2020 Audi S5 Sportback Review - Balancing in the sweet-spot

  • Competitive pricing lands it in the sweet spot
  • Switches neatly between comfort and performance
  • Cabin is unexpectedly practical and has plenty of toys
  • Budget extra for the rear diff and sport suspension
  • Exhaust sound could be fiercer

You can't please all the people, all the time, but Audi certainly comes closer than many with the 2020 S5 Sportback. The automaker may get some – not entirely undeserved – criticism, like its fellow Germans, for its "a car version for every tiny niche" approach over the past few years, but that doesn't mean the strategy can't come up with some gems.

Slotting in-between the regular A5 and the angry RS 5, the S5 now kicks off at $52,500 (plus $995 destination) – almost $11k more than the former, and a hefty $23k less than the latter. Audi has both two-door and four-door versions of all three, along with convertibles, though I think most people should opt for the hard top and the extra doors.

Audi calls that elongated four-door coupe body style a "Sportback" though you could also think of it as a well-stretched hatchback. Certainly, it wears the Black optic package – $2,200 for 20-inch bi-color wheels and blacked-out exterior trim – nicely. Regardless of the nomenclature, too, it makes for a vehicle that's unexpectedly practical along with being good-looking.

The big rear hatch puts tiny sedan and traditional coupes trunk openings to shame, powering open to splay wide the S5's 21.8 cu-ft of cargo space. Drop the rear seat down and that expands to 35 cu-ft. Headroom in the second row does suffer somewhat because of the sloping roofline, but you sit low in the S5 to help offset it a little. A standard panoramic sunroof – which tilts and slides – helps brighten the cabin.

Audi's dashboard tech feels like it has been through multiple iterations over the past couple of years, but the S5 settles on a 10.1-inch touchscreen for the infotainment, easy rotary controls for the three-zone HVAC, and a straightforward sport steering wheel with its own clusters of buttons. If you want the Virtual Cockpit digital instrumentation you'll need the $8,400 Prestige spec, which also adds a Bang & Olufsen audio system, power side mirrors, SiriusXM, driver's seat memory, a head-up display, navigation, active lane assistance and adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, Matrix-design LED headlamps, a 360-degree camera, and parking assistance, among some other niceties.

Leather and Alcantara seats with heating up front are standard, as is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. My test car had the fancier Nappa leather seats, for $1k, and Carbon Atlas inlays, for $500. Generally, the whole interior straddles a deft line between some sportier touches without going full "faux carbon fiber" which always looks a little cheap to my eyes. District Green metallic paint is a $595 option and, quite frankly, worth every cent.

Keeping things interesting is Audi's 3.0-liter TFSI turbocharged V6, paired with an 8-speed Tiptronic transmission and standard Quattro all-wheel drive. It's a mild hybrid, clawing back some of the otherwise wasted power to use on some of the S5's electrical systems and to smooth out the stop/start system, but performance is solely down to the gas engine's grunt.

349 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque aren't excessive, but they're enough for a 4.5 second 0-60 mph time, and a limited top speed of 155 mph. As with other S-badged models, Audi does a slick job of balancing personality to drive mode. Put the S5 into Comfort mode and it'll glide surreptitiously, every bit the friendly daily-driver.

Switch to Dynamic – Audi's version of sport mode – though, and things get more interesting. With the transmission much more aggressive at holding lower gears and downshifting to get to them at every opportunity, and the V6 more eager and packing more gurgle too, it feels like a very different car.

The S sport package, a $2,500 option, helps, adding a Quattro sport rear differential and sport adaptive damping suspension to the S5's standard five-link front and rear systems. There's no air suspension, but you don't need it: Audi can make the dampers firmer to leave the Sportback flat in the corners, while even with generally stiffer settings it doesn't upset more comfortable cruising.

With Quattro providing some general reassurance and plenty of traction, the rear diff funnels power between the left and right wheels. It's a fairly subtle thing most of the time, but you'll appreciate it when swinging the S5 through a series of tighter turns as it helps the Audi stay nimble. The $1,150 Dynamic Steering is an acquired taste, so I'm glad you can choose to add it or skip it individually. I just wish the S sport package also included an angrier exhaust, as even in Dynamic mode there's definitely room for some louder shouting.

Audi S5 Sportback Verdict

Some compromises are easier to accept than others. Even at $69,240 as-tested, the S5 Sportback still undercuts the RS 5, and you'll make much more thorough use of its combination of power and cosseting. At the same time, the V6 is a welcome upgrade to the regular A5's inline-four.

Elegant styling, a cabin that pairs plenty of tech with ease of use, and unexpected practicality single the S5 out as the sweet-spot. That's not just for Audi's A5-based range, but arguably for its Sportbacks in general too. Sure, there's more power and size out there if you insist on them, but the S5 Sportback's relative attainability give it an edge.