Like the German Volke themselves, German cars aren't known to be exuberant or flashy. Quite the contrary, in fact — when we think of Audis, BMWs or Mercedes-Benzes, the phrase "coldly efficient" comes to mind. Vaultlike structures? Check. No-nonsense acceleration? Jawohl. Peerless high-speed stability? Always. But with the exception of a few classic designs from BMW and Mercedes, these traditional German virtues have almost always been wrapped in understated sheet metal. In other words, jaw-dropping exterior styling is about as German as apple pie.
At least, that's what we thought until we laid eyes on the 2008 Audi A5. This curvaceous coupe has more curb appeal than Barack Obama on the streets of Berlin, which is particularly impressive given that it's essentially a two-door version of the relatively restrained A4 sedan. It's that rare German car that'll have you peeking lustfully over your shoulder as you're walking away. For many A5 buyers, the nitty-gritty details of performance and pricing will be irrelevant — this is a love-at-first-sight kind of ride, and there's no arguing with that level of infatuation.
We're going to forge ahead anyway, though, on the off chance that you're not completely head over heels for this alluring Audi. In our view, it's what's under the skin that counts, and by this measure the A5 is more of a mixed bag. This 3,835-pound Bavarian lacks the tossable, light-on-its-feet character that our favorite sporting coupes share, for example. There's also the issue of price. Compared with Mercedes-Benz's CLK350, the A5 looks like a bargain, but its overall performance lags behind that of BMW's competitively priced 3 Series coupes, as well as Infiniti's even more affordable G37.
Fatal flaws? Of course not. This is a highly competent car. But unless segment-topping sex appeal is what you're after, the A5 may disappoint. However, we do admire Audi for bringing sexy back to German car design. And we can certainly understand why the A5's performance and value deficits will seem of little consequence to those smitten by its comely curves.
The all-wheel-drive 2008 Audi A5 is motivated by a 3.2-liter V6 that generates 265 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque. Our test car was equipped with the six-speed automatic transmission. We hustled the A5 from zero to 60 mph in a tidy 6.4 seconds, with the quarter-mile flashing by in 14.5 seconds at 97.3 mph. Braking performance was beyond reproach, as the A5 posted a world-class 108-foot stopping distance from 60 to zero mph.
In real-world driving, we found that the A5's direct-injected V6 delivers an appropriately stern kick when called upon, particularly at higher speeds. However, the tri-mode transmission on our tester didn't feel quite ready for prime time — upshifts and downshifts alike were sporadically clunky even in normal Drive mode, while selecting Sport made matters worse. Furthermore, although gearchanges were exceptionally swift in Manual mode, full-throttle upshifts at redline would sometimes elicit a perceptible jolt. At least the manual mode's automatic rev-matching feature guaranteed smooth downshifts on demand.
Given that it tips the scales at nearly 2 tons, the A5 feels remarkably composed on serpentine roads. There's still no hiding all that mass in quick transitions — while body roll is admirably suppressed, you'll definitely feel the Audi's considerable heft shifting from side to side. Nonetheless, our A5's combination of all-wheel drive and optional 19-inch summer tires gave it heroic traction in the twisties. On the downside, impact harshness — indeed, ride quality in general — was borderline objectionable, no doubt exacerbated by those slinky 19-inch wheels and tires. We'd seriously contemplate going without them if we had to drive the A5 over rough pavement on a regular basis.
Alas, the A5's overall dynamic competence makes its wonky speed-sensitive power steering system stick out like a sore thumb. Effort levels range from "Uncle Karl's Cadillac" at low speeds to "Farm Tractor" on the highway, which means that the required steering effort can vary greatly from one corner to the next depending on how fast you're going. We also noticed that our A5's steering had a disconcerting tendency to weight up unpredictably — for instance, we'd sometimes get "Farm Tractor" during 10-15-mph turns at intersections. Satisfying steering systems never feel out of step with the driver's expectations; the A5's overly complicated setup is not among them.
As for fuel economy, our observed figure was surprisingly low, even taking into account the A5's performance-oriented nature. At 16.14 mpg over roughly 850 miles of admittedly enthusiastic driving, we undershot the EPA's combined estimate by nearly 5 mpg.
The 2008 Audi A5's interior appointments generally meet the lofty standards of this segment, as long as you don't mind the rather bathtublike driving position, which is a consequence of the relatively high cowl and beltline. Armrests are pleasingly padded, the leather upholstery feels rich and there's copious space all around for front passengers. The oversize sunroof lends the cabin an airy feel, though it's tilt-only, so alfresco motoring isn't in the cards.
We weren't overly enthused with our Audi's seats, however, as the front chairs are notably lacking in lateral support, and there's no adjustable lumbar support for the front passenger. Moreover, the A5's backseat is mostly for show — rear head- and legroom are inadequate for average-size adults.
The A5's primary gauges are clear and attractive, but many controls are needlessly complex. Audi's MMI (Multi Media Interface) is running this ship, and while it may be slightly more intuitive than BMW's much-maligned iDrive, we still wouldn't call ourselves fans. Tuning the radio manually, for example, is a three-step exercise in frustration. The conventional controls aren't entirely user-friendly, either — the stereo's power/volume knob is located on the center console to the right of the shift lever (of course!), and you can't adjust the fan speed until you've pressed a separate button to activate that function.
On the bright side, our test car's optional navigation system operated flawlessly, though its comically stilted female voice evokes the primitive text-to-voice capability of a mid-'90s Macintosh computer. And the excellent Bang & Olufsen stereo — a no-brainer upgrade for audiophiles — was let down by a persistent rattling noise from an unidentified trim panel during bass-heavy tracks.
In our real-world usability tests, the 2008 Audi A5 was helped by its extraordinarily capacious trunk — at 16.1 cubic feet, this two-door Audi offers more room out back than a Toyota Camry. As such, the A5 swallowed our standard suitcase with ample room to spare, though the space-eating navigation hardware behind the driver-side wheelwell forced us to situate our golf bag diagonally rather than horizontally. We were pleased to discover that our child seat fit fine in the A5's backseat, with the front passenger seat serving as a viable alternative.
Design/Fit and Finish
The A5's exterior speaks for itself — this is one of the most strikingly styled cars on the road today. The interior is also a first-rate design, with attractive gauges and a sleek driver-centric cockpit. Nearly every control in the A5 is backlit in red, which creates a cool spaceshiplike effect at night. Supple material on the dash top and the sides of the center stack drive up the A5's perceived-quality index, though there's some chintzy hard plastic on the center stack itself and around the gauge cluster. Fit and finish was good on our tester, save for that rattling trim panel.
Who should consider this vehicle
At our 2008 Audi A5's eye-watering $49,665 as-tested price? Only those thoroughly blinded by lust. But even the base price seems rather high, veering uncomfortably close to that of the stellar rear-wheel-drive BMW 335i coupe. If you're willing to pay a premium, though, Audi's new coupe makes a style statement that's hard to beat.