2018 Audi A5 and S5 First Drive - Gran Tourismo inspired coupe

As decisions go, opting for the newly redesigned 2018 Audi A5 or its hotter S5 sibling is a good problem to have. This past week, I had the opportunity to experience both vehicles in Portugal and walked away impressed with the refined styling, performance, and handling. Much of the improvement can be credited to the same MLB Evo architecture first introduced in the 2017 Audi A4, not least a weight reduction of up to roughly 100 pounds for the US car, not to mention a drag coefficient cut to 0.25 for the base A5 model. Still, the second-gen A5 and S5 don't go lacking in Audi's typically meticulous evolutionary changes.

Since this is a new model year- 2017 for Europe, 2018 for the US – you'll probably be looking for what's new with the design, though to untrained eye spotting the new model might take a few glances. That's a good thing, I think, because as it stands the outgoing model is already a stunning car with what I'd say is a timeless design. If anything, the new model steers ever closer to the Gran Tourismo philosophy of a sportier, driver focused, 2+2 seater, two-door coupe.

I spent a fair amount of time driving both the A5 and the S5 – more on which later – but, just as importantly, spent time with the cars' exterior designer, engineers, and the chief of powertrain to understand exactly what has changed. It's worth noting that the new A5 doesn't share a single piece of material with its predecessor. So yes, while it may still share a similar design language, it's entirely redesigned.

Though the A4 and A5 share the same platform, there are key distinctions separating the two and Audi takes this step further in order to distinguish between the A5 and the S5. Audi rationalized that S5 buyers paying more for the "badge" thus expect a bigger distinction, and that led down an obsessional rabbit hole. For instance, the rock panel is painted with the body color on the base A5, while for the S-Line Audi engineers went so far as to use computer simulations to test the size of rocks being shot back from the front wheels to determine the right size of the rock panel. All this just to prevent paint chips down the road.

Looking head-on, the hood is more sculpted with a 'power dome' bulge, while the daytime driving lamps are both horizontal yet slant all the way to the top of the grille to visually widen it. The new, one-piece hexagonal grille is shallower than before, also making it wider in appearance. Matching the design language, the rear lights are also treated similarly, but now appear three-dimensional.

The A5 is not just an enlarged A4, but you have to get into the minutiae to see the key differences. Even though the headlights for the A4 and A5 are in the same position, for instance, the grille was dropped much lower as well as being made 5 cm wider on each side on the A5. Where on the A4, the headlights run horizontal to the top of the grille, Audi's exterior designer for the A5, Stephan Fahr-Becker, explained that the combination of lower positioning and the angle leaves the car looking more aggressive from a distance. It's all emphasized by the hood, which has lines flowing down toward the four Audi rings.

The lower portion is both functional and helps distinguish between the base model and the S Line. In the lower front corners there are cut-outs for better airflow through the rear wheel arches – similar to those on the A4, but more pronounced – which not only help with the aerodynamics but fuel consumption, too.

Further distinguishing the base model from the S Line is an aluminum "wing" that spans across the lower portion of the front. Don't worry if you didn't spot it yourself: I didn't notice it either, until it was pointed out to me. Subtlety is the name of the game for the A5.

Improvements in manufacturing ability to put sharper creases in sheet metal make things more interesting along the sides, and indeed one of Fahr-Becker's favorite changes to the new car is the "three-dimensionality" compared to the previous model's more plain surfaces. The lines take on an even greater emphasis when light and shadow play across them; Audi's red paint is beautiful, but unfortunately it does mute the lines compared to silver or other metallic colors.

Meanwhile, the shoulder lines are more pronounced and, according to Fahr-Becker, it shows the "dynamism" of the muscle, even if there's no real change in driving dynamics.

Remember how I said the key to the A5 and S5 was in the detail? Here's a good example. Audi wanted to make the hood look longer but, because the car shares the same dashboard as that found in the A4, it couldn't physically extend it. Instead, the designers added a badge to link the hood to the door, then borrowed visual tricks from old German and Italian race cars with their lights placed lower so that, combined with a lower hood line, there's a flow from hood to door that pulls your eye back. It's odd, then, that Audi used a fairly mundane sticker for the S-Line badging, though at least that will allow an easy switch when the upcoming RS5 arrives.

No matter whether you opt for the A5 or the S5, Audi quattro all-wheel drive comes standard. The design team emphasizes that fact with a strong flowing line over the wheel arches, while the mid-section is tapered in to reduce visual bulk while simultaneously flaring out the wheels.

The interior is exactly what you'd expect from a new Audi, and indeed if you've been in the latest A4 it'll be a familiar place. That means it's clean and clutter-free, while the upgraded interior option ushers in leather trim, aluminum, carbon-fiber on the dash and doors, and – my personal favorite -the soft Alcantara around the door trims.

We've covered the optional Audi Virtual Cockpit in detail before on the A4, Q7, R8, and other cars, and I have to say it's a must-have addition. The highly configurable 12.3-inch display for the driver is bright and easy to see no matter the lighting conditions. As for the S-Line's flat-bottom steering wheel, with its smartly laid-out buttons and controls, not to mention its comfortable grip, it's one of my favorite wheels in the segment.

The A5 is very much a driver's car but, unlike the TT, it doesn't risk alienating the passenger. A free-standing display mounted on the dash can easily be controlled by the centrally located knob – also touch-sensitive on the top, for sketching in letters and numbers – while the interface itself has been simplified since the launch of the TT and A4. That includes flatter menus, allowing for quicker access to options and settings while you're on the move.

Finally, compared to the old A5, the new car is 47mm longer, with an increased wheel base of 13mm adding up to an additional 17mm of interior room. During our relatively long drive in and around Porto, Portugal, never once did I feel discomfort or find myself wishing for more legroom, elbow room, or space in general, either as driver or front passenger. Rear seats, mind, are a lot tighter: your adult friends would probably prefer you to buy the regular sedan if they're to spend much time back there.

Driving Dynamics

Exclusive to the 2018 Audi S5 is the new, 3.0 TFSI V6 engine which, according to head of engine development Jurgen Konigstedt, is the first of its kind. Dumbing down the technical explanation, it's the first 'mono' turbocharged engine to be used with the V-shaped cylinder banks, similar to the what's found on the 4.0-liter V8.

That's unique, because it cuts down engine weight – by almost 31 pounds – and requires a shorter pathway for fuel-flow, resulting in less turbo lag and a quicker throttle response. It generates 354 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque, 21 hp and 44 lb-ft more than the outgoing car. Interestingly, it's paired with a new, 8-speed automatic transmission instead of a 7-speed dual-clutch, as you might have expected Audi to use. Don't go looking for a manual transmission, though: US drivers simply buy too few of them in cars like these to make it worthwhile for Audi to bring them stateside.

The new V6 engine feels like a perfect fit for the S5 and, while I didn't get a chance to max out the engine's full performance, it delivers on power as promised. Peak torque starts out early – right at 1,370 rpm, in fact – and stretches to 4,500 rpm. Peak power stops short of 6th gear, leaving 7th and 8th gears more for overdrive. Peak power ranges from 5,400 rpm to 6400 rpm, delivered in a nice, linear power band which is a big improvement on the predecessor. The European model clocks 0-62mph in 4.7-seconds, so expect to shave off a fraction of a second or so for 0-60mph.

Meanwhile, the A5's 2.0 TFSI 4-cylinder engine pairs with Audi's S-tronic seven-speed dual clutch automatic gearbox. It too gets an increase in horsepower and torque – now 252 hp and 273 lb-ft, and up from 220 hp and 258 lb-ft. – and, while not as powerful as the V6, I do love this engine for everyday driving. It's one of the best engines in the segment, indeed.

Once again, an Audi isn't an Audi if you can't customize the driving parameters, though how much flexibility you have depends on which car you're driving. The S5 I tested was loaded with Dynamic steering, Audi Magnetic Ride, and quattro with the Sport Differential. The A5, in contrast, only had Dynamic steering and Comfort suspension with damper control.

I'd need a longer period with either car to fully test the ride, handling, and performance, but based on my time with both, the S5 is obviously more agile and tackles tight hairpins better. The Magnetic Ride, quattro, and Sport Differential – the latter adding torque vectoring – prove their worth during spirited driving, particularly when it comes to cutting out oversteer, though for everyday drivers I wouldn't say they're essential. Indeed, the adaptive dampers are more than adequate at handling everyday potholes and rougher road conditions.

In the S5, Comfort mode softens out the road and does a great job absorbing the unkept asphalt you encounter in the back country, while Dynamic mode stiffens up the suspension for a sportier drive. Auto is best when shuttling the family, a middle of the road between comfort and sport. I noticed little in the way of lateral body movement, though the optional sports seats help a lot at holding you in place.

Tech here, tech there, tech everywhere!

Audi's latest portfolio of active safety and driver assistance systems continues to roll out across its new cars, and sure enough the A5 and S5 offers things like the City assist package, Tour assist package, Hold assist, and a head-up display.

The City assist package consist primarily of safety features, such as exit warnings which notify you of oncoming traffic if you go to open the door without checking first. Cross traffic assist rear, meanwhile, warns you of anything behind the vehicle, plus you also get a reverse camera along with Audi pre sense basic and parking assist plus.

The Tour assist package is definitely a box I would tick off, since it adds adaptive cruise control. Not only is that useful in its own right for long commutes, when combined with traffic jam assist and Audi active lane assist, the A5 virtually drives itself: you're only required to touch the steering wheel every 15 seconds, in fact. The big safety features include Audi pre sense front, collision avoidance assist, and turn assist.

Pricing is yet to be announced, though the current A5 starts at $40,500 and the S5 from $53,100, and I'd imagine the new cars falling somewhere in line with those numbers – before, that is, you start ticking the options boxes – when they arrive in the US next year. All in all, Audi has hit the sweet spot between sharp design, driving performance, a luxurious interior, and a slew of driver safety features, and while the 2018 A5 and S5 feel more grown-up all round, they're no less appealing for that maturity.