The Audi A5 and the high-performance S5 are mid-size coupes, larger than the TT. A handsome, distinctive shape identifies the A5 and S5 models from virtually any angle, with flowing curves bringing musculature to sleek, aerodynamic forms and arresting light patterns. Viewed from behind there's a chance of mistaking an A5 or S5 for a British GT, but from any other angle it's unmistakably Audi.
These are grand touring cars designed to cover lots of ground at high speed while coddling a pair of occupants. They seat two-plus-two; the rear seats are for the occasional adult passengers or for bringing small kids along. The A5 involves the driver physically, audibly, and mentally though never to the point of making it a chore or less than inviting. The Audi S5 can be hustled down virtually any road at a good clip, but it is unfair to expect these coupes to behave like small sports cars.
Audi interiors have been racking up awards for a long time and the A5 (and S5) is in the same mold. It has the features expected, good ergonomics, a central interface system that won't drive you to cursing, and it's all assembled to a high standard using appropriate materials. Despite the standard all-wheel drive it also has more trunk space than some Lexus sedans, so you can enjoy a road trip of just about any length or destination.
An A5 delivers confidence and luxury in a package not likely to be seen at every intersection and very likely to come across as a good value; the S5 delivers more performance and luxury yet still has a certain value quotient to argue.
By price, concept, and execution one of the S5's nearest competitors is the Mercedes-Benz CLK550, with a bit more power but no choice of transmission, no all-wheel drive, and costing about $5,000 more. While the $40,700 A5 and $51,400 S5 may be judged on paper against the Infiniti G37, CLK350, or BMW 335i coupe, the amenities, cabin finish and room are such that the Audis may also be shopped against the Jaguar XK, BMW 650i, or Porsche 911. And while each is a fine car and may offer more speed or perhaps technological gadgetry, only the 911 matches the Audi with the availability of all-wheel drive, and for a $6,000 premium.
The A5 and S5 were launched as 2008 models and have been on the market for only a short time, so there are no significant changes for 2009.
Audi A5 and S5 are arguably among the better looking cars on the road, appearing at once formal and sporting. On each side a strong character line arches over the front wheel and carries all the way to the tail, but apart from the bottom of the door and sides of the panoramic glass roof there's hardly a straight line to be found.
Proportions are classic coupe with minimal bodywork ahead of the front wheels, a substantial rear roof pillar, moderate trunk lid and a longer tail than snout. The door windows are frameless and visual strength is added by a central pillar that hides as a dark panel behind the rear side glass.
Out in the open the A5 appears larger than it really is; almost the same length as a BMW 3 Series coupe or a Mercedes CLK, which is narrower; the Audi is half a foot shorter than Jaguar's XK, BMW's 650 or Bentley's GTC and just half a foot longer than a 911, yet it comes across at least as spacious inside as any of those.
In terms of styling, the A5 is the cleanest, the S5 the most aggressive, and the A5 with S-line package splits the difference. The leading edges of the car are the inner points of the lower grilles that separate the central grille section from the lights and side grilles, much like the leading points of a manta ray. On the S5 aluminum-look trim is used at the lower edge of the grille, on the outside mirrors, and at the bottom of the rear bumper between the S-cue four exhaust outlets.
Bi-xenon headlamps give these cars that wild-animal-stalking-prey look. Crisp, white LED daytime running lamps run along the bottoms and outer edges of these headlamps, setting a higher standard for appearance and function; they can be turned off if you wish, automatically dim for use as parking lights, and are off on whichever side the turn signal is blinking for better vision of said signal. Most car companies could learn something from this design.
All wheels are five-spoke or a derivative, like the two-by-five propeller-blade shaped spokes on the S5 which use a fingered center cap to cover all the lug nuts.
The designer of the A5/S5, who may well be biased, calls the car the most beautiful he has ever designed. Maybe, or maybe not. But the A5 made it onto Hagerty's Hot List, so a leading insurer of collector cars believes the A5 may become more desirable over the next 20 years.
Climb into an Audi S5 and you're immediately convinced this is a driver's car, albeit a nicely finished one that you could easily see using as a daily driver. It is modern Teutonic luxury in the vein of multiple finishes that complement each other well, with stark efficiency or warmth determined by color choices and trim components; together the A5 and S5 offer three leather fabrics and seven selections for trim including four types of wood, carbon fiber, aluminum or stainless steel. Every surface has a pleasant feel, regardless of the material from which it's constructed.
The S5 cabin is done in mostly dark materials, including the woven headliner and sunshade. Lighter trim highlights the roof panel pull (it slides forward from the rear), gauge nacelles, vents, speaker grilles, and control knobs with piano black centers. The black lacquer also surrounds the primary control area aft of the shifter.
A three-spoke leather-wrapped wheel has hand grips at all the right places and just two controls on each side spoke. However, each side has a thumbwheel that serves multiple functions by scrolling up or down or pressing to click, allowing a majority of system operations to be done without removing a hand from the wheel. Oft-used controls like cruise, signals, flash-to-pass/main beams, and wipe/wash are all on handy stalks.
The wheel adjusts for reach and rake with a single manual release, giving all the advantages, proper driving position, spacing from airbag, instrument view; the only downside is that the wheel position does not adjust automatically with the seat/mirror memory system on cars so equipped. The center armrest also adjusts for height and rake, so it you can use it in cruise mode and slide it out of the way for lots of shifting on winding roads.
Front seats range from very good on the A5 to excellent on the S5; an A5 S-line falls in between and that cabin is available only in black leather. Any A5/S5 seat provides for hours of comfort and wiggle room while maintaining all the lateral support required to explore the car's capabilities. On the S5 the headrests are integral with the backrest and not adjustable, yet the head rest and neck protection are all in the right place and satisfactory for those well past six feet. Thigh extensions in the seat cushions let those tall drivers use more chair than just the area under their pants pockets, and there's plenty of leg room and a good dead pedal.
A fast-slide switch on the front seat backrests eases access to the rear buckets which are nicely sculpted and comfortable for most up to 5-feet, 10-inches tall. A substantial armrest folds down over central storage trays and passengers are catered to with reading lights, two speakers per side, coat hooks, outboard storage pockets, cupholders, and a pair of vents with adjustable temperature control.
To enlarge the cargo area the rear seat folds 60/40 from inside or trunk-located handles, while a pass-thru behind the armrest accommodates long, slender items like skis or fishing rods.
The S5 driver faces white-on-gray gauges, an 8000-rpm tachometer and 200-mph speedometer with smaller temperature and fuel gauges outboard in the two teardrop-shaped pods; in between, a bank of warning lights across the top and information display in the center. This panel shows a variety of data, much of it chosen by the driver using the stalk and wheel controls; even on manual transmission cars it displays the gear selected in white and, if another gear offers the same performance on less gas, an arrow and a number for that gear in green.
To the right, at the same height as the gauges and angled toward the driver, is a well-shaded screen for the MMI (multi-media interface) system that controls many of the car's functions and also shows navigation maps and the rear camera view on cars so optioned. MMI has a central control knob, somewhat like BMW i-Drive and Mercedes COMAND systems, but it has four corner buttons keyed to four choices in the corners of the screen, separate Back/Advance/Return keys, and eight keys around it for direct access to radio, discs, navigation, telephone, car systems, and so forth. It will require a little familiarization but it is quicker and requires less button-clicking frustration than similar systems and does not use any control that requires rotating a knob counterclockwise to increase level as some others have done.
The MMI controller is immediately behind the shifter but not accidentally hit by a resting hand or quick shift. To the left of the lever are the parking brake and Start/Stop buttons, and to the right is the volume knob; this is less than convenient in sixth gear so you'll find the steering wheel control the logical, handy choice.
Below the central screen are a pair of vents, the six-disc changer, and some simple switchgear. At the base of the console are the climate controls, with buttons to select fan speed, temperature, airflow, and seat heat and a small rotary knob to make the adjustments. Full auto mode is available, as is full manual control without any confusion.
The navigation system works as directed; we found it neither class-leading nor class-trailing. Sound from the optional 505-watt, 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen stereo system is most impressive, especially in light of the $850 option tab when the B&O system on a big Audi sedan costs perhaps 10 times that much. However, in the S5, there is always that engine note to enjoy if you tire of recorded fidelity.
Outward visibility is quite good, with relatively narrow pillars and the side posts far enough rearward that they don't interfere with lane-change or close-quarter over the shoulder glances. The rear pillars are generally unnoticed, the rear window usefully large and distortion-free, and the edges of the bodywork not totally lost in the distance.
Night driving is further aided by deep amber illumination that offers the fastest recovery time for your eyes, smoked-lens vanity mirror lamps mounted in the roof, and shaded map lights that light your lap, not your eyes.
Cabin storage includes a shallow bin in the armrest, one center cupholder and a phone-sized bin adjacent, glovebox, and door pockets with beverage stands at the leading edge.
The trunk opening is larger than many two-doors and takes advantage of the trunk lid length to open well out of the way. There are four tie-down rings, a spare underneath, and, at 16.1 cubic feet (for the A5; 12.0 cubic feet for the S5), significantly more volume than a BMW 3 or 6 Series coupe, Jaguar XK coupe, Lexus SC430, Infiniti G37 or Porsche 911.
The Audi S5 starts with a deep purr, definitely a V8 but refined compared to rumbling Detroit muscle. However, in the upper revs the S5 aligns with the A5 V6's more mechanical song. The gas pedal has lots of travel so the driver can fine tune how much power to apply and how quickly.
Audi's manual transmissions are geared for performance, not highway fuel economy; if long highway cruises are on your agenda the A5 will merrily scoot to 60 mph in about six seconds and easily exceed any speed limit in the world while returning better mileage.
The S5 is an Autobahn bruiser, its elastic well of torque set up to accelerate with authority from virtually any speed (0-60 in less than five seconds) and is still pulling as it is reined in electronically at 155 mph.
That speed isn't useful in the American landscape but the flexibility certainly is. Where some muscle cars reach 50 or 60 mph in first gear with the engine turning 6000 rpm, the freer-revving S5 does only 65 mph in second gear at 7000 rpm. Power comes on smoothly and progressively, with plenty of torque to get you moving and a soundtrack Mozart couldn't better, rather like a muted American LeMans racing sports car, as the engine approaches its redline. At 65 mph, the engine spins 15-percent to 25-percent faster than most big V8s, so even at that speed in top gear there is useful urge in acceleration.
The gearing also pays dividends around town, where motion is so effortless you can start out smoothly from a stop in second gear. The car will idle in gear quite slowly and has decent compression braking so you can crawl along in traffic, and with just the slightest forethought, rarely have to use the clutch pedal. The shifter feels solid and of some heft, reminding us of a front-engine Porsche and heavier than the typical BMW; it is direct, precise and never misses a gear. Indeed, the only negative aspect of driving this car as a daily gridlock grinder is the gas mileage.
At the other end of the spectrum, big brakes and sticky tires haul the car down from speed in a drama-free hurry, without the nose diving to the pavement or the tail standing up like a hound on alert. Designed where repeated heavy slowing from 125 mph is common, the Audi's brakes will be tested in America only on racetracks. Naturally, the latest generations of electronic brake assistants are on board, but you have to be a real poser to have them come into play.
Quattro, Audi's all-wheel drive system that comes standard on the A5 and S5, nominally sends 40 percent of the power to the front wheels and 60 percent to the rear wheels to give dynamics related to a rear-wheel-drive car with the stability and enhanced poor weather traction of all-wheel drive. This system is always on and requires no driver action, automatically distributing propulsion in the most efficient, effective, stable manner.
As a result, the S5 is able to put down all 354 horsepower in any dry conditions and a greater proportion of it inclement conditions than would be possible without quattro. There's no tire spinning nor even a chirp as it lunges toward the horizon. With a set of narrower dedicated winter tires the only alternative that might come close is the considerably more expensive Porsche Carrera 4.
Another large change comes from the S5's layout, the first recent Audi to put the differential in between the engine and the transmission, taking some weight off the front wheels. The S5 splits its weight almost evenly over the front and rear wheels which, when matched with the all-wheel drive, allows each corner to do a near-equal amount of work. That translates to a car that feels less nose-heavy than before, changes directions much more crisply, minimizes body roll (just enough to know you're pushing it) and delivers inspiring confidence; indeed, we covered one stretch of wet road without putting a foot wrong as fast as we'd covered it in dry weather with a top-notch rear-wheel-drive sport sedan still prone to twitching its tail and not because of too much power.
Some credit is due the 19-inch sport tires, but it is the S5's lightweight, independent suspension, good balance, and all-wheel-drive grip that let it put on such displays of composure. Even a hack of a driver can frequently motor along quite briskly without any intervention from the stability system.
The A5 has similar exemplary characteristics; it merely goes down the winding road a bit smoother and slower. Less sticky tires absorb bumps better, as does the more compliant suspension that has no slop or wallow in it.
An A5 with the S-line package is a step firmer than the standard A5, though not as sporting as the S5. The S-line is perhaps the best for enthusiasts saddled with poor roads.
Although the S5 is 150 pounds heavier, with its larger engine and higher feature content, than an A5, the S5 has slightly better balance. The S5 weighs nearly 4,000 pounds, though, and doesn't have quite the feeling of place-it-anywhere lightness of a BMW 3 Series coupe or Jaguar XK. This isn't a bad thing, more a demonstration of the Audi's long-distance, high-speed touring philosophy as opposed to a less-compromised sports car. The ride is never punishing, but those more expensive rides with adjustable suspension do offer a bit more compliance for the marginal surfaces of some interstates.
Steering is nicely weighted and doesn't lack feel or reaction to the slightest turn of the wheel. We classify the Audi's steering heavier than a BMW in standard mode, but lighter than a BMW in Sport mode, so it's a happy medium. At parking speeds, it is light and quick, with a respectable cut for maneuvering.
Adaptive headlights, on models so equipped, swivel to illuminate the road in corners by reacting to steering wheel movement. And these are among the best, as they precisely follow the wheel and don't jerk from side to side as some do, better illuminating the road than making a distracting light show. So we recommend opting for them.
The Audi S5 is an immensely capable luxury coupe, especially for those who don't travel light or cancel plans because of weather. The A5 offers similar capabilities with a quieter demeanor for less cash. Other cars may excel at a given quality or quantity, but few can match the overall balance of the affordable A5 or deliver the performance blend of the S5. Both offer impressively handsome styling and top-notch engineering.
G.R. Whale filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of A5 and S5 models in Southern California.