How do you improve upon a masterpiece? Would Van Gogh’s sunflowers look better if they were brightened up in Photoshop? Perhaps Exile on Main Street needs some AutoTune tweakery to smooth out Mick Jagger’s trademark drawl?
Such was the task facing Audi in replacing the A5, the car that designer Walter de Silva called his “masterpiece”. And as the main reason – probably the only reason – for choosing the A5 over the cheaper and more practical A4 saloon, style is vital. So Audi has played it safe, with a design that retains the familiar profile of the outgoing A5, but adds some visual muscle.
The most obvious change is the bulging ‘powerdomed’ bonnet which, in the case of the sporty S5 tested here, conceals a 354hp turbocharged V6. With Quattro four-wheel drive to boost traction, the S5 will blast to 62mph in 4.7 seconds – just 0.1 seconds behind a Porsche 911 Carrera. Yet it’s the car’s effortless pulling power that really impresses.
Thanks to two-stage turbo-charging, the S5 delivers maximum torque from just 1,370rpm – barely above tickover. That means you don’t need to work the engine hard to make rapid progress; overtakes are dispatched with a swift flex of the right ankle. The low-rev growl builds to a cultured V6 howl, punctuated by subtle pops from the four meaty tailpipes.
For all its speed, however, the S5 falls short when it comes to excitement. The downside to all that turbo-charged torque is you lose the intense, high rev drama of a powerful naturally-aspirated engine. The eight-speed automatic gearbox can be slow to react, too. Audi says the twin-clutch ’box fitted to the outgoing S5 can’t handle the new V6’s added oomph.
Fast and failsafe, the S5 made light work of a challenging test route through the Portuguese mountains. It’s enjoyable to drive, but not a car you’ll relish taking by the scruff of the neck. Like many S and RS-badged Audis of the past, its handling errs towards safe and neutral, rather than extroverted and playful. The steering doesn’t help either; it lacks any real feedback, and feels artificially heavy in Dynamic mode. On the right road, an Audi TT is far more fun.
Where the A5 scores over the TT – and most of its rivals – is practicality. Its 465 litre boot trumps the rival BMW 4 Series (370 litres) and Mercedes C class coupe (400 litres). And while it remains a strict fourseater, adults up to 5ft 10in can get comfortable in the back. That said, if you regularly carry passengers, best wait for the fivedoor A5 Sportback – due in January 2017.
Let’s remain inside the car for a moment, though, because its interior really is something special. Everything you see and touch smacks of obsessive attention to detail. And Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, which swaps traditional dials for a customisable 12.3in TFT screen, looks fabulous. Shame it’s a £450 option. I’m also a big fan of Audi’s MMI media system, which gains a touchpad controller and optional in-car internet with a flat fee for unlimited data use.
Trace the S5’s lineage and you soon arrive at Audi’s much-loved Ur Quattro, the square-jawed 1980s icon that revolutionised rallying and became a TV star in Ashes to Ashes (in the first season, Life on Mars, DCI Gene Hunt drove a Ford Cortina). Today, the Quattro is a bona fide classic, yet I can’t see the S5 making petrolheads go weak at the knees in decades to come. It’s stylish, fast, superbly built and even relatively practical. But while the flagship A5 is an easy car to respect, it’s a difficult one to love.
Tim Pitt works for motoringresearch.com