Toyota will happily sell you a Camry sedan, but these days, you can't ask for a coupe, convertible, hatchback or wagon version of America's best-selling car. At one point or another, all were available, but today, it's four doors and a trunk or nothing. Whereas derivatives of mainstream cars have been waning, today's premium automakers have become experts at slicing up market segments and mining new niches, taking one model and spinning off a half-dozen "top hats" or performance variants. The inherently thicker profit margins of luxury cars mean that not only is such diversity possible, it's hard to resist.
Some automakers have taken this reality to absurd extremes, spawning complicated and overlapping family trees (see: BMW's 3 and 4 Series), while others have taken a more measured approach. Among the latter, Audi is nevertheless rapidly expanding its portfolio to include new derivatives, including this 2018 A5 and S5 Sportback range.
Modeled on the success of utterly gorgeous A7 Sportback, Audi's first so-called "four-door coupe," the 2018 A5 and S5 Sportback models append the swoopy five-door fastback formula to the German brand's smaller A4-based range with strong results. The A4 is already one of Roadshow's very favorite cars, thanks to its tidy handling, class-leading interior and massive complement of advanced cabin and safety technology. If anything, the Sportbacks only extend that appeal with added style and utility.
This success isn't just the simple matter of grafting on a sloping rear window to the standard A4 sedan. In many ways, the A5 and S5 Sportback have more in common with the A5/S5 Coupe with which they share alphanumerical designations. Audi's gone to an awful lot of trouble to make the Sportback's proportions just right, including lengthening the A4's wheelbase slightly (from 111 inches to 111.2 inches) and altering the profile, integrating frameless doors with a narrower band of glass to lower the roofline. All of the sheetmetal from the base of the windshield rearward is different from the A4, and indeed, the latter twins sit about an inch-and-a-half lower overall.
The net effect is a sleek, crisp fastback shape with a 0.29 coefficient of drag and significantly more cargo and rear-seat legroom than the A5 Coupe. As with all of Audi's newer offerings, sheetmetal creases are both more sharply defined and more numerous than the purer, rounded form of the larger A7 that inspired it. Whether that's a good thing is a matter of personal taste -- I prefer the simpler and more organic design language of the A7, but this is still a handsome vehicle in my book.
In any case, there are functional improvements, too. Audi reps point out that compared to the two-door A5/S5, the Sportback twins have 0.4 inches more front headroom, 0.9 inches more rear headroom, and second-row legroom that's better by 2.4 inches. Compared to the A4 sedan, the Sportback twins have around a half-inch more headroom up front, but take a half-inch haircut in the back. Rear legroom is also down a little over half an inch.
Practically speaking, I found plenty of room both front and rear for my 5-foot-9-inch frame, but more importantly, my 6-foot-plus co-driver uttered nary a complaint during our all-day drive. Sadly, thanks to those svelte doors, the second-row windows only roll down about half way.
The Sportback's biggest win is actually its cargo capacity, which jumps to 21.8 cubic-feet with the rear seats up (around twice the space of the A5 Coupe), to a whopping 35 cubic feet -- enough room for seven full-size suitcases. That's a mammoth increase over the A4, which has just 13 cubic feet of trunk space. (Audi weirdly doesn't publish seats-down cargo figures for its sedans.)
But enough with the practical tape-measure stuff -- this isn't a minivan, it's an Autobahn-honed European, and it's meant to be driven. I spent a stereotypically Seattle wet-weather day at the wheel both the A5 and S5 Sportback, and for the purposes of this review, I'll focus on the latter, as it's the model I netted more time in.
While the base A5 Sportback comes with Audi's ubiquitous 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine generating 252 horsepower and 272 pound-feet of torque, the S5 adds two cylinders and 1 liter of displacement, running up the output tallies to 354 horsepower and 369 pound feet of torque. Interestingly, while the A5 employs a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, the S5's turbocharged V6 comes with what sounds like a less-sporty cogswapper: a conventional eight-speed automatic, which Audi says is better suited for the larger engine's superior low-end torque, which comes on in full from as few as 1,370 revs.
The eight-speed turns out to be a good match for the linear power characteristics of the S5's V6, not only providing the sort of low-speed refinement that a conventional torque-converter-equipped gearbox is known for, but also the sort of crisp, rapid shifts needed when the driver calls up Dynamic mode on the Drive Select menu. Manual changes are executed promptly when called for by the shift paddles, but the paddles themselves are somewhat stubby and feel disappointing. Left to its own devices, Audi says the S5 Sportback will rocket to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds -- a substantial 1.2 seconds quicker than the A5 Sportback -- and it feels every bit that quick.
The eight-speed also helps provide surprisingly decent fuel economy, with EPA ratings calling for 21 miles per gallon in the city, 30 highway or 24 combined on premium gas.
As one might expect, the aforementioned multimode Drive Select features Dynamic mode for sporty driving, but also Comfort for relaxed throttle, suspension and gearbox tuning, as well as Individual, which allows the driver to tailor specific aspects of the car's performance to his or her wishes, including the amount of noise the active exhaust generates (the S5 includes active solenoids that allow for the individual opening of one, two, three or all four exhaust valves to tailor sound).
Handling on my test car's upgraded 19-inch Cavo wheels and 255/35-series Continental ContiSportContact summer rubber was confidence inspiring, even when pushing a bit on the wet and winding heavily forested rural roads outside of Seattle. Despite the S Sport package fitted to my test car -- which includes sport adaptive dampers and a sport rear differential -- I still noticed a tendency to understeer some in hot corners, but that safety-first orientation is appropriate for a street car, especially in a model that isn't branded RS. Even so, when driven hard, the S5 feels smaller than it is, and lighter than its 3,924-pound curb weight suggests. With so much power on tap and Quattro all-wheel drive always at the ready, it isn't hard to make serious rapid progress in this car, and the S5's V6 provides a pleasing soundtrack that is sadly absent in the four-cylinder A5 Sportback.
In addition to its substantial performance bump, there's a lot of additional equipment included with the S5 Sportback to help justify its $54,400 starting price (plus $975 for delivery). That's a big bump over the base $42,600 A5 Sportback, but it's worth pointing out that the S5 starts at the midspec Premium Plus level, meaning that in addition to its dynamic improvements and unique visuals (model-specific front and rear fascias, grille trim, quad exhausts and silver-painted mirror caps), you also get a lot more kit. Key upgrades include heated memory front seats, full LED headlamps, keyless start, as well as a couple of key advanced safety features, namely Side Assist (blind-spot monitor), rear cross-traffic alert and exit assist, which warns occupants not to open closed doors when cars or cyclists are approaching.
If technology is very much your bag, the A5 and S5 Sportback family is available with gobs of performance and advanced driver-assist gear, as well as loads of advanced creature comforts. It's dangerously easy to bloat the bottom line, as there's lots of tempting tech to splurge on, including $2,600 for MMI navigation, connect Prime and Plus telematics and Audi's dazzling Virtual Cockpit, which bins analog gauges in favor of a 12.3-inch reconfigurable screen and a larger 8.3-inch center-stack display. Save your money on the $1,150 variable-rack Dynamic Steering system -- it works well enough, but the standard electromechanical setup is no hardship to use, and its 15.9:1 ratio is plenty quick.
The S5's low-slung cabin is a study in pleasing shapes and textures, with high-quality switchgear and panel materials throughout. Beautiful and supportive quilted leather and Alcantara sport seats come standard, as does a feel-good flat-bottomed wheel and aluminum pedal caps. Audi hasn't yet figured out how to offer both quilted and perforated leather simultaneously, so if you want cooled seats, you'll have to settle for less-impressive-looking chairs, and spend $800 for the warm-weather package.
Somewhat annoyingly, decorative trim inlays are limited to brushed aluminum or $500 black carbon fiber inserts, presumably because they shout "I'm sporty!" more loudly. if you want the gorgeous matte wood finishes offered in other Audi models, you'll have to make do with the less powerful A5 Sportback. Specification quibbles aside, this is both a very stylish and comfortable cabin that reeks of luxury.
Part of the interior's hard-earned sheen of indulgence comes because of the aforementioned seats and Virtual Cockpit display, but other things like a standard panoramic moonroof, built-in 4G LTE Wi-Fi and wireless charging add to the experience. Crave-worthy options include a $950 3D Bang & Olufsen system with 19 speakers and 755 watts, but even if you go with the standard system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility are included.
All in, there's precious little not to like with the S5 Sportback. It offers blistering all-weather performance, a no-apologies cabin, ample safety tech and excellent cargo space. And it does so wrapped up in far sleeker visuals than either BMW's 3 Series Gran Turismo or 4 Series Gran Coupe, let alone more conventional sedans like Mercedes-Benz's C43. Audi's latest offering may be something of a segment-splitter, but it does a fine job incorporating the best attributes of all of them.
There are few more satisfying all-around sports-luxury contenders on the market.
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