2008 Audi S5 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
All-new coupes drive as good as they look.
The Audi A5 and the performance-oriented Audi S5 are Audi's first mid-size coupes in more than a decade, larger than the TT which offers a token rear seat only in coupe form. The A5 is built on a new structure that also forms the basis for the next generation A4 sedan.
A distinctive shape identifies the A5 and S5 models from virtually any angle, with flowing curves bringing some musculature to Audi's sleek, aerodynamic forms and arresting light patterns. From dead behind there's slight chance of mistaking it for a British GT car, but from any other angle it's unmistakably Audi.
These are two-plus-two GT cars designed to cover lots of ground at good average speed while coddling a pair of occupants by minimizing environmental distractions; rear seats are for the occasional adult passengers or bringing the kids along. The A5 and S5 involve the driver physically, audibly, and mentally though never to the point of making it a chore or less than inviting. An S5 can be hustled down virtually any road at a good clip, but it is unfair to expect these big, heavy coupes to behave like small sports cars.
Audi interiors have been racking up awards for most of the 21st century and the A5/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 enjoy a road trip of any length.
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 an S5's nearest competitors is the Mercedes-Benz CLK550, with a bit more power but no choice of transmission, no all-wheel drive, and about $5,000 more. While the $40,000 A5 and $50,000 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 selected Porsche 911 models. And while each of those is a fine car and may offer more speed or perhaps technological gadgetry, only the 911 offers all-wheel drive, for a $6,000 premium.
The 2008 Audi A5 ($39,900) features a 265-hp V6 engine, six-speed manual gearbox and quattro all-wheel drive. The 2008 Audi S5 ($50,500) uses a 354-hp V8 engine. Both versions will be available with a six-speed automatic transmission ($1,300).
A5 comes standard with leather upholstery, including the steering wheel and shifter and wood trim (walnut, nutmeg, or ash). Also standard are three-zone climate control, power front seats, 60/40 split-fold rear seat with ski bag/pass-through, tilt/telescoping steering column, glass roof with shade, four-way adjustable center console, monochrome driver info center, AM/FM/CD/satellite/SD-card 180-watt 10-speaker stereo, fog lights, 18-inch wheels, heated windshield washers, cruise control, power windows/locks/mirrors, and rain-sensing wipers.
A5 options include an S-line package with firmer suspension, 19-inch wheels, different trim in and out and sport seats, two-position driver memory system, power folding mirrors, LED daytime running lights, bi-Xenon headlights with washers, heated front seats, Milano leather upgrade, and aluminum trim.
Optional on both A5 and S5 are metallic paint, adaptive headlamps, Advanced key (stays in your pocket), Audi side assist, navigation, and a Bang & Olufsen sound system.
S5 includes everything on the A5 plus 19-inch wheels and 255/35YR19 tires, bigger brakes, rear spoiler, Silk Nappa leather sport seats with integral headrests and optional Alcantara inserts, two-position driver memory system, color screen driver info center, bi-Xenon headlamps and LED daytime running lights, auto-dimming power-folding mirrors, headlight washers, heated front seats, and aluminum interior trim with carbon, wood, or stainless steel available. The S5 manual transmission model carries the mandated U.S. gas guzzler tax ($1,300).
Safety gear that comes standard on all A5 and S5 models consists of two-stage driver and adaptive passenger frontal airbags, front side-impact airbags, side curtain airbags, Backguard headrests, electronic stability control, ABS, EBD, all-wheel drive, and tire pressure monitors.
Audi's A5/S5 duo are arguably amongst the better looking cars introduced in the past year, appearing at once formal and sporting. 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 bottom 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. But maybe not. The A5 made it on 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 tactile 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 pant 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 like BMW's iDrive and Mercedes' COMAND systems, but it has four c.
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 the redline it would happily laugh off if not for bits like air conditioners. 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 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 generation 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 has inspiring confidence; indeed, we covered one stretch of wet road without putting a foot wrong as fast as we.
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 afforded by the affordable A5 or performance value 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.
Audi A5 ($39,900); S5 ($50,500).
Options As Tested
Technology package ($1,700) includes rear park assist, rear camera, adaptive headlamps, Advanced key; Bang & Olufsen sound system ($850); navigation system ($2,350).
Audi S5 ($50,500).
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