First Drive: Audi A5 / S5

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May 4, 2007

By: Jason Teller

Audi of America has labeled 2007 the “Year of Emotion” and has followed through accordingly with three vehicles clearly weighted to the passionate side of the basic utility vs. luxurious emotion spectrum.

First it was the Audi R8 which was the brand’s first foray into the upper stratosphere of high performance sportscars. The R8 was followed by the next generation TT, a further refinement of the original Bauhaus masterpiece which still tends to touch the senses more than striking a purely practical appeal. And finally we have the long-awaited return of an Audi coupé, the all new A5 and “S” version S5.

It has been a full ten years since Audi built its last coupé. Ironically given the lack of a coupé offering during this time, the original coupé, the so-called Ur quattro, has ascended to nearly legendary status and remains in high demand even today. Audi’s 250,000+ coupés sold prior to the advent of the A5 clearly helped provide a foundation for the rise of quattro all-wheel drive and Audi’s re-emergence (and subsequent dominance) in motorsports throughout the 80’s.

Today’s A5 and S5 automobiles represent not only an obvious nod to the past, but a clear intent towards combining the emotion of the more niche R8 and TT models with the practicality of Audi’s most important workhorse: the A4. The A5 is in fact built on the very same platform (labeled the B8) as the soon to be redesigned A4 and as a result provides a preview of many of the innovations one would expect to find also in the next generation A4. That said, coupé buyers typically tend to focus on design first and foremost – which is why the A5’s success depends most heavily on the aforementioned emotional appeal over features or even the driving experience.

We recently traveled to Verona, Italy for the international press launch of the A5 / S5, and came home with the feeling that Audi has executed its new coupé with few flaws.

The Exterior

Given our belief that design is a make-or-break proposition for the A5 we feel it is appropriate to offer a comprehensive account. We see the A5 existing in a styling sweet spot whereby it is neither as contentious as the recent BMWs nor as dull as some of the cookie-cutter models from the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and Infiniti. There is absolutely no mistaking that the A5 is an Audi – it offers glimpses of the TT’s nose and of the R8’s tail – but the vehicle’s proportions are all together something new. Imagine an A4 which has been flattened-out with everything pushed both lower and further to the corners.

The effect of this flattening is that from the front the car appears very sleek and sporty, almost concealing the true size of the vehicle. The now ubiquitous single frame grille adopts more of a downward facing arrangement and is spot-on gorgeous in this application. Similarly, from the rear the A5 looks to be practically a pure sports car. It is wide, it is low and it looks positively planted to the pavement.

Only when taken from the side does the A5 reveal the familiar Audi curved hood and inverted, in-sloped trunk line. At the same time the vehicle shows itself as elongated from the side and belies that the car is in reality just a scant larger than the current A4. Part of this lengthy feeling is of course derived from the coupé design itself with its obviously larger door openings. But one must also realize that the gentle and relatively long slope of the roofline towards the trunk plays a role in producing this effect.

With the overall appeal of the A5 design this car possesses the innate ability to adopt nearly any color and retain its good looks. Audis have been stunning in blacks and silvers for years, but this coupé positively shines in everything from white to red to darker shades of maroon and blue. Audi’s lack of imagination around color has been a recent bone of contention for us so we are hopeful that the A5 will allow for more unique colors to be re-introduced as standard options to the brand’s mainstream vehicles.

As with most vehicles the A5 also looks better with larger wheel/tire combinations. We saw a number of different wheels, each time unsurprisingly levitating back to the 18’s and 19’s. The S5 obviously gets larger, more aggressive wheels from the get-go and has the pleasure of wrapping them over more prominent brakes.

Audi’s approach to exterior lighting in the A5 is exceptional and proves to be a major competitive differentiator. The LED daytime running lights are simply the ultimate expression of technological innovation and are unbeatable from a “wow” factor perspective. It is impossible to view the A5 in your rear view mirror without taking note of the artistically brilliant LED gleam – the same gleam that is practically menacing if the A5 approaches from behind at high speed. The headlights themselves are slim and angle towards the also downward-angled grille, all playing into the exceedingly sleek overall look.

Indeed we have nothing but accolades for the exterior design of the A5. Audi has accomplished the primary objective of building a great looking, sporty vehicle which literally drips with emotional cues. The ultimate testimony for us was the fact that the A5 demanded and received plenty of attention from the locals on all of our test routes despite the fact that we were part of the fourth media wave to be in the area. These cars had been making the same exact same drives for days and yet retained the ability to captivate onlookers over and over again.

The Interior

Immediately upon entering the A5 we knew we were seeing evolutionary transformation (and improvement) in the flesh.

As in the TT, the center console now adopts a bit of a slope and buttons and layouts have been refined to produce a more modern look. The climate control and CD changer controls have become not elliptical, but rounded off around the edges. There are very few, if any, square, hard angles in the interior and some shapes either repeat or mirror each other (the gentle curve of the multifunction control area on the steering wheel and the center vent openings, for example, mirror each other perfectly). The gauge cluster has evolved as well with a more pronounced teardrop shaped tachometer and speedometer pods.

Seating is state-of-the-art both in terms of the contoured design and stitching and the performance of the seats themselves. With complete power adjustability, the A5’s seats support the driver properly and ensure that spirited driving never becomes an exercise in side-to-side slipping and sliding. The S5 seats raise the bar by including an integrated headrest design (which ensures proper positioning regardless of driver height) and in some cases unique colors and contrasting stitching.

Rear seating requires two tales to be told. The seats are comfortable and getting in and out of the rear seats is a straightforward affair. That said there is essentially little room in the backseats for normal sized adults, at least for any long period of time. This of course presumes that the front seat passengers have their own seats pushed between 75-100% of the way back (which they most often will). We could gripe about rear legroom, and certainly would if this was a sedan review, but in reality the legroom is to be expected in a coupé and therefore not something which merits criticism.

We were particularly pleased with the design and functionality of the armrest and storage area between the front seats. Audi has been using adjustable center armrests for some time, but this latest generation includes longitudinal adjustment. In other words the armrest not only lifts up and down to accommodate drivers with shorter or longer arms (as well as provide access to storage underneath), but it also slides front to back on a horizontal axis running from the gearshift to the rear seats. In all the armrest slides backwards and forwards by perhaps 6-inches – not a huge amount – but this unique addition enables an ever greater degree of driver comfort.

In this same area the A5 includes a long, narrow storage cut out which drivers will find particularly useful for cell phones. Our Treo fit in it perfectly and finally the problem of the wandering, cup holder-hogging, cell phone was solved. The ashtray, a spot where many drivers will keep coins rather than ashes, is now spring loaded and will close itself automagically. Audi has also included a coin holder in the top right corner of the center console, although it takes on the appearance of a strangely placed vent and is not aesthetically pleasing enough to earn its spot there from our perspective.

We were charmed by the new driver display in the very center of the gauge cluster. It is not only clearer (and thus easier to read), but more information is displayed than ever before. More colors are utilized for differentiation. The only new driver display feature we found annoying was the addition of a gear indicator and “nag” system in the manual transmission vehicles. We not only do not need a digital reminder of our gear (we can simply look at the shift knob for that), but flat out reject having the car suggest the proper up shift moment and gear. We, like many drivers, will sometimes drive through a town in 3rd gear so as to summon torque with a quick press of the accelerator. The A5, however, insisted on reminding us that a 3-5 shift would be more appropriate. To be clear this display is fairly discreet in the lower left hand corner and was more a nuisance than a true distraction. Given that it was not a distraction we did not spend any time trying to figure out whether it could be disabled via the computer.

Another monumental upgrade in the interior was the move away from Bose to a Bang & Olufsen sound system. When the A8 was first made available with the optional B&O system we were stunned at that car’s capabilities, wondering if and when B&O would continue to make its way into the rest of the Audi lineup. The R8, of course, also includes a B&O system and it was great to find one resident in the A5 too. Bose’s Achilles heel in the Audi has always been a muddy soundstage with poor bass handling characteristics. The B&O system is a vast improvement in both of these areas. We have never heard a better sounding stock sound system in any Audi. For that matter we have heard many aftermarket systems that failed to sound as good as the stock B&O system sounds in the A5.

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