Back in the 1980s, when Audi's coupes were secret pleasures adored by just a few enthusiasts, the classic high-school car was one of two machines: Mustang or Camaro.
So, as my life has usually ended up, I drove in from left field when I bought an Audi Coupe GT. A trim four-seater with great handling, but not much power (five cylinders and counting), it was the pick of the top car mag's editors -- and it was quite different from the V-8-powered domestic iron. Make that two of us that didn't fit into any crowd.
So it's a little ironic driving Audi's gorgeous, supersonic new S5 coupe, that what comes to mind instantly is a Chevy Camaro Z28. The hotted-up V-8 version of the A5 two-door introduced last year throbs with musclecar power -- and especially from the rear, it's more than a passing resemblance to the coming 2009 Chevrolet Camaro.
If you're caught by the S5's shapely stance, you might agree that it's fabulously understated. Based on the styling cues seen first in the Nuvolari quattro concept from 2003's show-car circuit, the A5 and the companion sport model, the S5, are two-door coupes with a muscular, almost American silhouette.
"The Audi A5 is the most beautiful car I have ever designed," Walter de'Silva, former Audi and now Volkswagen head of Design, said as the coupes took their bow last year at the Geneva auto show.
How does it get that way? Some fundamental changes to the way Audi designs cars are responsible for the S5's short trunk and long hood. The S5 was the first of a new generation of Audi cars built on a new set of mechanicals that pushes the engine lower in the body structure. The upcoming 2009 Audi A4 is spun from the same running gear, and the next A6 will be derived from it as well.
The proportions are right, and there's a curve and crest to the fenders and the beltline that echoes the new Camaro as well. It's the details that cast the S5 distinctly as an Audi. In front, it's the large grille that frames Audi's four-ring logo, and the LED running lights that form a lower eyelid on the headlamps. In back, it's the unique taillamp shapes and the delicate use of chrome trim.
The specifics matter to the enthusiasts, but in the real world the S5's silhouette makes an immediate impact. If the valet parkers at LAX know it's a new Audi, the stylists are doing something right.
Ultimately, it's all about the 354-horsepower V-8 folded neatly into the engine stall. Strapped in there and teamed to a six-speed manual and quattro all-wheel drive, the S5's engine yardapults it to exhilarating speeds with a whiff of pressure on the gas pedal.
There are A5s running around with V-6 engines (and four-cylinders and diesels in Europe, if you can stand the thought). But the S5 comes into its own thanks to that 354-hp V-8, a 4.2-liter engine that also spins out 325 pound-feet of torque.
The A5's top engine, for contrast, is a 265-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 -- and even it pushes the A5 to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds. The S5's V-8 thunders to 60 mph in a blink-quick 4.9 seconds and tops out at the same 155 mph as the lesser versions, but that's only because Audi's slapped on electronic limiters. To tease, Audi's pasted in a 200-mph speedometer.
It's a brilliant engine that does a more than passable imitation of a big American V-8. At 80 mph, you're dawdling. This thing doesn't just want to run, it wants to take on Carl Lewis. It's not a big-block by any measure, but in tone and talent and in its guttural growl, this is an engine with more thrust than you'll ever need.
Our preferred gearbox is Audi's six-speed manual transmission, though its long clutch throw and shifter motion take a little usage to feel normal. The manual unleashes amazing dart-around power in its lower gears and makes it an unmitigated blast to rip through the V-8's powerband, riding its swells like a Cigarette boat skips wake. There's also a six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission, which we didn't sample.
Beneath its tight-fitting skin, the S5 cruises along with a stiff body structure and an independent suspension front and rear.
The front suspension is a five-link design mounted to a subframe for rigidity and quietness. The rear suspension is a trapezoidal multi-link setup.
If that sounds like gibberish, know that the suspension's tuned to nearly eliminate the kinds of ride motions that get in the way of time-shifting yourself from one end of Latigo Canyon Road, up in the Malibu hills, to the other. The S5 doesn't roll side to side as you carve around houses and the occasional mailbox set too closely to the road. You'll get some occasionally harsh ride motions if you encounter potholes in mid-corner, but mostly the S5 dances the tightwire that separates a taut ride from an overly tight one.
The S5's power steering is electrically assisted, and while these systems are still evolving in their sophistication, it's difficult to tell in the S5 if any touch or sensation or feeling of connection with the road has suffered. It simply turns in flat and responds in a snap.
The S5's braking capacity is stellar. Diving into deep corners barely challenges the big front ventilated discs and the rear solid discs, and there's anti-lock and stability control to ensure that when lockup happens and traction dissipates, the S5 stays on its intended course. Underpinning all this raw capability is Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system, which splits torque under most circumstances 40/60 front to rear, but doles out power to the wheels with the most traction.
At the controls
Once you've disrupted its handsome lines and pulled the door handle, sitting in the S5's driver seat reveals a cockpit with a tight feel and a rather complex array of controls on the dash. There are plenty of buttons for radio controls and a generous application of aluminum and chrome trim, too, making the interior a little busy.
At least it's more intuitive than most German performance cars, and to that point Audi's MMI system continues to be the easiest of the Benz COMAND/BMW iDrive trio to manhandle. Some redundant buttons punch you right into functions like Sirius satellite radio, and along with the best steering-wheel audio controls I've ever used, the S5 functions easily in the first hour you touch its buttons.
The front seats happily collude with the engine to encourage bad-mannered maneuvers. They're tight where they need to be, unlike the rear seats, which are only tight and are completely at a loss when asked to handle adult legs. The trunk's not large either, and the view to the rear while driving is pretty dismal, thanks to the thick pillars and low roofline.
The S5 comes with a dizzying list of standard gear, including 35-series tires, a six-CD/MP3 audio system, 19-inch wheels and rain-sensing wipers. The Tiptronic transmission is a $1300 option. A navigation system is a $2390 option, while a 505-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system is $850.
Though it starts at an equally dizzying $51,275, the S5 is a tantalizing car to drive and to study. It's long on lusty abandon and short on value, unless you're judging strictly from the senses. And there's a scintillating whiff of Camaro here too that shows how warm-blooded Audi's products have become.
How do you say "party on" in German, anyway?
2008 Audi S5
Base price: $51,275
Engine: 4.2-liter V-8, 354 hp/325 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 182.5 x 78.0 x 53.9 in
Wheelbase: 108.3 in
Curb weight: 3891-4067 lb (manual/automatic)
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): N/A
Major standard features: Power windows/locks/mirrors; six-speaker audio system with AM/FM/six-CD/MP3 and RDS; steering wheel-mounted audio controls; rain-sensing wipers; 19-inch alloy wheels
Safety features: Dual front, side, and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, traction control; active head restraints; tire pressure monitors
Warranty: Four years/60,000 miles