Audi has been serious for decades, busily bringing us such engineering breakthroughs as the five-cylinder engine, all-wheel drive, the aluminum chassis, direct fuel injection and competition-prepared diesels. It's been like science class. At least the lab projects have been impressing the neighbors and even winning races at Le Mans.
But with the 2008 Audi S5, the technoid visionaries of Ingolstadt have finally lightened up. After all, we're Americans. We're just a simple people. Speed and style are what sell.
Nuvolari Returns From the Past
Audi has figured out that a coupe should be beautiful, not merely exclusive. Even as the typical German sedan has become a beast with swollen fenders and a massive grille, designed to bludgeon the meek out of the fast lane on the autobahn, the 2008 Audi S5 has a different look. Its curving contours are leaner, more expressive and more energetic.
The face of the new Audi coupe comes from the midengine Audi R8 sports car, and the rest has been inspired by the 2003 Nuvolari showcar. The S5 version of the coupe is set apart visually from the conventional A5 by a radiator grille painted in platinum gray and inlaid with chrome trim, more aggressive bumpers, outside mirrors painted silver and four oval tailpipes.
Overall, this is a car that makes its luxury statement with color and chrome, a look that sets it apart from its German counterparts, the BMW 6 Series and Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class.
A New Way of Going Down the Road
The A5 begins with the structure of the A4 sedan, and it's broadly similar in size, though predictably lower and wider. At the same time, the wheelbase has been stretched 4.1 inches, which comes from relocating the differential for the front wheels ahead of the clutch.
Now the front wheels are carried by a lightweight, aluminum suspension with five links on each side, which is rigidly attached to the body by a separate subframe. Meanwhile the rack-and-pinion steering assembly also has found a new home close to the centerline of the wheels.
When you pencil it out, these changes have a huge impact. There are 5.3 fewer inches of front overhang, so there's less mass leading the front tires down the road, and that means the car is more responsive to steering inputs. The coupe also distributes its 3,807 pounds more evenly, 58 percent front/42 percent rear. And finally the steering is crisper, more direct.
It's in Your Hands
There's a new, down-the-road sense in this car that you can feel as soon as you take the steering wheel. The S5 feels alert, completely different from an A4 sedan or even an RS4.
It's a difference you can measure on the test track. On the skid pad, the S5 balances easily on its 255/35ZR19 Dunlop Sport Maxx tires. It hangs on until you reach 0.91g, which is a fraction more than the Audi RS4 sedan achieves. More important, the S5 maintains its poise even at the limit, and a quick dab at the throttle is enough to change its cornering arc.
The S5 balances nicely through the slalom as well, recording a speed of 68.6 mph, which compares to the RS4 sedan's 70.6 mph. The steering effort of the Audi coupe's speed-sensitive system is a little light, and it's overmatched by the quick turn-in from the chassis and tires, yet the car's overall responsiveness inspires complete confidence. Gone is the vague, on-center steering action that has characterized other Audi models.
This coupe fits the way real Americans drive. It's meant to travel enormous distances at high speed, undeterred by the character of the road or the nature of the weather. As the sporting version of the Audi coupe, the S5 has had its suspension snubbed down to a fairly tight calibration, a measure to keep the inevitable torque reaction of all-wheel drive from disturbing your sense of command and control through the steering wheel.
As you'd expect, these standard 19-inch, 35-series tires are pretty aggressive, though, and they'll patter across the ridges between the concrete slabs on the freeway or across broken pavement.
A V8 That's Perfect for America
Yet it's the engine that dominates the S5, just as it should in a sporting coupe. Audi's 4.2-liter V8 appears once again here, calibrated this time to deliver 354 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 325 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm.
This long-stroke V8 doesn't have a very sexy reputation, yet it's brilliant in both character and performance. It pulls from very low rpm just like an American-built V8, and then it has another dimension of power that carries you to its 7,000-rpm redline.
The tractability of this engine perfectly suits an automatic transmission, yet we still prefer the crisp throttle response that comes with a six-speed manual transmission. The shift linkage combines fairly long, light-effort throws with firm engagement, so it's easy to use. Even so, the engine has such authoritative power as you roll on the throttle there's not much need for shifting.
If you want to triumph over time from a standing start, you dump the clutch at 4,500 rpm, sense a bit of wheelspin from the front tires followed by a stern kick from the rears, and 60 mph comes up in 4.9 seconds. You pass through the quarter-mile in 13.3 seconds at 104.6 mph. This compares to the 420-hp Audi RS4's 4.7-second acceleration to 60 mph and its quarter-mile pass of 13.2 seconds at 106.8 mph.
Since the Audi V8 will carry this car all the way to an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph, the S5 has brakes that are up to the task, and this car with its standard 17-inch discs comes to a halt from 60 mph in just 110 feet.
Traveling in a Coupe
The Audi S5's interior rejects conventional German austerity for a warm, expressive look, and everything feels wonderful. A panoramic sunroof (it tilts up, but the shape of the roof prevents it from sliding open) also brings more light into the interior.
Audi has also managed the transition to mobile electronics with far more flair and good sense than its competitors. The navigation screen is high in the dash, yet it doesn't look like someone abandoned a microwave oven up there. And the Audi MMI system continues to be the best of these systems, as the central control knob and its surrounding buttons create an interface that quickly becomes intuitive.
At about $2,000, the Audi S5's optional, 505-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system seems like a ridiculous affectation at first, but the interior is such a nice place you'll be thinking up excuses to go out to the garage at night and listen to music.
There's a Message in Style
At the moment, official pricing for the 2008 Audi S5 has not yet been announced, though we understand $53,000 is a reasonable estimate. This would peg it to the price of a Mercedes-Benz CLK550, which the Audi S5 resembles in character far more than the $74,700 BMW 650i.
For decades, Audi has been an artistic success in America, but it's also been largely unencumbered by commercial success. It's reinvented itself over and over again, trying to find the magic fairy dust that will make people notice.
The 2008 Audi S5 will grab people by the neck and make them pay attention. It has the commanding presence of a BMW 6 Series, runs with the Audi RS4 sedan and sits there at the same price as a Mercedes CLK.
Here in America, we're simple enough to understand speed and style. The 2008 Audi S5 is a classic American coupe, ideal for a country where the distances challenge you. You know, purple mountains majesty, amber waves of grain and all that. The science nerds in Ingolstadt must take their vacations here.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Senior Copy Editor Doug Lloyd says:
I'm a sedan man. I've attempted to fit my 6-foot-1 frame behind enough fold-forward seats and around enough seatbelts, and I do not want to subject my friends to the same torture. But if I were ever to be seduced to the two-door dark side, the Audi S5 would be the sensuous face of evil. Its low-slung shape and fat, low-profile tires make it seem like a snarling animal, ready to give chase.
When you push the S5's starter button, it's like firing up an F-16, and you imagine the tremendous roar from the pipes enhanced by thick tendrils of orange flame. The shift action feels fantastic, the acceleration never stops, and the S5 simply sticks to the ground as if glued there. Every time I think I'm about to exceed this car's limits, it proves me wrong. Faster, you say? More grip, you say? But of course, it says.
Stephen King's novel Needful Things is based on the premise that anyone can be persuaded to be just a little bit wicked for just the right item. Maybe something that recalls their youth, makes them feel powerful, boosts their confidence. I'm pretty sure the Audi S5 qualifies. The devil made me drive it.
How does it sound: A-
Oddly enough, the S5's B&O audio system sounds better than a very similar system found in the Audi S8. With the S5's smaller cabin, we expected just the opposite.
The bass is rich and deep with some of the warmth and precision we'd expect from a premium stereo, although it could use more kick. Even so, the well-rounded bass anchors the sound nicely and adds depth to everything from Jars of Clay to Gorillaz.
Midrange sounds good and rounds out the space nicely. Separation is impressive thanks to 12 speakers pumping sound into a fairly intimate cabin.
The highs add detail to the music, but the overall sound tends toward too bright. At higher volumes, this brightness can be overwhelming, although the highs are not quite as taxing or tedious as in the S8, since the S5 doesn't have the sedan's gimmicky pop-up tweeters. Speakers that pop out of the dash might be great for impressing your buddies, but maybe they don't necessarily produce great sound.
How does it work: A
Much of the credit for this audio system's ease of use is thanks to Audi's excellent Multi Media Interface or MMI. Navigating radio stations, CDs from the six-disc changer and even your iPod is intuitive and almost effortless. Adjusting the sound character or various DSP settings is also easy thanks to the MMI.
The centrally located round knob is excellent. The access buttons surrounding it have been revised slightly — each control now has a slightly raised edge that makes it possible to use them without looking down.
The MMI can be confusing while you're scrolling through a list. You have to scroll the wheel down in order to move up in track number. The MMI is also especially useful when listening to satellite radio as artist, song title and channel name are all logically displayed.
Special features: Audi offers an iPod-specific connection that includes a small storage compartment in the glovebox and full control of the device. It also charges the iPod while you listen. Artist, song or album info can be displayed through the MMI screen and you can let the system simply play through your library or a selected playlist. It's a great feature but for some reason it's not possible to use in Shuffle mode, one of the iPod's best features.
Audi hasn't released specific prices but our sources say the price should be closer to $2,000 rather than the $6,300 price of the S8's B&O audio system. Given the price and performance of this system, we say get it.
Conclusion: This is the best application of the in-car B&O system yet. The likely $2,000 price makes it one of the best buys for any factory in-car audio system. It's exactly what you'd expect from a car like the S5 — great sound and an excellent interface. — Brian Moody, Road Test Editor