spoke multi-function steering wheel, and we had the full carbon-spec cockpit: all the inserts were carbon, and matched with the matte black surfaces it gave the car a very modern, sci-fi feel.
I’m not sure this application of carbon is really saving that much weight overall…
The beautifully stitched leather seats back and front were a joy to sit in – and multi-adjustable in eight dimensions or so, meaning less complaining when swapping drivers.
Space in the back was more than adequate, fitting in a Larry Chen plus cameras with ease.
The bad thing is that you can’t help but want to look at the big console display all the time, and maybe just once see if you can drive the car just looking at the screen. Being responsible, we never did of course…
For me the MMI navigation system seemed a return to that over-complication again.
The theory is that you can use a touch-screen pad to ‘write’ letters, but the fact you then have to juggle this with remembering which way to turn the Connect button and then which confirmation button to press meant it was best left to a passenger or done when stationary. Or just ignored.
But once up and running – another moment of revelation! The directions are displayed as icons on the head-up, again cleanly and simply, providing perfectly clear instructions. But why not just make the whole big display touch-screen?…
From the outside the lines of the S7 belie its size: the front styling makes the S7 appear low and aggressive, though in that understated Audi way it doesn’t scream performance. It would be easy to confuse this car for a more regular Audi saloon in passing. Though not when the throttle is applied.
Fastback styling is always a good thing, though the angles seemed a tad ’90s to my eyes – perhaps because of those rear light clusters and sharp tail-line. Still, quad-exhausts and the long hard edge down the side return quickly to the positives.
Long term memory from our experience with the S7 Sportback? A proper, old-school grand tourer that’s been left in a science lab for just a little bit too long. It would perhaps be best if Audi sold the car with an IT grad as a permanent riding mechanic, just to operate the all-encompassing gizmos. This is the second big grand tourer I’ve driven recently that has this technology layer that wants to redefine the driver-car relationship. With what I imagine is the target market for this size of car, I would imagine that there are a lot of baffled owners still stuck in their garage, unable to get the car out and searching for the correct ctrl-alt-delete equivalent, then eventually phoning their teenage sons.
But disconnect the superfluous technology (i.e., turn off your targeting computer but keep the head-up and parking sensors) and go all Dynamic, all the time – and then you see what the S7 is all about. Lithe and powerful, graceful and comfortable, with just enough V8 grunt to keep that smile on your face. Just don’t look at the computer. Never look at it in the eye…
Maybe it's just me, but with that much technology I could actually care less if some idiot stances it out...it will probably make my day.
I don't understand todays car makers. Endless development to get the most strength out of the smallest amount of metal. Design a car out of it. Build an engine that gets the biggest amount power out of as little fuel as possible.
And once you have that super light and rigid frame with that superb engine, fill every cubic centimeter with cables, sensors and gadgets most people will never need or understand. MMI, 8-dim adjustable seats, speakers in every corner, that stupid system the injects fuel into the exhaust to make gear shifts more audible (!)... Its like the chassis and engine department at Audi are in a constant battle with the electronics and gadgets department.
Wondering how much weigth one could rip out of that car when building a race car out of it...
Jonathan, two things: the MMI system is easy to use if it's explained properly. Sounds like it wasn't, or perhaps you didn't pay attention well enough. Either way, just remember the four corners! Also, it's "quattro", lowercase q. Uppercase "Quattro" refers to the Coupe model 1981-1984.
One more thing: I'm immensely jealous of you! I left my position as an Audi salesperson just days before I was scheduled to go to an Audi track day and thrash on the new S6, S7, and S8. I did get some time in an R8 V10 Spyder during my time there, at least.
Its' a vehicle which demonstrates the cutting edge of automotive technology. You don't have to like it. I drive a car with roll-down windows, manual gearbox, even manual steering, but I appreciate this car for what it is. Engineering genius!
Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more obvious that we -do- have to like it. I know of no modern car that will do 0-60 in less than 8 seconds with which you can rebuild anything on the engine block yourself. I drive an 84 VW. I can change my own thermostat, I can tweak the fuel ratio, timing, anything. Even with a new -base- model shitbox from Ford, it seems you can't do anything to them yourself! Damn, you can't even get standard unless you're buying a cargo van. :/
I generally don't like cars that brake, steer or accelerate or even think for me. Did you try the Lane Assistant or Ride Distance Control!? They work but ... i feel it won't be to long till i'm not allowed to do "illegal" speeding or u-turning. The Audi even recognises road signs itself!! Lowering the speed in road works .... All in all it's definately to much for me.I've got a good friend who works at Audi. Their business cars are S8's or Q7s and he enjoys all those features on long distance trips. Turn the car on, set the satnav, bit of steering (sometimes) and you're there. You don't even have to touch the pedals. I couldn't live with that.