What is it?
Somewhere in Audi’s product planning division, somebody identified the yawning chasm between the A4 and the A6 and decided to fill it with a three-model range of cars. This five-door version is Germany’s Rover Vitesse and it’s the last – and cheapest – of the A5 range.
It borrows heavily from the A4 in every aspect. It’s close enough on length and wheelbase for the judges to call for the high-zoom photo at the post and it’s almost identical on headroom as well, even at the back. This version is a strict four-seater, though not for Audi fanciful concepts like cabin-length central consoles. Instead, it provides just four seat belts to make its point, though the back seat could easily carry three people.
The big difference between this and the A5 Sportback tested by Autocar recently is that this one was fitted with Audi’s Drive Assist, a multi-function software system that can be optioned up to control everything from the suspension to the gearbox and from the steering to the throttle mapping.
It also runs Comfort, Automatic and Dynamic settings, more of which…
What’s it like?
…Now. Without this system in place, the A5 Sportback is at best underdone below decks and at worst, over the choppy, poorly maintained roads that snake over Tuscany’s hills and mountains, dreadful.
In one fell swoop, the electronics umbrella changes all of that. The differences are immediate, even before we’ve left the driveway. Bumps we braced for and dips that tested the bump stops are treated disdainfully in Automatic mode.
Where these types of systems often trend towards a wallowing (read: American plush) ride in their Comfort modes, the Sportback does no such thing. Instead, it seems to focus its attention on the elimination of lateral head-toss as much as it does vertical thumps, and it also reduces the otherwise-tremendous noise of the bumps entering the cabin.
Automatic mode is the default setting and that’s where most people will leave it, so it’s a relief to find that it also gets the job done a lot better than those poor, unfortunate A5 Sportbacks with standard suspensions, but the star of the show is Sport.
In Sport mode, this car goes from being adequate to terrific. The steering tightens up and delivers more feedback to the driver. The seven-speed double-clutch gearbox holds gears further up the rev range and downshifts more aggressively, with a loud throttle blip (or you can just shift manually on the steering wheel’s paddles).
The throttle response is also faster and the suspension behaves itself so well that you know the settings were confirmed by the engineering department, not their colleagues in marketing.
The Sportback – no lightweight, remember – shrinks around you like the best sporty models, switching character to feel almost identical to the S3 in winding mountain conditions.
Unlike some of these systems, the Sport mode on the Sportback keeps the rubber on the road, doesn’t feel harsh for the sake of making sure people get the message and just grips reliably, predictably and strongly.
Should I buy one?
If Audi were serious about the future of its A5 Sportback in the UK, this would be the only one you could buy anyway. It isn’t.
This is the system that transforms the car, but you really are left wondering why the standard model couldn’t just use one of its suspension settings as a baseline in the first place. Because, let’s face it, when you build a car that demands – yes, demands – that you spend another two grand to buy something that fixes a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place, well, that indicates that something went wrong. Or someone’s being very cynical about improving the spend per car.
So if you’re absolutely sure that it’s an Audi you want, the A4 is just a couple of millimeters too short and the A6 is a touch too big, and think to yourself, "Wouldn’t a hatch be useful?", this might just be the machine for you.
Just make sure you get the Drive Select system or you’ll quickly change your mind.