John DiPietro , Automotive Editor
Among the big three German luxury carmakers, Audi has always been the artist of the group. The A5, R8 and TT all possess styling (both inside and out) that make us wonder if the German company employs descendents of Rodin. We doubt we'll find any argument when we say the 2010 Audi S5 Cabriolet (convertible) is the most attractive car in its class (which includes the BMW 335i, Infiniti G37 and Lexus IS 350.)
But unlike some of the artsy types you may have known in school, the S5 isn't at all uncomfortable when it comes to athletic pursuits. As car buffs know, the "S" version of a given Audi model denotes the high-performance variant. And as such, blessed with plenty of power and a keen sense of balance, the S5 has the moves to match its dashing good looks.
In a more practical sense, the 2010 Audi S5 Cabriolet makes for a great road trip companion. The S5 cabrio is fast, competent on a curvy road, very comfortable on a long interstate cruise and fairly quiet, even when you're enjoying open-air motoring with the soft top down and the windows up.
However, we expect cars in this premium segment to offer all those qualities. Which model you choose will depend largely on what type of driver you are. If you prefer a more engaging character, consider the 3 Series and/or the G37. If you're not the sort who has car magazines scattered around the house, yet still appreciates brisk performance along with a bit more isolation from the outside world, then there is the IS 350. Neatly splitting the difference is the S5.
The S5, however, starts at around $59,000, which is about $7 grand more than a 335i convertible and about twice that more than the G37 or IS 350. Those willing to pay the steeper price of admission will get a car that, even in this prestigious crowd, manages to have a measure of distinction. The Audi S5 is for those who appreciate not only fine engineering but a fine example of art as well, whether it's sitting on an easel or on a set of high-performance tires.
The convertible version of the 2010 Audi S5 uses a supercharged V6 (the coupe retains the V8) and it's a honey. Though it doesn't make the same sweet music as the V8 (its vocal performance is rather ordinary), the force-fed V6 certainly delights in terms of outright performance. Producing 333 horsepower, the 3.0-liter mill doles out thrust in a smooth, linear fashion and makes the S5 feel about a thousand pounds lighter. At the track the S5 cabrio turned in a 5.3-second 0-60-mph time as well as a 13.5-second quarter-mile run. Interestingly, those numbers put this S5 cabrio about dead even with our 400-pounds-lighter, V8-powered six-speed manual S5 coupe.
The S5's seven-speed automated dual-clutch transmission allows one to choose from three modes: normal automatic, sport automatic and paddle-shifted manual. In Normal mode, it provides swift, no-lag upshifts but somewhat hesitant downshifts. It also shifts into the higher gears a little sooner than we'd like, ostensibly to help fuel mileage. To our disappointment, in Sport mode it wasn't much different. The Manual mode will please driving enthusiasts who take matters into their own hands as it provides impressive, blink-of-an-eye gearchanges up or down.
Going the other way, the S5's brakes were strong and easy to modulate: no touchy brake pedal here. At the track, the binders hauled the S5 down from 60 mph in just 109 feet with zero drama. Against the EPA ratings of 17 mpg city/26 mpg highway and 20 mpg combined, we averaged 17 mpg in mixed driving. Yes, we had our feet in the boost.
Being the sportiest member of the A5 family, the 2010 Audi S5 has impressive handling chops, especially in light of its pudgy (4,327-pound) curb weight. The car changes direction fairly quickly and without any undue body motions. The track numbers back up this impression. In the slalom the S5 threaded the cones at a swift 68.9 mph. But despite that being virtually equal to the BMW 335's performance, the S5 still doesn't have the razor-sharp feel through the wheel of the perpetual benchmark BMW.
The S5's precise, variable-assist steering is rather light at low speeds (to make easier work of parking and maneuvering in traffic) and weights up noticeably at higher speeds. But unlike the best systems out there, the Audi's tends to feel artificial to serious driving enthusiasts.
As with the perfectly shaped steering wheel with its ideal rim thickness and well-placed thumb reliefs, the sport buckets in the S5 were hard to fault. On a long trip up the coast, the front seats provided welcome support under the legs and down the back, while on a winding canyon road their aggressive side bolsters held us firmly in place. The backseats are also supportive, but most folks taller than about 5 feet 8 will be hurting for legroom.
The S5's suspension swallows up bumps without wallowing around and overall provides a supple yet controlled ride. Cruising on the freeway with the top up, the S5 cabrio is essentially as quiet as its coupe counterpart -- at 70 mph the cabin noise registered a low 66.2 decibels as compared to our long-term S5 coupe's 66.1. With the top down, a relatively quiet, wind-blast-free ride can be had by installing the wind blocker and putting the windows up.
Ergonomically, the 2010 Audi S5 Cabriolet is a mixed bag. The audio system features large, clear displays and the iPod hookup is intuitive. The steering wheel's thumbwheels are ideal -- spin 'em up to increase volume or go up in frequency or track, down to do the opposite. The climate controls aren't hard to figure out either -- you press the appropriate icon button to switch modes and/or twist the temperature knob to make adjustments. But is it really necessary to have 12 fan speeds? There's so little variation between them that half that number would be plenty. The seat heaters, likewise, don't need six levels -- three would work just fine.
The intuitive MMI (Multi Media Interface) controller on the center console works the optional navigation system as well as audio functions -- you can figure it out without having to crack open the manual. Opting for the nav system also gets you a rearview camera and rear parking sensors, both of which make parking a $60,000 car with limited (top up) rearward visibility a lot less worrisome.
Fold-down rear seats in a convertible are as rare as turn signal usage in Los Angeles, but the S5 has them. The seats plop down rather easily, with just a pull of the release levers. When the top is down, the expanding storage well intrudes on the trunk's cargo space. Our rolling suitcase fit in there either way, though our golf club bag missed by about an inch unless we removed the longest driver. This is where the split-folding rear seat came in handy, as it allowed the clubs to come along while still leaving room for three people. With the top up, the maximum trunk capacity stands at a usable 11.3 cubic feet.
Installing our child safety seat in rear-facing mode in back was a bit tricky due to the rather small footwells there. Once it was in place, there was room for only a smaller (about 5-foot-7) passenger to ride in the front passenger seat.
Design/Fit and Finish
Just-right proportions and curving character lines highlight the 2010 Audi S5 Cabrio's styling. Some may lament the S5's use of a cloth top, but this top is well insulated and allows a cleaner profile than that seen in most of the retractable-hardtop cars in this class. By necessity of design, a car with a retractable hardtop typically has unsightly cut lines and bulky hindquarters to allow you to stow said top. The S5 also has Audi's distinctive face with its large grille and LED-highlighted headlights.
Audi has long had a reputation for creating elegant cabins, and the S5 continues that tradition with classy styling and a mix of top-grade materials. Our test car's well-matched graining and tight, even panel gaps further the initial impression. In lieu of the standard metallic accents, buyers can opt for carbon fiber, birch wood or stainless steel. Opinion was split on our S5's two-tone black-and-red cabin. Some found it classy and more interesting than a monotone scheme, while a few thought it looked juvenile. Monotone leather is also available, if the two-tone doesn't tickle your fancy.
Who should consider this vehicle
Anyone looking for a high-performance, four-passenger convertible that's high on style and comfort will want to take a good look at the 2010 Audi S5. That said, its chief rivals mentioned earlier offer the security of a retractable hardtop as well as a stronger value proposition via their much lower price tags.
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