“Well,” I said, filling for time as I racked my brain for a negative, “sometimes the little arm that holds out your seatbelt doesn’t grab it properly. Then you have to reach back.” If that sounds like the sort of First World Problem that First World Problems themselves complain about then you’re not wrong. Welcome to the world of the 2018 Audi S5.
Even at a time when it’s almost impossible to find a legitimately “bad” car on the market in the US, I usually don’t find myself too short of suggestions when people ask for feedback on whatever I’ve been driving most recently. Usually subjective, of course, and invariably the automaker itself has a Very Good Reason for why it made the decision it did. Nonetheless, there’s typically at least a few things I can put into the “cons” column.
I scratched my head, metaphorically speaking, for a lot longer when cornered in the grocery store parking lot and asked what I thought of the new S5. Audi‘s handsome coupe has always been a solid performer, but the automaker’s engineers have demonstrated a near magical understanding of what S5 buyers are interested in. Even if that isn’t necessarily what people think they want.
I always feel like I’m cosplaying “Sexy Architect” when I drive the S5. More special than the A5 it’s based upon, but still less profligate than the madcap RS5, it’s a restrained sort of extravagance. The sort of grand tourer that would be bought for its pretty proportions as much as its on-road comfort.
This newest redesign is the most effective yet, to my eye. The hood gains a power dome and starts a series of deep creases that flow sharply along the car’s flanks, flexing slightly to emphasize the quattro all-wheel drive. There’s something particularly pleasing about the wedge shape that starts from just behind the front wheel and flares up toward the back, and the way the unexpectedly squared-off side glass meets the C-pillar.
Sportier than the regular A5, then, but not outlandishly so, and the same goes for the engine. Audi’s 3.0-liter TFSI turbocharged V6 offers 354 horsepower and 369 lb-ft. of torque; hardly pedestrian, but slightly shy of the Mercedes-AMG C43 Coupe. The EPA said I should get 24 mpg combined; I got 23.6 mpg.
Audi combines its V6 with an 8-speed tiptronic transmission, and it’s the gearbox where purists will clash horns with the engineers. Gone is the manual transmission option – people said they wanted it, the automaker claims, but then hardly anybody actually bought it – and so too the s-tronic dual-clutch transmission. Instead, you get a torque-converter ‘box with paddle shifters, selected, so the argument goes, because it better suits the S5’s low-end torque.
“No stick-shift” is usually the first negative to go down in a performance car review, but frankly I’m willing to concede this one to Audi. The S5 may lack the more frenetic aggression of its C43 AMG rival, but the setup suits the coupe well. The auto shifts smoothly and slickly, and isn’t afraid to jump down through the ratios when you push hard, nor hold a lower gear and let the revs climb. That’s even the case in the standard transmission mode; tug the shifter back to engage Sport, and things get even perkier, not to mention sounding better.
The S5’s song is more jazz than hard rock, but it’s a sonorous and welcome thing. No droning, just the occasional snatch of raspiness; sometimes, in the midst of a more aggressive gear change, something that edges close to a bark.
It says something that it’s Audi itself which has overshadowed the S5’s interior for me. Certainly, the Virtual Cockpit instrumentation – with its S-specific layout – and sizable center stack display are straightforward to use and responsive, but having seen the touchscreen greatness of the 2019 Audi A8 recently I can’t help but wish the coupe had the same infotainment system as its sedan sibling.
Atop the $54,600 base price you’ll pay $4,400 for the S5’s Virtual Cockpit setup, which also comes with a healthy Bang & Olufsen audio system, color head-up display, navigation, and connected infotainment system plus a WiFi hotspot to share the car’s LTE connection. $1,800 more gets adaptive cruise control and active lane assistance, the latter proving to have more finesse than the last Mercedes and BMW systems I tried. The standard sports seats – nicely hugging and well-adjustable that they are, with massage and heating – had a $1,250 Nappa leather upgrade in this particular review car. The combination of pale gray hide and the standard-fit power sunroof helped keep the cabin feel light and reasonably spacious.
From there, you get to enjoy what can only really be described as “poise” on the road. Audi’s quattro system has its four drive select modes – Comfort, Sport, Auto, and Individual – and the S5 adds the $2,500 S sport package with sport adaptive damping suspension and a sport rear differential. Whatever mode you pick, there’s no wallow or shimmy.
Plenty of electronics work with the suspension and differential to keep the S5 nimble in the corners, too. Audi had ticked the dynamic steering option, which adjusts the ratio according to how much you’re turning; it’s good, but having driven the regular version I think you’re safe to save your $1,150. Either way, there’s a focused accuracy to the car. Even the trickle of understeer when you push too hard is fed in with slide-rule degrees of communicative precision.
What I wanted to say, collared in that parking lot with Ben & Jerry’s slowly melting in my bag, was that complaints about the 2018 S5 inevitably feel like they’ve missed the whole point of the car. Audi set out to make an executive express: not shouty, not temperamental. Not something that demands compromise, or contortion. I can understand if you’re not ready to embrace that; if you feel the need for something wilder, rawer. The Audi S5 is competence on four wheels, and that’s entirely by design.