We were impressed with the look of the Audi A5, when we saw it launched at the Geneva auto show earlier this year. But when the 2008 Audi S5 turned up on our car review schedule, we were pleased and surprised to get the S5 before the A5. As it turns out, Audi brought the S5 to market in the U.S., and as of this review, the A5 is not available. That's OK, though, as the S5 is not only beautiful, it is just about perfect.
We loved driving this car, as it felt highly responsive while the engine gives a blast of power. Audi refined its navigation and Bluetooth systems, then upped the ante with a stellar Bang & Olufsen stereo system. At first, we found nothing to criticize about this car. But some issues emerged as we took it on our road tests.
Test the tech: S5 Avenue
During our review of the Mercedes-Benz GL320 CDI, we poked around in Northern California's wine country and found an excellent road for a sports car. At that time we were anticipating the arrival of the 2008 Audi S5 in a few weeks, so started referring to this road as S5 Avenue. With its long, sweeping turns and 35 mile run from Highway 101 to the coast, we knew it would be a blast to drive in the right kind of car.
One fine Monday morning we jumped in the car and headed north. The car drove incredibly well on the freeway, letting us power up hills and around the slowpokes. At speed, the steering tightens up and offers more road feel than the low speed, parking lot setting. We also noticed an indicator on the small, high-resolution color LCD between the speedometer and tachometer that showed our current gear, and occasionally a second number, in green, suggesting we get into a higher gear for better fuel economy. This feature is useful because, even at its best, the S5 gets simply awful mileage. Our photo and video shoots with the S5 had already taken the tank down to half, so we stopped for a fill-up before we set out on S5 Avenue.
At the gas station, we set the navigation system to give us guidance to our starting point. We experienced a little frustration, as the system didn't let us search by name; instead we brought up the recreation areas category and had to scroll through page after page until we found our spot. We were previously able to do a search by name in the restaurant category, so we marked our frustration down to a confusing interface. On this part of the journey, we also took advantage of the car's stereo, being treated to some of the finest audio we've heard. But more on that later.
Once on what we called S5 Avenue, we let the car run into its first corner, its gentle curve and the car's 354 horses calling for third gear. The tires made no complaint and we felt no slippage, as the Quattro all-wheel-drive distributed torque, keeping the car following where we pointed it. As we gathered confidence on this road, which included rises and downslopes replete with corners worthy of the corkscrew at Laguna Seca, we let the car run faster. On every corner we attacked, the car tracked perfectly, and there was no wheel slip or sliding.
But as our speed picked up, we were surprised to find the car leaning heavily in the turns. G-forces were taking hold of the body, and the S5 just let it happen, apparently doing nothing to dampen the effect. We tried powering harder out of the turns to put the car on an even keel, but that only flattened it out a little. Later, we looked up the car's options and found that Audi's Magnetic Ride Suspension, which we used in the Audi TT Roadster and suspected would have counteracted the body roll, isn't an option for the S5.
On the second half of our S5 Avenue, body roll wasn't as much of a problem, as the turns tightened up considerably, putting us into second-gear territory. This stretch of road was dotted with speed-limiting chicanes in the form of areas where it narrowed down to one lane for both directions of traffic. Fortunately, there wasn't much traffic, except for the occasional tractor-trailer, another cue to be cautious on the many blind turns.
The car performed well on these tighter turns, but we were relieved to finally hit the coast so we could pull over and stretch our cramping hands and clutch foot. Along the coast, we drove south, getting to experience some more of the car's excellent handling. And after a good four hours behind the wheel, we pulled back into the CNET garage, noticing the car's main flaw of having achieved just 16.3 mpg for this round trip of about 250 miles.
In the cabin
As a coupe, the 2008 Audi S5 doesn't offer the most spacious cabin. And while we liked the Tuscan Brown leather package and the wood inlays, the console and dash use some plastics that look cheap; not a great find in an expensive sports car.
As for the cabin electronics, we've seen the Audi Multimedia Interface (MMI) and its navigation, Bluetooth, and stereo on past Audi models, but in the S5 everything seems a bit more refined. It looks as if Audi keeps fine-tuning these electronics to make them better, without making any radical changes. The MMI uses a large knob and buttons mounted on the console, the positioning previously reserved for bigger, more expensive Audis. As we saw in the new Audi A4 at the Frankfurt auto show this year, Audi is migrating the MMI controls to the console on even its lower end cars. One evolutionary step for the MMI we noticed in the similarly equipped Audi A6 earlier this year is that Audi color-coded the interface, making navigation screens blue, audio screens orange, and cell phone screens green, a nice visual cue.
We were very pleased with the look of the navigation system's maps. They have a very high resolution and the system offers a long zoom range. The system worked fast and tracked the car well. When we were zooming along S5 Avenue, we frequently glanced at the map to anticipate upcoming turns. Entering addresses can be a little tedious with the rotary MMI dial, but the system quickly compiled predictive lists. The system doesn't have any extra features, such as live traffic or text to speech, but it handles the basics with excellence.