THE GIZMO: High-tech automotive heaven in the Audi A7 3.0 TFSI Quattro Auto Tiptronic Sedan.
YOU'RE THE TOPS: Many will be taken with the hot mechanicals and swoopy styling of the new Audi A7, a four-passenger, four-door sedan that looks like a sports coupé and takes off like a rocket. Ah, but what made the Gizmo Guy jump at the chance for a test drive were all the high-tech control, communications and entertainment goodies that this loaded A7 also sported. Some new, others newly refined, the well-integrated upgrades added a walloping $20,000 to the A7 Quattro's already steep $59,250 base price.
Some of these are already available piecemeal in other premium vehicles or as aftermarket products. And arguably lots more of this cool stuff will filter down to mere mortal cars soon.
FIRST ENCOUNTER: Just approaching this car, you can feel that magical James Bond spy car/Batmobile vibe.
The car automatically unlocks itself when it senses the keyfob in your pocket. The motorized rear "boatstail" lid (you know it as the trunk) floats up at the touch of a fob button.
Settle in and close the door. The driver-side window automatically lifts a tad to make a tighter seal. The steering wheel drops into your favorite position.
Tap the start button and the outside, motorized side mirrors (kinda pointy like, um, bat ears) flip out into position. A big, full-color Driver Information Screen slides out of its hiding place on the dashboard, flips up and illuminates. Motorized speakers magically rise out of the dash to your left and right, if you've sprung for the $5,900 Bang & Olufsen audio system.
Put the A7 into reverse to back out of the garage. The radio mutes automatically and variable beeping noises (from different car locations) let you know how dangerously close you are to hitting something.
The screen display has now shifted to offer a rear camera view. Warning stripes on the screen point out potential obstacles and also paint a path of how you'll enter the street with the wheel in its current position.
Once in the clear and shifted into drive, the display screen now shows other functions, and the music comes back on from radio tuners, CD or the built-in 20 GB hard drive. You won't see the picture on a DVD disk, though, unless you've got the car in park.
GOING SOMEWHERE? Driving in unfamiliar territory? You'd probably want to activate the navigation features first. In the Audi A7, all that evolves around the MMI (Multi-Media Information) array in the center console. There's one of those twirl-and-push knob controls that's been the bane of users in some vehicles (high-end BMWs) but is significantly improved here.
For starters, Audi's control hub also boasts a series of dedicated function buttons (Media, Radio, Navigation, Mobile Phone, Vehicle Control and the all important "Back") to help drill down in the menu system. (The car's heat/air-conditioning system, custom-tunable for each passenger, doesn't use MMI at all.)
Audi also throws a unique and worthy extra into the mix. It's MMI Touch - a small, dedicated touch pad on the console. To enter a navigation destination, you can just draw the letters and numbers one at a time on the pad (entering city first, street second, then street number, with predictive smarts often filling in the blanks).
Even with my terrible, wobbly printing, the device invariably got it right!
This same touch pad also can be used for entering phone numbers without your eyes ever leaving the road.
And when the radio's on (FM with HD, AM, Sirius satellite), channel preset numbers magically appear on the same touch pad.
PHONE STUFF: Naturally, your Bluetooth-enabled phone syncs with the MMI system. A contacts directory appears both on the big center display screen and on a smaller driver information screen positioned right in front of your face (between the speedo and tach).
Initiate a call from the directory with either a spin of the big center console knob or by using one of the multifunction wheels built into the steering wheel.
Phone and music functions also can be activated by voice command. The system is trainable to your speaking voice, but even without fine-tuning it was able to identify and find most of my Sirius faves.
THE CONNECTED MOBILE HOME: Most car navigation systems rely on information stored onboard. The A7 uses a constantly upgraded system with Google Earth maps (and traffic update bulletins and locations of interest) linked wirelessly via the Audi Connect system serviced by T-Mobile. A six-month trial subscription comes with the car.
This same wireless 3G connectivity also turns the car into a Wi-Fi hub, allowing multiple devices to pull down data and entertainment simultaneously.
I took an iPad into the car. Video streaming (via a Slingbox app) was a raggedy, start-and-stop affair, but I successfully streamed Internet radio channels from the NPR app. Ultimately, an Internet radio tuner will be built into this and other connected cars.
HEADS UP, CHARLIE: One other thing in the A7 really blew my mind - the "heads up" display. Yeah, I know, Cadillac's had this going on for years. Yet here, too, Audi's finessed the tech.
When dialed up (brightness level is adjustable), your current speed appears as a see-through number floating magically on the windshield.
Also, when the navigation system is enabled, floating arrows cue an approaching turn.
And while I (fortunately) found no need to test a third "heads up" feature, I'm told a ghostly red silhouette of someone or something that's standing in a darkened roadway ahead will also show up on the windshield, along with an audible warning to hit the brakes.
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