Road Test: Audi A5 / S5 Cabriolet

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February 27, 2009

By: Gavin Conway

Some two years after Audi launched the voluptuously-styled A5 coupe, here comes the long-awaited cabriolet version. We had a chance in the south of France to drive the whole European range, which includes superbly refined 2.7 and 3.0-liter turbodiesels that waft along on huge, cresting waves of torque – such a shame that Canada’s diesel infrastructure makes these engines so unviable for this market.

But that’s not really the model you want to hear about. No sir, what you really want to hear about is the S5 cabriolet, powered by an astonishing little gem of an engine. The S5 coupe uses the familiar 4.2-liter, 349bhp V8, but the new S5 cabriolet gets the supercharged 325bhp 3.0-liter V6, a version of which is used in the S4. Those who want to experience this engine in the A5 coupe will have to wait until mid-2010 when the model gets a mild facelift.

First, lets check out that cabriolet. Audi has rejected the current trend toward folding hardtops for convertibles, pointing out (quite rightly) that metal folding roofs always compromise a convertible’s styling. A soft top is also much lighter, which means a lower center of gravity for the car with consequent dynamic benefits. Also, a soft top frees up more trunk space when folded down. And Audi’s version, with its solid glass rear window, is just about the best piece of ragtop construction I’ve seen. The top is comprised of three layers – an outer skin, cushioning pad and headliner. An optional extra (in Europe) is the so-called acoustic package, which incorporates a 15mm thick foam layer in the roof. The result is without doubt one of the very quietest convertibles I’ve driven roof up. Audi claims that it’s about as quiet as the equivalent coupe model, and at speeds up to 160kph, conversation goes on at regular volume. The roof itself is pretty speedy, too, lowering in just 15 seconds and raising in 17. And unlike some competitors, the A5’s roof can be raised and lowered at speeds up to 50kph.

Apart from the storming S5, the A5 is also offered with a responsive 262bhp 3.2-liter V6 with Audi’s excellent multitronic cvt gearbox sporting no less than eight ratios. This version is much more of a ‘grand touring’ option, but performance is still decent with 0-100kph coming up in 6.9secs. Even better, the combined fuel consumption is a frugal 32.8mpg. Rounding out the gas engines on offer is the 2.0-liter ‘four with 208bhp on offer. But the star of the range remains the S5.

So it’s roof-down mode as we discreetly relieve the press fleet of one electric-neon-blue S5 and head toward the mountain passes above Nice. It’s a gentle introduction, and in fully automatic mode, the seven-speed S tronic twin-clutch transmission is smoothly refined and relaxed. But providing an early clue as to the nature of the beast under the hood, the exhaust rumbles and pops when I lift off the throttle. Even under part-throttle city cruising, there is an underlying layer of baritone aural menace. It’s a constant reminder that the choice you’ve made isn’t the sensible one. Which is good.

And when we clear the first motorway toll and go manual-mode on the gears, the S5’s powerplant sounds less like a V6 and more like a V10. It really fizzes as the needle swings past 7000rpm. The throttle response is phenomenal, too, and because this engine develops nearly all its available torque of 325lb ft over a rev range from 2900 to 5300rpm, the thrust feels relentless. So is that why Audi went with a supercharger instead of turbos? I would have guessed so, but the engineer we talked to said that they had issues with packaging and that Audi chose superchargers instead of turbos because the former offers a more compact under-hood arrangement.

At any rate, you won’t feel cheated by the S5’s outright pace, although with a 0-100kph time of 5.6 seconds, it is a little slower than the V8 S5 coupe (doesn’t feel it from behind the wheel, though). The upside is superior fuel consumption of 29.1mpg (European combined cycle). And like its tin-top sibling, the S5 cabrio is electronically limited to 250kph.

The S5 cabriolet handles better than I’d anticipated, too. It’s a heavy old thing at 1875kgs, but its ability to change direction on twisting, fast mountain roads is deeply impressive. Push harder, and just when you think the thing will understeer, the front end just turns in more aggressively. It’s an uncanny feeling and due in no small part to Audi’s ‘sport’ differential – when you’re going for it into a corner, the diff sends the majority of the torque to the outside rear wheel, which greatly sharpens up the car’s turn-in and reduces understeer.

So it drives very well, with superb grip and security but it’s not a sportscar, whatever Audi claims – its too big and heavy and steering feel isn’t in a league with Porsche, Lotus, BMW et al. And, as you’d expect of such a large, open car, scuttle shake over badly broken road surfaces can be noticeable.

But the S5 scores back major points with its inspiring performance, and like all of the A5 cabriolet range, it looks fantastic in the flesh. Add that traditional Audi interior, which features outstanding quality and ergonomics, and the argument becomes even more compelling. Four adults can travel in comfort, roof up or down, and there’s genuine day-to-day practicality on offer – those rear seats fold down to create a massive load area. So approach the A5 cabriolet as a mile-crushing GT with high style and you won’t be disappointed.


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