A7 the A7 to Lüderitz

A mem­o­rable south­west African adventure in the lat­est ver­sion of Audi’s big, sexy sport­back

Automobile - - Drives - BY GE­ORG KACHER PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY TOM SALT

THE SAT-N AV SAYS ar­rival time 12:53 a.m. The man from Audi ad­vises us not to drive af­ter dark be­cause of wild an­i­mals. The pho­tog­ra­pher says let’s get on with it. My in­ner voice tells me to be­lieve in the power of laser head­lights and night vi­sion, so let the im­pala and spring­bok play hide and seek if they want.

On the two-lane N7 high­way be­tween Citrus­dal, South Africa, just north of Cape Town, to Viools­drif at the Namib­ian border, progress is a mat­ter of at­ti­tude, as­pi­ra­tion, and am­bi­tion. In ad­di­tion to be­ing on high alert for any wildlife lurk­ing in the bush, we’re also busy dodg­ing un­der­paid and overly keen asphalt jock­eys in charge of slowly dis­in­te­grat­ing tour buses, mir­ror­less vans on a clock-beat­ing mis­sion, and grotesquely over­loaded semis. But thanks to some 39 as­sis­tance sys­tems and a switched-on driver who can’t spare a sin­gle digit to toy with the se­duc­tive, col­or­ful touch­screens, the new 2019 Audi A7 cuts through it all with rel­a­tive ease. When we hit Klawer, about a quar­ter of the way to Viools­drif, the es­ti­mated ar­rival time has low­ered to 12:11 am. We’re mak­ing head­way.

Our des­ti­na­tion is the port of Lüderitz on the Namib­ian coast, founded in 1883 by set­tlers from Ber­lin, Dres­den, and Cologne. The A7 Sport­back 55 TFSI we’re in is fit­ted with ev­ery con­ceiv­able ex­tra and then some. It even fea­tures dou­ble-glazed glass, mul­ti­color am­bi­ent light­ing, and in­tel­li­gent wipers with washer jets fo­cus­ing on the dirt­i­est spots. Back­seat mag­nates like The Don­ald would un­doubt­edly ap­pre­ci­ate mod­ern con­ve­niences such as Twit­ter ac­cess and the pay TV mod­ule; owner-driv­ers are more likely to ap­plaud the fully au­to­matic park­ing as­sis­tance sys­tem, which takes the sting out of hun­gry curbs and tight en­try and exit spi­rals.

De­spite the puz­zling 55 TFSI badge, the A7’s base pow­er­plant re­mains Audi’s 3.0-liter turbo V-6, which now de­liv­ers 340 horse­power. It’s been thor­oughly mod­i­fied, feels live­lier, and plays a catchier tune. The seven-speed S tronic au­to­matic trans­mis­sion is re­ally on its toes in Sport mode. Eco ef­forts in­clude a start-stop sys­tem that calls it a day be­low 15 mph, an ef­fi­ciency pro­gram that cuts the en­gine be­tween 30 and 100 mph un­der trail­ing throt­tle, and a green liftoff sym­bol in the in­stru­ment bin­na­cle, which sug­gests that now is the time to take it easy.

It’s not only the 340 hp that gets things done but also the torque curve, which peaks at 369 lb-ft be­tween 1,370 and 4,500 rpm—it is as flat as Cape Town’s fa­mous Ta­ble Moun­tain. The Audi col­lects fur­ther brownie points for its abil­ity to ac­cel­er­ate to 60 mph in an es­ti­mated 5.2 sec­onds, its brisk down­shift ac­tion, am­bi­tious red­line that touches 7,000 rpm, and its ag­gres­sively spaced third through fifth gears.

Bu­reau­cracy thrives at the border cross­ing that sep­a­rates South Africa from Namibia. We’re in a hurry, but the squadron of uni­formed state ser­vants on both sides of the barbed wire ev­i­dently has all the time in the world. For no good rea­son at all, we waste al­most an hour fill­ing out forms, wait­ing for stamps, pay­ing fees, and hav­ing the ve­hi­cle searched.

As a re­sult, our ETA has dropped back. No way are we giv­ing in. So let’s fill up the Ara Blue­sprayed hatch­back-coupe and get back af­ter it. We’re go­ing to need to rely on the tech­ni­cal im­prove­ments that set the new A7 apart from its pre­de­ces­sor: its pierc­ing ma­trix-laser head­lamps, re­cal­i­brated air sus­pen­sion, and rear-wheel steer­ing chief among them. Hav­ing fid­dled with Drive Se­lect for the past six hours, the pre­ferred con­fig­u­ra­tion locks the driv­e­train in Dy­namic while the al­go­rithms look­ing af­ter steer­ing and chas­sis are left alone. Above 75 mph, the road-hug­ging sports pack low­ers the ride height by an­other quar­ter inch or so.

The fi­nal leg of the night stage to Lüderitz goes down in the log­book as a real chal­lenge and an eerie ex­pe­ri­ence. What looks like Lon­don fog is ac­tu­ally a proper sand­storm, whip­ping tall, thin cur­tains across the road and drown­ing tire and en­gine noise in pelt­ing spells that sound like a mil­lion nee­dles pit­ting the paint­work to the primer. The curvy high­way is lit­tered with tum­ble­weed and oc­ca­sional waves of rock-solid drift sand. It’s a bap­tism of fire for the A7’s rear-wheel steer­ing, which en­hances sta­bil­ity and ma­neu­ver­abil­ity de­pend­ing on how fast you’re go­ing. Praise is also due to the air sus­pen­sion, which leans the car ever so slightly into the ran­dom gusts of crosswind. Although the broad light cone cast by the ma­trix-laser won­der­beams could al­most touch the hori­zon on a clear night, we’re lim­ited to low-beams in this tem­pest.

Help­ing the cause is Audi’s lat­est, more fuel-ef­fi­cient Qu­at­tro sys­tem—dubbed Ul­tra— ef­fec­tively all-wheel drive on de­mand. Rear­wheel drive only ac­ti­vates to sup­port take­off trac­tion, cor­ner­ing grip, and han­dling bias. Act­ing pro­gres­sively and im­per­cep­ti­bly, it en­gages and dis­con­nects in mil­lisec­onds. For en­hanced road hold­ing and curb ap­peal, our test car was fit­ted with 20-inch wheels shod with 255/40 tires. In the pre­vi­ous A7, this setup in com­bi­na­tion with the sport sus­pen­sion would have smashed a set of false teeth to pieces. The sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion model, how­ever,

PRAISE IS ALSO

DUE TO THE AIR SUS­PEN­SION THAT LEANS THE CAR EVER SO SLIGHTLY INTO THE RAN­DOM GUSTS OF CROSSWIND.

has learned to ride more smoothly. Like ev­ery Audi, this one is still not pleased with trans­verse ir­ri­ta­tions, but it no longer ab­so­lutely hates pot­holes, man­hole cov­ers, and rail­road cross­ings. The steel brakes de­serve ap­plause for prompt re­sponse and ef­fi­cient de­cel­er­a­tion, but they also earn a few scat­tered boos for el­e­vated pedal pressure, which in­creases with ev­ery re­peat high-speed ac­tion and is ac­com­pa­nied by a cer­tain spongi­ness over the fi­nal 100 yards or so be­fore the ve­hi­cle comes to a full stop.

“No, we don’t have Wi-Fi. Talk to each other!” This sign put up at Giesela’s break­fast sta­tion down by the sea is not only a mock­ing shot across the bow of the Face­book crowd but also con­firms in writ­ing that dig­i­tal­iza­tion has not yet fully ar­rived in Lüderitz. Al­most ev­ery­thing re­lated to elec­tric­ity does in fact move at a dif­fer­ent pace in this part of Africa. Fill­ing up the car takes around 10 min­utes, the street­lights flicker at night like back in the post­war days, and pay­ing with a credit card only works when a fa­vor­able in­ter­net wind blows.

Ar­chi­tec­tural gems like Villa Go­erke, which looks like some­thing that was he­li­coptered out of Bavaria and dropped into the rugged desert, dot the land­scape. Built in 1909 dur­ing the di­a­mond rush, it is now a na­tional his­toric mon­u­ment. Then there’s Shark Is­land, an area that has be­come prime res­i­den­tial prop­erty but used to be a Ger­man la­bor camp where thou­sands died in the early 1900s. It is a last­ing sym­bol of the nu­mer­ous atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted against in­dige­nous peo­ples by the colo­nial pow­ers.

So although not all of the wounds from those dark days have fully healed, there is a spe­cial spirit that has de­vel­oped among the lo­cals, known as Buchters ( Bucht is the Ger­man word for bay), who pride them­selves on liv­ing life to the fullest. Many of them are trilin­gual, flu­ent in Afrikaans, Ger­man, and English.

The A7 is lin­guis­ti­cally even more tal­ented. It speaks more than 15 lan­guages and un­der­stands ev­ery spo­ken and writ­ten word, although it needs a sta­ble web con­nec­tion to shine, which is as rare as an ice-cream ven­dor in this scorch­ing part of the world. But even with­out car-to-in­fra­struc­ture in­tel­li­gence, real-time traf­fic in­for­ma­tion, and su­per-pre­cise HERE maps, the in-dash mix of touch­screens, dis­plays, and but­tons is pure sen­sory over­load—a potpourri of re­cur­rent dis­trac­tion and stub­born, smeary fin­ger­prints. Make no mis­take: This is a great-look­ing, beau­ti­fully made, and em­phat­i­cally mod­ern cock­pit. But like in an Air­bus A320, you al­most need a co-pi­lot to make full use of the car’s di­verse tal­ents.

THE GER­MANS, WHO HAD CLAIMED LARGE CHUNKS OF AFRICA IN 1884’S BER­LIN CON­FER­ENCE, WERE RUN­NING THE SHOW HERE.

A short dis­tance from Lüderitz is the ghost town of Kol­mannskuppe, a se­ries of build­ings fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle against sand and wind and time. Kol­mannskuppe was built be­tween 1908 and 1910 next to the coun­try’s first di­a­mond mine, which yielded more than 5 mil­lion carats of gem­stone be­fore World War I broke out. The Ger­mans, who had claimed large chunks of Africa in 1884’s Ber­lin Con­fer­ence, were run­ning the show here and in Lüderitz. And what a show it must have been. The largely in­tact wood­pan­eled town hall houses a theater, cin­ema, li­brary, bowl­ing al­ley, restau­rant, bar, and gym­na­sium.

Per­haps the big­gest fri­vol­ity was the stone-walled salt­wa­ter swim­ming pool the size of a foot­ball sta­dium, which still caps the hill like an an­cient he­li­pad for the gods. A guide named Wil­liam takes us through the build­ings. “Goods were trans­ported by horses, boats, and even­tu­ally by rail,” he says. “Round about that

time, the di­a­mond barons brought in the first mo­tor cars. When a Mercedes or Rolls broke down, it was sim­ply put away while a new one was or­dered. Wealth was un­real in those days.” Af­ter a short 17-year boom, the min­ers moved on, and Kol­mannskuppe was aban­doned by 1956.

To­day’s trav­el­ers on African roads don’t have the lux­ury of wait­ing months for a new car to re­place the old one, let alone hours to fix more than one flat tire or a me­chan­i­cal fault that grounds the ve­hi­cle in the mid­dle of nowhere. Then there’s the worst-case sce­nario, get­ting in a crash, since the next hospi­tal is more than likely a long drive or flight away. This cre­ates a lin­ger­ing in­ner con­flict be­cause on both sides of the Namib­ian tar­mac are some of the best sand roads we’ve ever seen. Wiser men would ig­nore them. But with ESP turned off, it was slide time.

From one mo­ment to the next, Qu­at­tro re­turns with a vengeance, push­ing hard to sup­port the strug­gling, spin­ning, scrap­ing front wheels. It takes only a cou­ple of cor­ners to find the right rhythm, to make lift-off ac­tion bond with turn-in bite, to play the car with steer­ing and throt­tle, throt­tle and steer­ing. Drama can mul­ti­ply in the even lower-grip zone be­tween sand and gravel, where the car’s at­ti­tudes, ges­tures, and stances match a bal­let dancer for el­e­gance in mo­tion.

We leave Lüderitz midafter­noon, fork­ing off to­ward Rosh Pi­nah then head­ing for the border at Oran­je­mund. It’s a shorter yet slower route on twistier roads with older, sun-bleached sur­faces. Ac­cord­ing to the guide book, the border cross­ing closes at 8 p.m., and there is no listed ac­com­mo­da­tion this side of South Africa, so time is once more of the essence. We fire up the af­ter­burner, and two hours later, we know for a fact that the A7 55 TFSI tops out at more than 150 mph.

Even through in­creas­ingly tight radii, the car keeps carv­ing with poise, prow­ess, and panache. There is a blind un­der­stand­ing be­tween the steer­ing an­gles of all four wheels, and the firm ride still shows mercy, hold­ing the line with singing tires. With ex­actly 13 min­utes to spare, the car fi­nally grinds to a halt at the bar­rier, brakes siz­zling, ex­haust crack­ling. Gimme five, mate. And please ig­nore the sign on the cus­toms build­ing that reads, “From Feb. 1, 2018, this border is open 24/7.” AM

WITH EX­ACTLY 13 MIN­UTES TO SPARE, THE CAR FI­NALLY GRINDS TO A HALT AT THE BAR­RIER, BRAKES SIZ­ZLING, EX­HAUST CRACK­LING.

The Lüderitz, Namibia, lo­cals might not yet have fully em­braced tech­nol­ogy, but the 2019 Audi A7 pro­vides plenty of it.

We were con­stantly on guard for African wildlife hid­ing in the bush, and the new Audi A7’s laser head­lights and night vi­sion helped us keep a bet­ter eye out.

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