THIS, then, is the car that can make big boys cry at the mere sight of it. Or so we’re told… Whether or not the tale of Audi designer Walter de’Silva crying when he saw his latest creation in the metal for the first time has grown with each telling, is not the point. No, the point is that Audi has eagerly hyped the design aspect of its A5 and S5 coupés. And at the local launch it quickly became evident why. Audi says that in the segment where the A5 and S5 compete, design is seen as the single most important reason for purchase. This is why the A5 and S5 are on billboards proclaiming them to be modern art. The S5 has to be beautiful to succeed. Or at least, potential buyers have to believe that it is…
Seeing the S5 arrive at the CAR offices did not make all of the test team emotional but, nevertheless, comments were generally positive. Most said that it looked bigger than they had expected. This is not the result of eye-foolery. In fact, the S5 is a large car. Measuring 4 635 mm in length, it is as long as a Mercedes-Benz CLK. But it is 1 854 mm wide, which makes it as broad-shouldered as a BMW M6. And standing 1 396 mm high, it once again measures up to the Mercedes CLK.
Walter de’Silva and his team has used the generous proportions to create a harmoniously flowing profile, characterised by a gently rising and falling “Cokebottle” curve along the flanks. But its also got a few “edgy” details, such as the rear side window frame that drops back sharply at the rear, giving the car a chopped, almost muscle-car look. Viewed from the rear, there is a liberal use of horizontal lines, adding further width to the overall appearance. And at the front there is the by-now well-recognised single-frame Audi grille which, in S-trim, is even bolder. Several members of CAR’s test team commented that the frontend is perhaps too “generically” Audi. But they soon were stunned to silence when the standard LED daytime running lights were fired up…
These lights give the S5 menacing overtaking presence. However, about half of the team were not convinced by the S5’s overall styling, with comments ranging from “bland” to “Korean”. One also noted that the S5 looks so right now, that it probably wouldn’t age well. That said, the other half of the test team was, in fact, smitten. If not in tears…
By virtue of its generous exterior proportions, the S5 reminds of the grand touring coupés of old. It rides on a wheelbase that measures 2 751 mm (longer than CLK’s, slightly shorter than 6 Series’), which theoretically should give it good interior space. Seated in front, this is certainly the case. Here, the driver (or passenger) is faced by an exquisitely detailed facia of very high perceived quality. The generously proportioned and multi-adjustable front seats give a luxurious lounge chair feeling, and headroom is certainly good, too. The facia design can best be described as a combination of high-tech (standard MMI display and controller, electronic park brake etc.) and sporty (aluminium detailing, deep-set round main instrument gauges, high-placed gearshift lever). To add to the effect, the white needles do a Subaru-like swoosh around the dials upon start-up. Sitting behind the steering wheel, the S5 makes its driver feel like a million bucks.
Those in the rear, however, will not be so happy. While footand shoulder-room are good, knee- and, especially, headroom are not. So, those rear seats are really only for smaller adults or children. But the S5’s practicality is boosted by folding rear seats that up the impressive standard 296 dm3 luggage space to a total usable volume of 760.
Under the skin, S5 shares much with the upcoming all-new A4 saloon. The biggest changes are at the front, where the front differential is located in front of the clutch, moving the driveshafts forward as well, resulting in a shorter front overhang. More importantly, the rack and pinion for the Servotronic power steering had to be positioned in front of the front axle line, close to the wheels’ centreline, and this is claimed to improve steering response. Combined with an allnew, lightweight five-link front suspension layout, Audi says the heavily revised front-end set-up has eliminated the determined understeer that blighted the copybook of fast Audis of the past.
The S5 uses Audi’s acclaimed quattro all-wheel drive system, and copies the basic 40:60 front to rear torque distribution first used effectively on the RS4. A self-locking centre differential proportions drive to whichever axle can apply it best.
The engine is Audi’s compact 4,2-litre V8, now with FSI direct fuel injection and tuned to deliver 260 kW at 7 000 r/min and 440 N.m of torque at 3 500. Audi claims that 85 per cent of the maximum torque figure is on tap from as low as 2 000 r/min. Our test unit came with a six-speed manual transmission, but a sixspeed Tiptronic is also available.
With the two-stage ESP deactivated, the S5 will rev to its redline while standing still, which it won’t do if only the ASR (traction control) is switched out. Even so, getting wheelspin off the line proved impossible. Perhaps for that reason more than any other, Audi’s claimed 0-100 km/h time of 5,1 seconds was therefore out of reach. We achieved a 5,74 seconds time – still not to be sniffed at – and a kilometre sprint of 25,39 seconds. Interestingly, when we tested the BMW 335i Coupé in January 2007, we achieved slightly faster times during both runs. The BMW also proved the sprightlier sprinter during most of the overtaking acceleration tests. Of course, the Beemer is more than 100 kg lighter… As we have found with fast Audis before, the S5’s electronic speed limiter (supposedly set to cut in at 250 km/h), only kicked in at 265 km/h!
On paper then, the performance of the S5 is impressive, but perhaps not as impressive as Audi fans may have hoped. Not to worry, for on the road it all comes together in a way that will make you forget about a few split seconds… This is an effortlessly fast car, and also a very comfortable one. Certainly, it fulfils the role of a high-speed continent crusher very effectively. But when the roads get twistier, it also responds in an entertaining way. Thanks to quattro, grip levels are absurdly high, so you can storm into bends with huge confidence, especially now that the steering responds more faithfully to a driver’s command than was the case with Audi’s of before. Certainly, at low speeds and on straight roads, the power steering is disconcertingly light, but pick up speed, or start flinging the car at bends, and it firms up nicely. It still, however, lacks the kind of precision, feedback and feel that a BMW provides. No, where the Beemer allows the driver to have their gung-ho moments if he/she choses, the Audi doesn’t – it just goes about the job at hand in a serious, business-like, but ultimately crushingly effective manner. Dynamic delights include surprising throttle sensitivity, and a refined gearshift action that is so silky sweet that you’d never guess the huge amounts of torque at play underneath.
Audi has worked hard over the past few years to change into an “image leader”. And the A5/S5 is just the latest piece in the greater puzzle. Post R8, this GT coupé arguably slots into the gameplay much easier, and will also be looked at differently by potential buyers. So, there can be no argument, then, that Audi’s overall strategy is working very well indeed.
But even seen in isolation the S5 is an impressive achievement. It is a car that simply exudes class. Dynamically it is virtually impossible to fault, and its eyebrow-raising performance comes effortlessly. By all measurable aspects, the Audi S5 is a great car. The only question is, what about the immeasurable? Is it really the beautiful puller of heartstrings that Audi says it is? Or is Audi cleverly building the hype? Go have a look at one for yourself, and just for safety sake, take a box of tissues…