Audi has struck a major blow in the battle for diesel supremacy with its new range of TDI 'Ultra' engines, and now the brand has added a new weapon to its efficiency arsenal – a 3.0-litre V6 with 215bhp.
Our first chance to try it out came in the form of the face-lifted A7 Sportback which – along with its efficient new diesel engine and tweaked looks – has been given revised transmissions.
Equipped with the new Ultra engine, this elegant four-door coupe returns a staggering official economy figure of 60.1mpg, and pumps out just 122g/km of CO2 – that's less than some family hatchbacks. This is partly down to a new seven-speed 'S tronic' automatic gearbox, which replaces the old Multitronic CVT 'box.
There are two other diesel engines to choose from if you want a bit more power; a 268bhp version of the 3.0-litre TDI with four-wheel drive, and an even more potent 316bhp twin-turbo V6.
On the petrol side, there’s a supercharged V6, while the high-performance S7 version gets a 4.0-litre V8 with clever cylinder-on-demand fuel-saving technology. Both petrol models have four-wheel drive as standard.
On the outside, the A7 has a new grille, tweaked LED daytime running lights, and full LED headlights as standard, which will make the new A7 even more recognisable to other motorists as it sweeps past in the outside lane of the nation’s motorways.
What is the 2014 Audi A7 like to drive?
We tried two versions of the revised A7 – the new Ultra and its more potent, four-wheel drive relation, both of which were fitted with optional adaptive air suspension.
The first thing that strikes you in both cars is the low-speed refinement. There’s hardly any diesel rumble at idle, and if you leave the auto ‘box to its own devices, it will rifle through its seven ratios smoothly, keeping revs to a minimum and helping you making serene progress.
This incredible mechanical refinement also has benefits when you fancy driving a bit faster. The smoothness and flexibility of the V6 engine mean you spin the revs right up to the redline without the motor ever feeling coarse or strained.
Of course, that redline arrives much quicker in the 268bhp version. It has a useful 163lb ft more torque than the Ultra, so it feels considerably faster when overtaking. The Ultra model is far from slow, but there have clearly been sacrifices made to help it emit such a small amount of CO2.
Even so, it will comfortably outrun its nearest rival, the Mercedes CLS220 Bluetec, beating it from 0-62mph by more than a second. The new seven-speed gearbox does an excellent job of kicking down a couple of cogs to help give you a shove in the back when the road does open up. There's also the option of shifting gears yourself via the steering wheel-mounted paddles, which are a bit small and hard to reach. Nonetheless, the gearbox responds quickly to commands.
However, this wonderful new transmission does expose some of the A7’s weaknesses. At a steady cruise on the motorway, the shortage of engine noise makes the wind fluttering around the mirrors and the road noise coming through the wheelarches that bit more obvious.
Cornering in the front-wheel drive A7 Ultra also reveals its tendency to understeer. If you push too hard into a bend, and the whole body leans over, and it’s a little too easy to get the front tyres squealing in protest and giving up grip. This is far less of an issue in the Quattro model, which feels a lot more planted and offers much more traction, allowing you to carve through corners at higher speeds.
Not that the A7 really encourages more spirited driving. The steering is accurate, but doesn't provide much feedback, and is too light mid-corner to give the driver real confidence. Meanwhile, the brake pedal feels quite mushy.
Our only other gripe is with the ride comfort on the S-Line versions we tried. That's because the A7 thumps over the occasional pothole around town, although it glides over more rounded bumps – especially at high speeds. The 19-inch alloys fitted to our test cars probably didn’t help matters, but even so, based on our experience with the pre-facelifted model, SE trim is a better bet.
What is the 2014 Audi A7 like inside?
There aren't as many changes to the cabin as there are to the oily bits underneath, but there wasn’t exactly much wrong with the interior in the first place.
Small changes include an optional new version of the MMI infotainment system, with a more powerful processor for better graphics, a touchpad controller that allows you to pinch and zoom on maps or swipe through lists, and the option of silver leather seat trim.
To be honest, we really didn’t notice much difference between the new MMI system and the old one, and despite being upgraded, it’s still not quite as slick or easy to use as BMW’s iDrive, with a few too many buttons on the dash, and more sub-menus to cycle through.
The good news is that no matter which A7 Sportback you choose, it'll have a beautifully built cabin. All of the plastics and metals fit together perfectly, and all feel dense and luxurious to the touch.
There's good space in the front for robustly sized adults, and the rear seats aren't too cramped – although that swoopy styling means that tall passengers in the back may find headroom a little tight. A third rear-seat occupant will also feel a bit cattle-class, whatever size they are.
Still, the hatchback design means the boot can carry an impressive 535 litres of luggage, and the deep rectangular shape means you could easily squeeze in two or three large suitcases.
All versions of the A7 come with sat-nav, a pop-up colour screen for the infotainment system and leather upholstery for the seats, while the equipment list also now includes brighter full LED headlights, with the option to upgrade to the snazzy ‘Matrix’ lights from the A8 saloon.
S line versions have aggressive styling details and larger alloy wheels, along with the aforementioned firmer suspension, and there are new options, including a ‘phone box’ that uses the car’s radio aerial to boost your phone signal in remote areas, simply by placing it into an allocated slot in the central armrest.
Should I buy one?
Definitely. The A7 Sportback was already a very accomplished thing, and these punchy, refined and highly efficient new V6 diesel engines only enhance its executive car credentials.
Company buyers are likely to favour the Ultra model. It may have a bit less traction and mid-range clout than its four-wheel-drive siblings, but that low CO2 output will translate into much cheaper tax bills, and in the SE Executive trim we’d recommend, its list price is £625 less than the slower, noisier and less powerful Mercedes CLS220 Bluetec AMG Line.
True, the A7 still isn't the most exciting car to drive, but for anyone doing regular motorway trips the superb refinement, smooth gearbox and high cabin quality may tempt them away from sharper handling (admittedly smaller) rivals, such as the BMW 435d xDrive Gran Coupe.
One thing that is clear is Audi has laid down the gauntlet with its new (and rapidly expanding) range of diesel engines, and it’s now up to the brand’s rivals to try to catch up.
What Car? says...
BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe
Audi A7 3.0 TDI Ultra 218 S tronic
Engine size 3.0-litre diesel
Price from £45,875
Torque 295lb ft
0-62mph 7.3 seconds
Top speed 149mph
Fuel economy 60.1mpg
Audi A7 3.0 TDI Quattro 272 S tronic
Engine size 3.0-litre diesel
Price from £50,215
Torque 428lb ft
0-62mph 5.7 seconds
Top speed 155mph (limited)
Fuel economy 54.3mpg