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Audi’s second-fiddle sports coupé moves to a turbo V6, but faces an increased challenge from more dynamic rivals like the BMW M4

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Launched 10 years ago, the Audi A5 proved to be the sort of rampant success about which car makers daydream: easy to understand and with minimal investment requirement for maximum return.

When the A4-derived coupé was confirmed in 2006, Ingolstadt hadn’t built a two-door model since the 80-based Coupé of a decade earlier.

The S5’s standard rear spoiler is a rather minimal affair. Expect the RS5’s to be less shy and retiring

But with the saloon already a recognisable feature on our roads, the concept hardly needed explaining – nor did its potential as a status symbol.

That BMW launched the 4 Series a model generation later is testament to the overwhelming success the A5 has enjoyed with its middle-management customers.

Unsurprisingly, a quattro-only S-badged version was conceived from the outset. The original S5 was introduced with a detuned version of the R8’s 4.2-litre V8 and could even be bought with a manual gearbox.

That thirsty, high-revving engine was retired in the car’s first facelift in 2013 and replaced with the 3.0-litre supercharged V6 that had already featured in the convertible version.

Now, as part of the launch of the second-generation A5, the S5 receives a much more extensive revision. Like the cooking models, it has grown larger thanks to a new platform, has been completely modernised inside and is furnished with an all-new V6, which finally swaps the supercharger out for the efficiency gains of a turbocharger.

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No drastic changes, then. There’s a fresh look, but its subtlety speaks to the prosperousness of this car’s predecessor.

But while it’s possible that little needed fixing in buyers’ eyes, our wish list is longer: the S5, while handsome, fast and well appointed, wasn’t a serious dynamic rival to the BMW 4 Series. There’s room for that to change. 

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DESIGN & STYLING

Audi S5 LED headlights

The new A5 is based on the latest-generation Audi A4, which means it shares Audi’s MLB Evo platform – a hybrid steel and aluminium structure that is light enough to allow a reduction in kerb weight despite the new model’s modestly increased proportions.

The regular coupé and the five-door Sportback inherit the A4’s line-up of petrol and diesel engines, ranging from 2.0-litre fours to a 215bhp 3.0-litre V6 diesel.

I’m not sold on Audi’s airliner-style gearlever. It suits the Q7’s unhurried style, but a rapid coupé? Not so much

The S5’s 3.0-litre petrol V6, part of the EA838 range, develops 349bhp and 369lb ft, representing 20bhp and 44lb ft improvements over the old supercharged unit. Additionally, the new peak power output means the S5 finally eclipses the old 4.2-litre V8 – at least on paper.

There’s no return to the option of a manual gearbox, of course, so the V6 is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission as standard.

Thanks to a freewheeling function embedded in the Tiptronic ’box, along with an integrated exhaust manifold, continuously adjusting camshafts and the manufacturer’s patented valve lift system, Audi claims significantly better fuel economy for this new S5, along with CO2 emissions of 170g/km.

The S5’s is mounted longitudinally and drives all four wheels via the brand’s Torsen torque-sensing quattro four-wheel drive system, which biases the rear axle with a 40/60 drive split under normal conditions.

A mechanical locking sport differential is available for the rear axle as a cost option, as are an active-ratio ‘dynamic’ steering system and adaptive dampers.

The S5 also gets slightly wider tracks than lesser A5s and rides lower than even the sports-sprung versions. The model features the same all-round multi-link suspension layout as elsewhere in the line-up, albeit with a tailored set-up all of its own.

Unsurprisingly for such a smash hit, the coupé remains instantly recognisable despite a fairly comprehensive styling update. Basic elements of the design – the high shoulder line, swollen wheel arches and pronounced dome of a roof – remain firmly in place.

To the front, the single-frame grille is flatter and wider than before, and the S version adds a little muscle definition in the intakes and with the quad exhausts at the back. Even so, it is certainly at the subtler end of the European muscle car strata; a more striking set of sinews has doubtless been held over for the higher-powered and range-topping RS5 variant to come.

INTERIOR

Audi S5 interior

Forward of the B-pillars, the A5’s interior essentially replicates that of the Audi A4.

That, broadly speaking, is a good thing, because no rival is better put together or even an equal in the deployment of tactile trim material.

Providing a perch for your wrist when using the MMI controller ought not to be a lever’s primary function

The S5 enhances this impression still further by gaining as standard the nappa leather upholstery, contrast stitching, black headlining and ‘Super Sports’, logo-embossed seats that neatly distinguish it from its lowly range mates.

In its segment, and at the asking price, it’s hard to recall a coupé that indulges the fingertips or the undersides of your thighs quite as consistently as does Ingolstadt’s latest entrant.

Only those looking for the elbow-nudging allure of a certain kind of high-grade sportiness might greet the model’s well-ordered architecture with an indifferent shrug, but that sort of caddishness is arguably better suited to loud-trouser options such as the Mercedes-AMG C 63 Coupé. If the S5 seems buttoned down, it’s intended that way.

Aft of the B-pillars, the coupé has made some useful gains on its predecessor. It’s markedly lighter and modestly larger thanks to the platform change – albeit still not by quite enough on the second of those considerations to make it a properly comfortable four-seat, two-door continent-crosser.

Adults certainly fit in the back of the S5 slightly more agreeably than before, but they are likely to want out before you cross a far-flung border. That, however, is acceptable, given the segment’s wider practicality standards.

The S5 makes no mistake when it comes to fulfilling the other basic requirement of a modern coupé, the boot being brilliantly capacious at 465 litres (10 litres bigger than before and a full 65 litres larger than the equivalent Mercedes-Benz C-Class).

Throw in Audi’s admirable 8.3in, high-resolution infotainment display and excellent associated controller and the S5 has practicality, usability and classiness pretty nicely sewn up.

It’s hard to believe anyone spending £47k on an S5 won’t find a bit extra for its excellent Virtual Cockpit digital dashboard (£250 by itself, or as part of the £750 Light and Vision Pack, together with those Matrix LED headlights).

If you have it, there isn’t another sports coupé on the market better provided with gratifying infotainment sophistication.

Unlike the Audi TT, the S5 clearly wasn’t designed with Virtual Cockpit from the outset, because the car’s 8.3in central display is fixed in  place and, unlike in the cheaper A3, won’t retract into the fascia. It’s a shame, because when you’re used to the way the Virtual Cockpit works, the central display really does become vestigial.

The 12.3in display is big enough, with dials minimised, to show nav mapping in excellent detail. The car’s voice recognition system usually recognises your input first time — once you’re used to the order in which it best accepts destination details (town, road, house number).

Audi’s £750 Bang & Olufsen premium audio system is excellent for both its audio clarity and power.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Audi S5 side profile

You don’t need to know fast Audis very well to understand that the S5 won’t be the quickest or most powerful model in the A5-based line-up.

But while Audi’s RS halo cars have typically been more highly strung and demanding to drive than their S-badged inferiors, not to mention more expensive and shorter-lived in production, it’s for the S5 to make its speed more accessible in everyday, real-world driving.

The S5 doesn’t have launch control, but the driveline lets you wind up the torque converter then deploy every pound of torque with virtually no wheelspin

And that, when you look at our test data, is exactly what the S5 does. Despite giving up a fair bit of peak power to its rivals, the Audi matches the 0-60mph acceleration of both the Lexus RC F we tested and the Alpina B3, at least to within a couple of tenths of a second.

The advantage of four driven wheels is in play there, of course, but from 30-70mph through the gears the S5 is still within about half a second of those competitors. Second-fiddle sports coupé or not, it packs a punch.

However, Audi’s graphical representation of the turbocharged V6’s broad plateau of peak torque doesn’t quite tally with your perception of the combustive clout from on board.

The S5 doesn’t feel brutish at full power, it doesn’t quite haul forwards with the eerie consistency you might expect of it and it always seems to have more traction than it needs at both axles – even in slippery conditions.

Flatten the pedal in manual mode and there’s some turbo lag at very low revs, followed by a gathering of fervour at 2000rpm and then another at 4000rpm, with the free-revving range extending all the way to the 6500rpm redline.

There isn’t the torque to pick off part-throttle A-road overtakes as you might in a C 63 S, but the AMG is a £70k car, let’s not forget, and a C 43 doesn’t offer that, either.

What you do get from the S5, and not so often from cars of its ilk, is a powertrain that knows slickness and civility. At urban speeds, the car’s engine sounds muted and its eight-speed gearbox times its shifts immaculately and executes them with perfect smoothness.

We’d prefer a little more aural drama, but it’s possible that the typical S5 owner, who likes that his car doesn’t drone on the motorway, really wouldn’t.

And nor, we’re sure, would he gladly surrender much of the range conferred by the car’s 33mpg real-world touring economy (in Efficiency mode only, when the car in effect disconnects its rear axle on the motorway) in return for pace he can’t often use in daily driving.

RIDE & HANDLING

Audi S5 cornering

This is the sort of driver’s car made to go quite simply and directly where it is pointed.

Audi would plainly prefer the S5’s driver to feel reassured by the unflappable consistency of its hold on the road and impressed by how little he has to do in order to get it from A to B so quickly, rather than be excited or engaged by how much more could be got out of the experience by investing extra attention, skill or effort.

S5 dives keenly into corners, partly because the dynamic steering quickens the steering ratio at low speeds

So, for the most part, the car feels supremely secure and measured on the road – but not quite always.

With its optional sport rear differential, our test car might have brought a bit of throttle adjustability into its handling mix.

Instead, it felt utterly planted and predictable – and steadfastly inert and unresponsive to any attempt to tighten its line either through the application of power or by weight transfer.

The S5 rides well, but this impression is another one facilitated by an option: this time, Audi’s adaptive dampers.

The suspension handles mixed-up urban surfaces quietly and with compliance, becoming a bit soft at higher speeds until Dynamic mode is engaged.

Do so and body control is good in outright terms, although any sense of connectedness to the swells and hollows of a testing B-road is fleeting, and it lacks the progressiveness of a good damper tune that might be relied on to know when the chassis is beginning to run short of control.

But even well-tuned passive dampers have their limitations, and we can understand that the S5’s optional adaptive ones at least make it more versatile.

What we’re less inclined to forgive is the car’s active-ratio ‘dynamic steering’ system, which varies the pace of the car’s steering rack depending on prevailing speed, making it lunge somewhat around roundabouts, junctions and car parks, only to add deadening stability at higher speeds.

When a car maker seeks to introduce hysteresis into such an important control interface as this, the intuitiveness of the car’s driving experience will always suffer.

And so it proves in the S5. The weight of the steering varies considerably with speed, and even with familiarity you’re never quite sure how much steering angle or contact patch feedback you should expect on a corner-to-corner basis.

A frost was thawing as our opportunity to test the S5 on Millbrook’s Hill Route presented, but the fact that you wouldn’t really have known says all that needs to be said about the way the car responds when pushed hard.

The quattro system splits power 40/60 front/rear by default but doesn’t seem to favour either axle in practice — and seems not to rely on wheel slip to send torque where it’s most needed.

Turn-in is flat and direct and the car has plenty of lateral grip. It will only gradually run wider if you add power too quickly on exit, staying true to its original attitude through the turn.

Leave the ESP engaged and it won’t even do that, with the electronics acting subtly to prevent grip from being breached.

You’d enjoy the process more if you could feel more through the steering, but there’s no denying the sense of respect the S5 conjures up in extreme circumstances.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Audi S5

It’s worth reiterating how prescient the A5 model line-up proved to be when it was first formulated a decade ago.

Several structural adjustments made to the Mercedes C-Class and BMW 3 and 4 Series since were direct responses to the easily understandable (and yet canny) positioning of the A5, S5 and RS5.

Residual values aren’t expected to be exceptional but should be good enough to compete with the best in class

As a result, the S5 faces competition from the BMW 440i M Sport and Mercedes-AMG C 43, both of which are marginally cheaper than Audi’s trendsetter, if not as well known.

Predictably, while it comes with 19in wheels, three-zone climate control, electric boot release, keyless start, navigation and LED headlights, the S5’s starting price doesn’t include the Virtual Cockpit (£250), adaptive dampers (£900) and sport differential (£1200) that are required to make the car feel a good portion more complete.

We also advise adding Audi’s Matrix LED headlights (£650), a heated steering wheel (£175), head-up display (£900) and the Bang & Olufsen stereo system (£750), as long as your budget can stretch far enough.

Thus keen drivers can expect to pay more than £50k for a desirably equipped car, and that amount puts it close enough to the £57k you’d need to buy the significantly more powerful BMW M4 to consider the cars close rivals.

That said, it’s worth praising the efficiency Audi has wrung from its turbo V6. Its claimed 38.2mpg combined makes it marginally superior to its nearest rivals and good enough for a tested 26.2mpg average that includes the effect of hard miles and performance testing, as ever. 

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VERDICT

4 star Audi S5

The S5 is a driver’s car for which all manner of excuses can be made explaining why it doesn’t quite raise the pulse like a great sports coupé should.

Unlike some of its rivals, the Audi is designed for a particular place in the performance hierarchy and defined in relation to a car that doesn’t yet exist: the next RS5.

Broad-batted sports coupé does everything but get its claws into you

The S5 also serves a dynamic brief that introduces inevitable compromise into its capacity to entertain: because it must also cosset, envelop, oblige and reassure more convincingly than any of its competitors.

And sure enough, the S5 is a fine grand tourer that’ll look after you come what may.

Our judgement of it is as much the result of how we respond to Audi’s particular vision as it is how effectively we think that vision has been realised.

But given the other options available, our £50,000 would be spent on a sports coupé of greater character and excitement and with more rewarding and less remote handling than this.

The story, familiar as it is where Audi’s S-badged cars are concerned, is that the S5 is car whose abilities we’re left regarding with a lot of admiration and respect but little lasting affection.

As a result the S5 makes our top five ahead of the Lexus RC F, but trails the Alpina B4 Biturbo, Mercedes-AMG C 43 and the BMW M4.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Audi S5 Coupe 2017-2019 First drives