IT is still a little too early to say how well Audi is succeeding in its avowed aim to become the world's leading premium brand manufacturer, but the latest new niche model to reach our offices makes us wonder whether or not it is actually trying too hard: in a South African context at least, the Audi A5 Sportback places big question marks over the viability of more than one of its siblings.
However, in a time when Audis are perhaps a bit too predictable, here comes a flash of pizzazz. The Sportback is only a little bigger than the A5 Coupé (76 mm longer, 22 mm taller but the same width) but offers two extra doors and much more luggage space - and costs R10 000 less.
Whether or not it is better looking is a matter of choice, but the similarities are obvious. Then again, it is smaller than the A6 whose battle for acceptance locally remains one of life's mysteries: simply too conservative, maybe?
But, more critically, what about the highselling A4 range, which also comes under attack from some quarters for simply being "too Audi"? A debatable issue, but Sportback does demand a R50 000+ price premium over the equivalent A4 saloon.
So, what does the A5 Sportback have to offer to justify its upmarket positioning? It is certainly one of the most distinctive and sporty designs in the admittedly generically similar range of Audi passenger cars.
The low roof, shallow glasshouse - with frameless door windows - and coupé profile help create a hunkereddown stance that has clear similarities with the two-door four-seat coupé.
The Sportback's looks are balanced and racy, set off by wheelarch-filling rims and tyres - optional 18-inch alloys wrapped in 245/40 rubber on the 3,0TDI test car (17-inchers are standard). So far so good then.
Except for two drawbacks. First, there is no wiper/washer for the sloping tailgate glass that can quickly accumulate a layer of dust and/or grime that reduces rearward visibility. Second, the sealing of the test car's driver's door glass allowed a faint whistle at cruising speeds that increased to a relative roar during a Cape south easter, a noise that is irritating, distracting and can be tiring over time.
Step inside and the familiar Audi "come on in" welcoming ambience is immediate, this time with a more intimate feel.
The sporty leather seats and comprehensively equipped facia are to be expected, but it is a surprising not to feel a tad claustrophobic: from within, the effect of the low roof/narrow windows is not pressing.
Allelectric adjustment for both front chairs - allied with steering having plenty of rake and reach adjustment - allows for a comfortable driving position for practically everyone: head not too close to the roof but with an eye-line well above the steering wheel rim.
Oh yes, the MMI controller is now positioned on the facia hangdown section and thus relates even better to the screen graphics.
At the back it is a little tighter but adults do fit. Once ensconced, rear passengers benefit from the lack of a token third seating position in the middle as the bench is sculpted for two.
A broad fold-down centre armrest helps create a snug effect, although the plastic cover concealing the emergency kit did not latch properly and flipped forward onto the armrest every time the test car's brakes were applied at anything above walking pace. Separate rear compartment climate control helped prevent occupants from getting hot under the collar with this annoyance...
The boot is long and its contents protected by a two-part cover. Space measures 328 dm3 rising to an even 1 000 dm3 with the split rear seat folded forward. A tyre pressure monitor compensates for the spacesaver spare.
The characteristics of Audi's 3,0-litre V6 turbodiesel are familiar and the power unit continues to be one of the best around, delivering 500 N.m of maximum torque across the most used rev range of 1 500 to 3 000 r/min.
The power peak of 176 kW appears at a fairly high 4 000 r/min but there is little benefit in challenging the red line - rather let the torque and the seven-speed S tronic twin-clutch automatic transmission keep everything "on the boil".
The benchmark zeroto- 100 km/h sprint passes in a respectable 6,84 seconds, and using kickdown the Sportback will accelerate from 0 to 120 km/h in 6,34 seconds, meaning progress is swift when you want - or need - it to be.
The S tronic offers a choice of normal and Sport (sharpens the responses) modes with manual override available either by the centre console shifter or paddles behind the multi-function steering wheel. It most operations shifts are averagely quick and unobtrusive, but engage with a noticeable clunk when dropping down the gears when coming to a halt.
With the new fuel tax about to be implemented ahead of the "emissions tax", running costs are once again under the spotlight and the A5 Sportback's fuel index of 7,92 litres/100 km is impressive for a car of this size and weight - 1 663 kg. A range of 800 km should be possible on a 64-litre tank, and CO2 emissions are 207 g/km.
Dynamically, the Audi A5 - with its famed Quattro all-wheel drive system - goes about its business without any fuss or bother. As always, the Servotronic steering is ideally geared and gives just enough feedback to be classified as "informative".
Fitted with a basic - ie lower and slightly stiffer - sports suspension (a R3 300 option) and the optional wheels, the ride is firm but still with practically no bump-through. Body roll is all but nonexistent and now that the default Quattro torque split is 40:60 front to rear, the slightly nose-heavy (54:46 per cent) Sportback exhibits hardly any all-wheel drive understeer when pushing hard through corners.
Full-house ABS braking via ventilated discs up front and solid rotors at the rear provides competent stopping power. An electronic park brake is a welcome feature.
New and standard across the Sportback range is a mild energy recuperation system. When decelerating (coasting, braking), the alternator converts the kinetic energy into electrical energy that is stored in the battery.
As the car accelerates or is in cruise mode, the output of the alternator is reduced, which lessens the load on the engine.
It has to be said that many of the test team have been underwhelmed with recent new Audi models, so it was reassuring to see the arrival of the A5 Sportback create such a buzz of enthusiasm from all quarters.
In one fell swoop, the Sportback combines the best of Audi's generic coupé and saloon model lines to create a car that is as stylish and practical as most people will ever need. Faith has been restored.