BIRMINGHAM, MI – Every Saturday morning, weather permitting, car buffs and industry types begin their weekends with coffee and cars in the parking lot of Auto Zone, an enthusiast book and model store perched here on Woodward Avenue in the heart of the world-famous Dream Cruise route north of Detroit.

They arrive driving classics, concepts and project cars or just to gawk at sheet metal and kibitz with colleagues. GM design chief Ed Welburn has been known to show up.

Stock production cars normally don't draw much interest here, but the Audi A7 arrives like the royal wedding. A crowd rapidly forms around the car as slack-jawed devotees take in the best Ingolstadt has to offer.

It’s as if the beautifully styled A7 exudes a healing aura, an intensely positive energy, and these enthusiasts want to be close enough to absorb the spiritual glow.

Audi is in the midst of launching a Holy Trinity of its most expensive luxury cars, all springing from the same modular MLB architecture: The flagship A8 arrived last November, and the redesigned A6 comes later this year and most likely will be the top seller of the bunch.

But the A7 is destined to stir the Audi faithful the most with its coupe-like silhouette, ground-hugging disposition, short overhangs and a front end that could be mistaken for the gorgeously sleek (and much more expensive) Audi R8 2-seater.

Did we mention it’s a hatchback? Ironically, the body style vilified 30 years ago by association with cheap economy cars is precisely what gives the A7 its flair, wonderful proportions and flexibility. The two rear seats fold to yield a sizable and nearly flat load floor.

The A7’s nearest direct competitor is the slightly larger (but much heavier) BMW 5-Series Gran Turismo, which can accommodate five while the A7 seats only four.

Beating both the A7 and BMW GT to market by several years was the Mercedes CLS 4-door coupe. The second-generation CLS550 goes on sale this summer as a ’12 model.

Although the A8 and A7 share architectural underpinnings and the 8-speed automatic Tiptronic transmission, Audi does a good job delineating the two.

They have different engines, suspensions, dimensions and interiors, which makes perfect sense considering A8 pricing starts nearly $20,000 above the A7’s $59,250 (excluding $875 destination and dealer charges).

While the A8 offers a direct-injection 4.2L V-8 and – later this year – the 500-hp FSI W12, the A7 makes do with the more efficient supercharged 3.0L TFSI V-6 that has earned Ward’s 10 Best Engines honors the past two years in the smaller Audi S4.

The A7 weighs 573 lbs. (260 kg) more than the S4 (with manual transmission), which illustrates the remarkable versatility of the direct-injection V-6. The all-aluminum A8, by the way, is 200 lbs. (91 kg) heavier than the A7.

The doors, hood and trunk lid of the A7 are made of aluminum, and overall 20% of the body is made from aluminum components.

The styling invites the driver to treat the A7 as if it were a V-8-powered sports car, and it does not disappoint on winding backroads east of here.

Able to reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in 5.4 seconds, the A7 is no patsy, with quattro permanent all-wheel drive.

’12 Audi A7
Vehicle type Front-engine, AWD, 4-passenger, 5-door coupe
Engine 3.0L supercharged DOHC DI all-aluminum V-6
Power (SAE net) 310 hp @ 5,500-6,500 rpm
Torque 325 lb.-ft. (441 Nm) @ 2,900-4,500 rpm
Transmission 8-speed Tiptronic auto
Wheelbase 114.7 ins. (242 cm)
Overall length 195.6 ins. (497 cm)
Width w/ mirrors 84.2 ins. (214 cm)
Overall height 55.9 ins. (142 cm)
Curb weight 4,210 lbs. (1,910 kg)
Base price $59,250
Fuel economy 18/28 (13-8.3 L/100 km)
Competition Mercedes CLS; BMW Gran Turismo
Pros Cons
Positively radiant styling Only seats four
Typically excellent interior Large blind-spot
Reasonable price for segment No adaptive suspension

In normal driving conditions, the car is sedate and quiet. But under hard throttle, the dual exhaust trumpets a heavenly chorus worthy of Westminster Abbey.

Some buyers in this segment require more horsepower. Could the 4.2L V-8 fit in the A7’s engine bay, in the event the brand wanted to introduce, say, a sporty S7? Absolutely, according to Audi insiders. A 3.0L TDI turbodiesel V-6 is available in Europe but has not yet been confirmed for the U.S.

For now, the lack of a gasoline V-8 in the A7 establishes its positioning as a more stylish version of the A8. And it succeeds swimmingly at that.

Although the A7’s sheet metal generally is smooth, it bends in just the right places, with wheel wells that flair softly but provide perfect contour to the 20-in. alloys.

The most dramatic styling cue, seen from behind, is at the beltline, where the body-side panels collapse inward to a smallish greenhouse, much like a Porsche 911.

The exquisite design carries forward to the interior, where brushed aluminum, muted wood trim and premium leather strike the right balance between lavish and sporty.

While the A8 instrument panel is more uniform and horizontally arrayed, the A7’s “sky-liner” wraparound dashboard uses asymmetrical air vents and flowing lines to distinguish itself.

Sight lines front and rear generally are good, but lateral vision is hindered by a massive B-pillar several inches wide. Add in the oversized front head restraints and the sloping roof line, and the A7’s blind-spot could prove problematic for some drivers.

A remedy comes in the form of Audi Side Assist, which uses radar to monitor the area behind and beside the vehicle to ensure safe lane changes.

The A8 and A7 interiors are distinctly different, as the flagship sedan rightly offers unique features, such as the Alcantara suede door-panel inserts, wood trim on seat backs, more brushed aluminum and more space and controls for back-seat occupants.

A bone of contention in both vehicles is the multipurpose 7-in. (17.8-cm) display screen, which disappears into the dashboard at the touch of a button. However, when deployed, the screen stands bolt upright, like a drive-in movie screen, marring the interior aesthetics.

The vivid and user-friendly display incorporates Audi Drive Select, which allows the driver to control the Multi-Media Interface knob in choosing “comfort” and “dynamic” settings for seatbelt tension and engine response. The system works well in significantly altering steering feel from firm and heavy to light and relaxed.

But oddly enough, it cannot adjust suspension feel, even though that feature is becoming common in luxury cars. A standard air suspension on the A8 offers that variability.

A7 damping comes from a 5-link suspension with anti-roll bar up front and a trapezoidal-link setup at the rear. Twin-tube gas-filled shock absorbers pin down all four corners. The air suspension will not be available on the A7, but an optional sport suspension will.

The standard suspension works well in mitigating body roll. A rear spoiler controlled by a switch on the dashboard can be deployed to help keep the rear wheels planted during dynamic driving.

Audi hopes this car will combine with the new A6 and A8 for 20,000 sales in 2012, making up 25% of brand deliveries in the U.S. Audi of America President Johan de Nysschen tells Ward’s he thinks the A7, alone, can find 6,000 customers in its first full year.

The 20,000-unit target is ambitious, considering 2010 sales of 8,465 A6s and 1,515 A8s.

But the A7, built in Neckarsulm, Germany, is a divinely stylish niche luxury car with few rivals. It should do its part as the emotional center of the Audi triumvirate, assuming an improving economy will continue boosting prospects for luxury cars.

Don’t be surprised if you feel the urge to genuflect the first time you see this car in person.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com