Editors' note, July 25, 2012: One year later, we've taken a second look at our Editors' Choice award winner and the 2011 Tech Car of the Year, the 2012 Audi A7, and have updated this review with more photos and even more detail about the Audi Connect system, including its Wi-Fi hot-spot functionality.
As Audi neatly fills in the odd numbers of its passenger car model A designations, it pushes the technology to new heights. The all-new 2012 Audi A7, which slots in between the A6 and A8, is the latest Audi tech tour de force. And this car carries such impressive technology that it sets the bar for other automakers to reach.
It comes with the best navigation system available among current cars, using Google satellite maps to show the position of the car on a photographic landscape. The A7 is the most connected car around, integrating Google local search with the navigation system, and even listing nearby landmarks with descriptions downloaded from Wikipedia.
In style, the A7 follows the form of the Porsche Panamera and Aston Martin Rapide, with a four-door sedanlike passenger compartment and a hatchback cargo area. However, Audi managed to keep the car's looks tame enough not to inspire the same sort of negative reaction stirred up by the Panamera. The A7's fastback design does not look bulky or awkward.
At first glance, the cargo area under the hatchback doesn't seem to take advantage of all the space afforded by the design. But Audi gave the A7 removable rear deck panels that change the cargo space from a traditional trunk to a wide-open hatchback. It is a surprising bit of practicality in a big, luxury sedan.
The front of the A7 uses the more three-dimensional grille design first seen on last year's new A8. The LED parking lights under the headlights have an evil-looking hook at the end, and the turn signals mimic the look and line of those parking lights, only in yellow.
Similar to on the Audi TT and R8, an automatic rear spoiler rises out of the hatchback as the A7 gains speed. And in a new feature for Audi, the cabin's main LCD motors down and into a dashboard slot when the car powers down. You can also make the LCD disappear at the push of a button.
No better navigation to be found
But with gorgeous Google satellite imagery in place of artificial maps, why would you want to hide the LCD? The navigation system shows essentially the same imagery that you'd see in a Web browser with Google Earth, but it also shows the car moving through the photographic landscape. Audi overlays road graphics with street names, traffic flow and incident information, and a blue route line when the car has a destination programmed.
The car uses its own dedicated data pipe, through T-Mobile, to load the maps. It initially loads maps in a 25-mile radius around itself. When it moves beyond that range it downloads more imagery, but if there is no cell phone signal, it merely shows a blurry background image.
The navigation system maintains a set of locally stored maps, with all the topographic detail and 3D rendered buildings of other Audi models' navigation, useful for people who don't care for the satellite look or who don't want to use a phone's data plan. Switching between maps is as easy as changing the map view from 2D to perspective. But it would be nice if the navigation system automatically switched back to its locally stored maps when the data connection fails.
Audi uses the same data connection for another set of services: traffic, weather, gas prices, news, and an entry labeled Travel Information. That last category finds a set of landmarks near the car or another location, sorting them by distance. Each entry includes photographs and descriptive text culled from Wikipedia. As these entries are downloaded from the Internet, it can take a little time for the list populate. To prevent distracted driving, the list of landmarks blanks out when the car is moving.
The A7 is also able to share its connection to the Internet with up to eight wireless devices when its Wi-Fi hot-spot feature is activated. The 3G pipe doesn't offer those devices the fastest connection to the Web -- streaming eight simultaneous YouTube videos seems out of the question -- but it's certainly good enough to allow backseat passengers to tweet, check Facebook, and check e-mail to their hearts' content.
As in the A8, Audi includes its new Multimedia Interface (MMI) controller, which supplements the dial and surrounding buttons with a touch pad. Drivers can trace with a fingertip on the touch pad to input letters and numbers, as when entering search terms and street addresses. This touch pad works extremely well, translating the sloppiest handwriting accurately. And the interface is easy to use while driving, without having to look down at the touch pad or even at the LCD thanks to audible feedback of each input character.
Audi added new capabilities to the voice command system in the A7 as well. As before, drivers can place calls by saying the name of anyone in a paired phone's contact list. But voice command also works with Google local search. You need merely say "online destinations" followed by search terms, such as "Chicago pizza," and a list of relevant location results will download, showing up on the LCD. Audi also implemented vocal music requests by album or artist name for songs stored on the car's hard drive.