First drive:
Audi A7 Sportback

The latest in automotive fashion has been launched in Italy but it wears a Made-in-Germany label. Looking as sharp as a Hugo Boss suit against the backdrop of Sardinia's shimmering coastal waters, Audi's new A7 Sportback joins the current trend for luxury cars that aim to combine the swooping lines of a coupe with the practicality of four doors.

It follows in the dictionary-defying footsteps of Mercedes-Benz's CLS 'coupe' - and, as its name suggests, is to the A6 what the A5 Sportback is to the A4.

Sardonic grins are said to be plentiful on the Mediterranean's second largest island, where the adjective has its origins (because of the convulsive facial expressions the Greeks claimed were caused by eating an indigenous plant) and some may scoff at Audi's suggestion that the A7 is a genuine family car.

Open the standard electrically operated liftback hatch, however, and the A7 reveals a 535-litre boot capable of hording several large- and medium-sized suitcases. The rear seats also fold almost flat to increase cargo capacity to 1390 litres.

And despite that tapering rear roofline, taller passengers can sit in the back seat without feeling they've been packed in like a tin of the proverbial oily little fish that also take their name from Sardinia. Legroom is also decent.

The A7 won't accommodate 2.4 children, though, as there are only two rear seats - and two seatbelts. The middle seat is simply a leathered no man's land, until it becomes occupied by the centre armrest that is otherwise near-seamlessly integrated into the back seat.

Next year's all-new A6 will again offer a wagon (Avant) variant, which will invariably provide less style but greater flexibility for well-heeled families.

The A7's underpinnings are shared with the upcoming A6 - a new platform that is essentially an extended version of the A4's and one that brings new electro-mechanical steering.

Despite this, or perhaps because of this, the near-five-metre-long A7 drives very much like a bigger A4 or A5; which is both good and bad.

There's the familiar liberal helping of on-road refinement, and another selection of fine engines, including two V6s - of four initially offered in Europe - that are all but officially confirmed for Australia.

The 180kW 3.0 (litre) TDI remains remarkably quiet for a diesel and provides smooth and effortless progress, the latter helped considerably by a maximum torque figure of 500Nm that's delivered from 1400 to 3250rpm. Consumption of 6.0L/100km is also a standout figure for car that's bigger than a Commodore.

For those with a penchant for petrol, the 220kW supercharged V6 of the 3.0 TFSI model uses more fuel (8.2L/100km) but, according to Audi's claims, generates faster acceleration: 0-100km/h in 5.6 seconds compared with the TDI's still-creditable 6.3sec.

Audi Australia is also considering a 2.8-litre V6 petrol, which if imported would complete a trio of A7s that each features start-stop technology and puts its power to all four wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch auto that shifts quickly and seamlessly but retains the standing-start hesitancy common to this VW Group transmission.

Bigger vices shared with A4/A5, though, include the ride in sportier (optional) S-line trim, where the firmer, lower suspension starts to get busy as soon as there's the slightest downgrade in road surface quality.

A test of an A7 fitted with optional adaptive air suspension suggested its expected $3000 cost (same as for the A8 limo) would be a worthwhile investment. It brought a greater respite from the Sardinian roads in need of a good steam-rollering, though there was still some suspension thump over more pronounced bumps.

The sport part of the model's name also has more in keeping with the car's dynamic body shape than its abilities on winding roads.

While plenty competent through corners despite its noticeable 1.9m width, and proving to be less unwieldy than an A8, the A7 struggles to involve the driver - with the steering again a key culprit.

It's sufficiently precise, but the weighting is still too light and devoid of feedback.

The driver will feel a greater sense of connection with the A7's interior.

If there has been any concern that Audi interiors, despite their impeccable quality, were starting to stagnate in terms of design, the A7 allays such fears with a curvaceous evolution.

An obvious focal point is the wraparound-style cockpit created by a horizontal arc of trim that sweeps around the back of the dash before blending almost seamlessly into, and across, the door trims. A wavy dash design also helps to give the A7 a bespoke look compared to the A8, and no doubt the A6, too, when we see it early next year.

Trim choices are no less impressive, particularly the panelled/planked wood that could have been inspired by the classic mahogany decking of a '60s Italian Riva speedboat.

They say if you have to look at the price tag, you can't afford it, though Audi Australia has yet to determine local pricing. We do know it will reflect its positioning between the range-topping $112,800 A6 and the entry-level $188,000 A8, so expect the A7 to come off the showroom rack for something in the region of $150,000.

There are a few loose threads, but the A7's standout exterior and interior styling at the very least should ensure this will be one of the cars to be seen in for 2011.