Payne: The sequel to Audi's A7 masterpiece

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly identify Leonardo Da Vinci as the artist of the Mona Lisa.

How do you remake the Mona Lisa?

Leonardo da Vinci didn’t have to, of course. His masterpiece has stood the test of time as one of the world’s great works of art. But performance automakers have to re-create their signature works every decade or so. A new generation of buyers demands it.

The iconic 1964 Ferrari 250 GTO was followed 20 years later by the 288 GTO. Ford’s distinctive Mustang is now in its sixth generation. The Porsche 911 its ninth. Audi’s A7 sportback sedan became an instant classic when it debuted in 2010. Now comes A7 2.0, and enthusiasts have had our faces pressed against the showroom glass to see how the beauty looks.

“It’s a great honor to design the next A7,” said exterior designer Sebastiano Russo, who acknowledges the heavy burden on his shoulders even as his cherubic, 36-year-old face betrays no hint of strain. “Honestly, it was a lot of fun.”

Russo (ah, those Italian designers have it in the blood) and his team have largely succeeded, evolving the stunning swan on wheels with an even racier tail, sculpted face and distinctive, horizontal rear-light signature. The symphony of line is marred only by a choppier shoulder line that replaces the previous taut, stem-to-stern ridge that danced in step with the arcing roof line like Astaire shadowing Rogers.

It is hard to underestimate the impact the Audi A7 has had on auto design in its brief history.

The 2019 Audi A7 shares the same bones and engine as sibling Audi A6, but gets its own sheetmetal and a price tag some $8 grand north.

In the last two years I have tested three major new releases inspired by Audi’s gem. The elegant five-door Kia Stinger sportback is unabashedly billed as the budget A7. The Buick Regal was inspired not just by the Audi’s design language, but also its hatchback utility. And the Chevy Malibu brings A7’s coupe-like style to the mainstream sedan segment (even if it could have benefited from an Audi-like face-lift as well).

A7 has even inspired a junior family member — a derivative, handsome A5. But the new Audi is more than a hot bod. This German runway model is sexy and smart.

Sharing the same platform and technology as its A6 sedan sibling (but with sheet metal all its own), the A7 brings to market a host of Audi innovations that will redefine Audi for a new generation of buyers.

Most eye-opening is an all-new MMI. That’s Man Machine Interface for you auto geeks, infotainment system to everyone else. Having perfected the operation of a remote tablet screen by console rotary dial, Audi tore out its old system for twin, knob-less haptic-touch screens.

I can already hear my Audi pals screaming, heads in their hands.

Noooo! I loved my rotary dial!
Didn’t Audi learn from Cadillac that haptic touch is a curse?

But there is method to Audi’s madness. As humans become increasingly attached to their smartphones (I just had mine surgically implanted into my hand), Audi wants to make its interface a touchscreen as well.

While the rotary faithful will protest that Audi’s traditional solution was both safe — the remote screen was high on the dash in driver’s field of vision) — and easily accessible (the rotary within easy reach for all), Audi has two words for you: click and voice.

The touchscreen not only uses haptic feedback to simulate a button when you touch a screen icon — it also emits a discernable “click” to confirm your selection. It makes for easy navigation of the screen, and I could move icons around, smartphone-like, depending on where I preferred them. Sure, the touchscreen is harder to operate when the car is in motion — the big advantage of rotary dial — but Audi’s solution is to make voice commands as direct as your smartphone.

For example, “Navigate to Starbucks” is met by a list of nearby coffee shops. Like Google Maps. Or a Tesla touch screen which is currently the automotive standard. Ditto other voice commands for climate and seats (which are controlled by the lower touch screen).

This upgraded tech is complemented by Audi’s stunning Virtual Cockpit, which now displays even crisper 3D Google Earth images for navigation. All this tech is then wrapped in a cool new interior design.

Where Sebastiano’s exterior update is evolutionary, the interior design is as radical departure from the last gen as the touch screens. Think 1960’s Swedish furniture design with its bold, blocky graphics. The console touch screen is housed inside a dramatic, chrome-bezeled, guitar-shaped graphic. And since many industry models were baselining to Audi’s previous design ethic (see Hyundai, Mazda) the new look is refreshing.

Of course, motorheads like me can only sit idly by admiring design for so long. Eventually, our right foot needs exercise. The Audi does not disappoint.

Beneath Mona Lisa’s face is the athletic muscle of Lindsey Vonn. The toned, all-wheel-drive all-the-time chassis is impressively intuitive given the big sedan’s 2-ton-plus girth. Over the parched hills of Napa Valley, California, the A7 loved to play. Firm wheel, all-wheel-steering, Dynamic mode for quicker-shifting, dual-clutch, 7-speed tranny.

California is as thick with cops as it is with fire smoke these days, so go quickly at your peril. Slow it down with Audi’s nifty Adaptive Cruise Control.

Those twin nostrils in the front grille are radar and laser devices that monitor short-and-long range objects, while the computer also uses GPS to self-brake for corners. Hustling along Napa’s back roads at 60 mph, the A7 automatically backed down to 48 mph for a 45-degree turn – accelerating back to speed out of the apex. Smart.

Running all this electronic wizardry is a segment first: a 48-volt lithium ion battery tucked under that beautiful tail. Where past “hybrids” have used their additional batteries (the Audi’s 12-volter still starts the car) for fuel efficiency (Prius) or power (Acura NSX), the A7’s pack is largely dedicated to electronics and smoothing out the engine's stops-start function at stop lights.

Speaking of lights, the A7 is a sequel of another sort. It introduces a new light signature to the brand that pioneered LED running lights in 2004. For its next act A7 uses multiple, upright LEDs to create a digital signature. Unlock the car and the Rockettes line of LEDs creates an animated light signature.

Think of it as Mona Lisa 2.0 giving you a wink.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Audi A7

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: $68,995 base including $995 destination fee ($85,240 as tested) 

Powerplant: 3.0-liter, turbocharged V-6

Power: 335 horsepower, 369 pound-feet torque 

Transmission: 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic 

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.2 seconds (mfr)

Weight: 4,332 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 22 city/29 highway/25 combined 

Report card

Highs: Hot bod; smart tech

Lows: Audi faithful may miss the rotary controller; good looks comes at a price

Overall: 4 stars