Sporty, solid and sexy — Audi’s S5 Sportback

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(July 21, 2018) “Great looking with an amazing body.” It’s a simple declarative sentence that could put you in front of a #metoo firing squad — if you weren’t referring to Audi’s S5 Sportback, that is.

From its introduction in 2007, the A5 has been a stunner. Designed under the watchful eye of Walter de Silva who, during his stint at Alfa Romeo (1986-1999), drew the delectable Alfa 156, a car that put Alfa back on the map stylistically, and brought lust back to the affordable sedan sector.

For the next three years de Silva worked to establish a cohesive yet emotional design language for the VW Group’s Seat brand, while hiding their VW roots. This led to him being named chief of design for what was then called the “Audi Brand Group,” and included Audi, Seat and Lamborghini. There he gave us, among other things, the massive single-frame (or “Singleframe” in Audi speak) grille, the technical yet emotional styling of the first-generation R8, the Lamborghini Miura Concept, and his favorite design, the A5.

That A5 had a Latin flair you never find on a German design. True, it was crisp and clean, but it also was sensuous and its detailing spare. The A5 never suffered from the overwrought and overly literal styling that has plagued cars like BMW’s Mini since the replacement of Frank Stephenson’s original. Unlike the current Mini, the new A5, especially in Sportback form, is more handsome in person than in photographs.

Even the chiseled upper body line, which could have been overbearing, works well with the convex shape below it to manipulate shadow and light to add dimension and depth. It’s quite sexy.

The S5 is pretty damned quick, too. With standard all-wheel drive, an eight-speed automatic, and a turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 producing 354 hp and 369 lb.-ft. of torque, Audi claims the S5 Sportback takes just 4.5 seconds to travel from 0 to 60 mph, and tops out at 155 mph.

I have no reason to doubt those numbers. In fact, I suspect they’re slightly conservative, as the nearly 4,000 pound (3,924 lb. says Audi) S5 digs hard when prodded. Mash the throttle and the launch-controlled acceleration builds quickly, accompanied by a sophisticated yet guttural roar from the exhaust. The same happens when passing.

After an almost indiscernible wait for the turbos to spool up, the S5 throws itself at the horizon, building speed quickly, and feeling as though the car is trying to increase the rotational speed of the earth. Credit the quattro all-wheel drive and sticky 255/35R-19 summer tires, the last of which are part of the optional 19-in. wheel package. It includes handsome contrasting gray/polished Cavo design five-spoke wheels for a reasonable $800 upcharge.

The brakes are impressive, giving a firm pedal and linear response, and bringing the car to a stop quickly. There are no fancy carbon-ceramic discs, just 13.8 in. front/13.0 in. rear ventilated cast iron rotors clamped by six-piston calipers in front and twin-piston calipers in the rear. Order the $2,500 S Sport package, and — in addition to the adaptive suspension and sport rear differential — the calipers are painted red.

Thankfully, the test car wasn’t fitted with the $1,150 Dynamic Steering option. Check that box, and the steering ratio gets quicker the more the wheel is turned. The idea it to make the car feel more nimble (the torque-vectoring sport differential does a very good job of that), but adds another layer of tech that dampens the natural feedback of the chassis. Whereas the sport differential affects turn-in response and stability by varying the side-to-side torque at the rear wheels in response to dynamic input, this system overlays a response based on wheel speed, wheel movement and the driving mode selected, and that almost certainly robs feel and introduces its own compromises. Best to save the money, and accept that, as it approaches the limit, the S5 Sportback understeers.

It also rides a bit firmly, especially when you crank up the adaptive dampers. This may be perfect for a track day, or a well-paved back road, but introduces harshness that really serves no purpose. On a smooth track, stiff springs, firm dampers and immediate turn-in response give the fastest lap time, but these same characteristics make a car uncomfortable on real roads. There you want long, well-controlled wheel travel that absorbs the bumps and keeps the wheels in contact with the inevitably imperfect road surface.

The closest you will get to this ideal on the S5 is to leave the drive mode selector in Auto where it belongs. (Forget the Comfort setting. It introduces too many compromises, especially in terms of throttle response, for use anywhere but long road trips on the highway.)

Like all Audis, the interior is the very definition of high quality. Fit and finish are impeccable, materials are top notch, and the controls are logically and ergonomically arranged. There’s no use complaining about the infotainment system controller (or MMI — Man Machine Interface — in Audi speak), we’re stuck with these things until we either go fully autonomous or someone comes up with a better idea.

To its credit, Audi has added handwriting recognition in the form of a black insert on the top of the controller on which you trace letters and numbers for input, simplified the key layout by placing the key functions on toggles, and added keys to each side to handle horizontal menu functions. It’s an improvement. However, adding the MMI touch and its handwriting function means adding Navigation plus, Audi Connect Prime & Plus and the 12.3-in. Virtual Cockpit instrument display and shelling out an additional $2,500. Ouch.

That’s double the price of the Nappa leather interior, which features red sport seats with diamond patter center sections, a flat-bottom steering wheel, heated eight-way power front seats with power bolsters and a massage function. They are supportive without being restrictive, but the side bolsters are large enough to make ingress and egress through the low opening a bit inelegant for those carrying a few (ahem!) extra pounds around their middle.

Rear seat room is surprisingly good, the low roof and standard sunroof not impinging excessively for taller passengers. Leg room could be a concern if the front seat passengers have long legs, but the 111.2-in. wheelbase allows most to fit comfortably in the back seat. The steep roofline, however, does reduce the utility of the hatchback body style, but versatility is helped by the 40:20:40 split rear seat back, low liftover height, and the ability to take irregularly shaped items that might not fit in a sedan.

The S5 Sportback is EPA rated at 21 city/30 highway/24 combined, and bettered its highway mileage rating by two mpg during our time with it. Premium fuel is required, and our real world mileage combined with the S5’s 15.3-gallon tank means you can travel 424 while keeping a 2.3 gallon reserve. The extra expense of premium fuel should not be a problem for most buyers as the S5 Sportback tested has a base price of $54,400, and an all-in price of $63,975. This is not an inexpensive car, though deleting the navigation package, S sport package and Nappa leather would lower the sticker to a somewhat more manageable $57,625.

The S5 Sportback is an incredibly sexy, powerful, and luxurious sporting four-door with the added utility of a hatchback and all-wheel drive. In Ibis White with a Magma Red interior it draws attention wherever it goes, most of them admiring glances. What more could you want?

The Virtual Driver