Five years ago, we got our first take in North America of the then-new Audi A5 at the New York auto show. Volkswagen Group chief designer Walter de’Silva called the A5 the “most beautiful car” he had ever designed.
The A5 remains lovely, but it’s the S5 that gets your blood up. If the elegant and dynamic A5 is art, then the S5 is ballet on four wheels – muscular and beautiful, powerful and delicious in a physical way completely different from static paintings or sculpture.
After 1,000 km behind the wheel of a 2012 S5, I climbed out of the cockpit, thinking to myself: these premium German car makers are looking smug these days, but something like the S5 has me thinking they have good reason to be self-satisfied.
The 2012 S5, of course, is different than the upcoming 2013. My 2012 tester coupe ($60,500 base) had the 354-horsepower 4.2-litre V-8, while for 2013 the S5 gets a new powerplant: the 3.0 V-6 (333 hp/325 lb-ft of torque).
Why the change? Fuel economy. The supercharged V-6 uses 20 per cent less premium gas (8.1 litres/100 km) while being even faster than the V-8: 0 to 100 km/h in just 4.9 seconds versus 5.1 seconds for the V-8.
The record should show that if you want a V-8-powered S5, you’ll need to take one out of existing dealer inventory in Canada. Too bad, because the V8 grumbles and burbles like, well, like a V-8 – powerful in an easy, relaxed way. It will be quite an engineering feat if the smaller, force-fed V-6 is as delightful.
You see, the S5 is as effortless to drive as any 350-hp car with a race-tuned suspension has a right to be. The six-speed Tiptronic automatic (with paddle shifters and for an extra $1,600) delivers sharp, crisp gear changes of an amazing sort, really. Heated, leather-faced sport buckets, a $2,000 Navigation Package … Oh, the list of features goes on and on and on. It’s criminal to ask for much more in a coupe.
What is perhaps the most startling of all, though, is how well a five-year-old design has held up. Perhaps that’s because the look here was well considered – going back nearly a decade. Remember 2003? Remember the Nuvolari quattro concept car that more than hinted at what Audi had planned for a powerful, high-performance coupe with a sophisticated design – the A5/S5.
True art ages, but it doesn’t get old. That’s the S5. It does not look tired, in need of cosmetic surgery. The lines are graceful, the sheet metal surfaces as strong as the face is expressive. Audi’s biggest problem here is to come up with a replacement without going backwards.
There’s nothing backwards about driving the S5, either. Sure, the design is aerodynamic – smooth underbody and spoilers molded into the sides of the tail lights – but the agile, crisp handling really starts in the S5’s rigid body structure and its special sports suspension.
Two key points: First, the front axle is way forward for a longitudinal engine in a car with four-wheel drive. That explains the long wheelbase and short front overhang in a car with balanced weight distribution. Second, Audi has managed weight in many ways, including the main elements of the suspension, which are made of aluminum.
Being Audi, quattro all-wheel-drive is standard and it is a shockingly effective help with your driving, even on dry pavement. For the record, the engineers set up quattro with a rear bias: 40 per cent of the torque goes to the front, 60 per cent to the rear axle. As you need it, though, the drive train automatically shifts torque front or rear. That is, if you need a little extra pull out of a corner, it’s there. In addition, high-performance brakes are calming in how easily they scrape speed and the stability control is there to intervene if you get over your head and need an electronic nanny.
The cabin is a match for the engineering, too. Sports seats, sports steering wheel, clear instruments, aluminum door sill plates – the interior is what it should be, handsome, not pretty. The driver-focused cockpit has instruments and controls packaged in a single unit. The instruments themselves are droplet-shaped and something of a curiosity.
True, it takes a little time to learn the MMI (multi-media interface) control unit, but once accomplished, navigating through the various screens is not hard – though, as with all of these things, one too often needs to look down to manage even the simplest tasks, such as changing a radio station.
And space. Driver and front passenger have plenty of room, but the half-seats in the rear are ideal only for children and computer bags. The luggage compartment can handle two full sets of golf clubs and two small overnight bags, but no more. Be sparing when packing for a getaway.
I was. The golfing at the end of my test drive was fun, but the getting there was the best part.
2012 Audi S5 Coupe 4.2
Type: High-performance coupe
Base price: $60,500 (freight $1,995)
Engine: 4.2-litre V-8
Horsepower/torque: 354 hp/325 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic ($1,600)
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 15.1 city/9.4 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: BMW M3, Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG