Push the button to fire up the V-8 under the hood and you immediately know what the 2011 Audi S5 is all about. The deep-throated purr is an understated but very real titillation and a broad, compelling hint of what the 354-horsepower, 4.2-litre powerplant can do: 0-100 km/h in less than five seconds.
There's more to why the S5 is arguably the best car in Audi Canada's lineup, too. The S5 is the car you want if you're a refined gearhead who lives without drawing attention to your passion for cars. Indeed, the all-wheel-drive S5 is a delicious coupe (or convertible) and in the rarefied world of racy street cars it's affordable, too.
Don't laugh. The S5 starts at $59,900 for the coupe with a tidy little six-speed manual gearbox. The six-speed Tiptronic automatic is an extra $1,600. The S5 Cabriolet starts at $68,300. Hard to call a $60,000-plus coupe a value purchase, yet consider the alternatives.
BMW's rear-drive M3 coupe has a base price of $71,700 and the convertible M3 begins at $82,300. Yes, Audi has a pricing edge. Moreover, the S5 as a daily driver is a more user-friendly automobile than the M3. The Bimmer is all about raw performance and as such it's a bit much Monday to Friday, day in and day out. In a nutshell, it's too harsh for the cut and thrust of regular commuter traffic.
I think the S5 is prettier than the M3, too. The lines are smooth and pleasing to the eye. Typical Audi.
But this is Audi's niche. Audi is the "other" Bavarian car company, the one from the small, rather inglorious town of Ingolstadt up the road from BMW headquarters in stylish and wealthy Munich. Audi certainly is just as serious about racing and high performance as the Bimmer people, yet because they are still rather new to the premium game, Audi has less swagger. You can see the difference between BMW and Audi in the designs and the execution of the products and how they are sold and delivered.
What does all that mean? Rather than tell you in broad strokes, zero in on the S5. It is a rolling example of what Audi represents. The coupe I just tested is appealing in the same way classic British sports cars used to be in the 1950s and 1960s. You know the ones. I am talking about, say, an Austin-Healey 100-Six (1956-59) or a Morgan +8 Roadster (1968 onwards).
The S5 does not look aggressive, but instead promising and refined. Of course, the design is all Audi - especially the lighting - and yet at the same time Audi designers clearly have a world view of things and they know their automotive history.
Meanwhile, the engineers at Audi know what they're doing, too. You surely can do 250 km/h and plenty do on the German autobahn stretches where this sort of thing remains legal. The engineers dialled in power to spare and it pours on fast when your right foot burrows into the throttle. Fantastic.
When it's time to stop, the S5's braking system hauls you down to nothing from top speed in a blink, no muss, no fuss, no scary moments of any sort. In between, Audi's standard quattro system delivers the power to the front and rear wheels in a 40 to 60 per cent ratio - the better to give the car a rear-drive feel.
That front-rear power split also makes the S5 stable at high speeds. Moreover, the nimble, quick responses in tight turns and sweeping corners are aided by a helpful push from the rear. Quattro, of course, continually monitors your driving and distributes power accordingly, where it's needed. Forget about tires spinning, even in wet conditions. Quattro is always on, managing the power to minimize the potential for losing control.
Again with the engineers: Despite starting life as a front-driver, the S5 is less nose-heavy because the differential is located between the engine and transmission. The result is better balance, thus better handling.
Creature comforts? The S5 will seat four adults, two in the rear, though pinched. The trunk will hold two decent-sized cases and the rear seat reclines for more cargo space. The cabin is filled with handsome materials and smart usability. The most frequently used functions can be accessed via the three-spoke, leather-wrapped steering wheel.
The instruments are housed in two teardrop-shaped pods with a tachometer and speedometer centrally located, along with a data display which the driver can scroll through using the steering wheel controls. A multi-media interface is relatively easy to use.
The biggest downside to this and any Audi is the brand's continuing issues with dependability. The most recent J.D. Power and Associate Vehicle Dependability Study placed Audi below average. Again. Not good. On the other hand, Audi's resale values in Canada are well above average for premium vehicles.
Quality and resale aside, a grand touring coupe (or convertible) should be an elegant and engaging 24/7 ride and the S5 is just that. And you'll know it from the second you light up that delightful V-8.
2011 Audi S5 Premium Coupe
Type: Mid-size high-performance coupe
Price: $64,900 ($1,995 freight)
Engine: 4.2-litre V-8
Horsepower/torque: 354 hp/325 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 15.1 city/9.4 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: BMW M3