2018 Audi S5 Coupe Review: The (Two) Doors of Perception
Stylish, versatile models like the Audi S5 Sportback make it even harder to justify an impractical coupe.
If you think sedans are struggling in the new-car dating market, try being a coupe: Everyone assures you you’re sexy and desirable, yet here you are, waiting for the phone to ring, while every eligible buyer is fooling around with some SUV hussy. That epidemic of loneliness finds coupes making up a record-low 2.2 percent of the American market, according to Edmunds.com. Even among luxury cars, where these personal-reward cars once proliferated, only 3.9 percent of buyers are choosing a coupe.
Sure, America’s fondness for those big-bootied SUVs explains part of it. But for another reason, look no further than Audi’s expanded A5/S5lineup: Who wants a two-door when you can have equivalent style and performance in a more-practical body style? The new A5 and S5 Sportback models take handsome cues from the larger A7 family, including a roomy, smartly-disguised cargo hatch. That A7 itself was among the industry’s first “four-door coupes,” a successful bid to sex up the traditional sedan while adding even more practicality.
These appealing Sportbacks give Audi shoppers yet another reason to bypass two-door versions. But coupes and/or cabriolets are still part of every German brand’s luxury playbook—as they are for Cadillac, Lexus, and Infiniti—so Audi has refashioned its 5s to broaden their appeal.
As fans will tell you, the original S5 of a decade ago was a tougher act to follow than Jane’s Addiction in their hard-rocking prime. The Audi’s own metal assault included a high-revving 40-valve V8 and an optional six-speed manual transmission, tucked into a coupe body whose tailored shape has aged especially well. Smash cut to 2018, and there’s no V8 (nor supercharged V6, which replaced the eight-pot in 2013), no manual transmission, and no dual-clutch automatic—to which some coupe lovers might reply, “No sale.”
And let’s just say it: This 2018 coupe isn’t as striking or singular as the oh-so-pretty original. The new “wave design” shoulder line, especially, traces a somewhat woozy and tentative path along the body sides. The Audi is still a handsome car, with its rippled, aluminum power-dome hood, trademark Singleframe grille, optional full-LED headlamps, and taillamps with sweeping, dynamic LED turn signals. But this S5 is more discreet and conventional than its predecessors...meaning it looks a lot like every other Audi. And to this critic's eyes, the Sportback, with its curling roofline and longer proportions, pulls off that wavy-sided look better than the Coupe.
The interior is also familiar, but this being an Audi, that’s a compliment. The 12.3-inch TFT driver’s screen flashes its Google Earth maps and other Nvidia-processed niceties at 60 frames per second. Glossy “Carbon Atlas” carbon fiber plays beautifully with diamond-stitched leather on doors and ultra-comfy S Sport seats, which have pneumatic bolsters and massage functions. It all looks the part for an S5 that starts from $55,575—$900 less than a 362-hp Mercedes-AMG C43 Coupe—and reached $64,750 with a smattering of options.
As ever, coupe style enacts a penalty in back seat and cargo space. Climbing into the rear first requires using a power button to slide front seats forward; that goes double for escaping. There’s just enough space for two six-footers back there, but it’s still claustrophobic, with 32.7 inches of legroom—about 2.5 inches more than a Ford Mustang, but one inch less than a BMW 4 Series Coupe, and a few tenths shy of even a shrimpy BMW 2 Series hardtop. This is where the Sportback models press their big advantage, with about 2.5 inches more space for legs and shoulders in the rear and nearly double the trunk space, at 21.8 cubic feet versus 11.6 for the coupe. The coupe’s rear seats fold for a bit more space, but it’s nothing like the Sportback’s enormous 35 cubes when its own seats are flipped.
Numbers are kinder to the engine and performance. Dismiss the la-la-la from supercharger fans who seem to think there’s some belt-driven magic that a modern turbocharged engine can’t match. Fact is, this 3.0-liter, twin-scroll turbo V6 has more horsepower and torque than the supercharged V6 ever did. There’s 354 horsepower and 369 pound-feet, versus a respective 333 and 325 for the old powerplant, and maximum thrust arrives sooner, not later, than the old engine. If a V8 Mustang or Camaro makes its motivation angrily, the Audi does it effortlessly, surfing a cool wave of power the instant you tip into the throttle. The brakes, including six-piston calipers up front, are among the best and strongest in class.
And where the former dual-clutch automatic was a skosh snappier in paddle-activated mode, it was also lumpier at slow speeds around town. The outstanding eight-speed Tiptronic torque converter automatic proves its contributions via not only smoothness, but acceleration numbers too. The Audi smokes 0-60 mph in 4.3 seconds. That’s 0.2 seconds faster than a 2017 Ford Mustang GT with a manual transmission and a 425-horsepower V8, 0.3 seconds quicker than a BMW 440i coupe, and it equals the Lexus RC F coupe with a 467-hp V8. (Ford is claiming a sub-4.0 second blast for the 2018 Mustang GT, with a slightly enlarged V8 whose 460-horse rating has already drawn whispers of sandbagging). And Mercedes cites 4.6 seconds for its AMG C43, though Car and Driver said it dispatched 60 mph in a fiery 4.1 seconds.
Point being, the Audi is seriously fast and capable, but doesn't do so by sacrificing ride comfort as some hardcore coupes do. I dialed every Drive Select mode up to their highest Dynamic setting and never felt the need to dial them down, even on cratered Brooklyn streets. Combine lively steering, a rejiggered multi-link front suspension and a slick electronic differential with torque vectoring, and you’ve got an Audi that corners with surprising balance for such a front-heavy car, alongside the traction boost and foul-weather benefits of Quattro all-wheel-drive.
Yet the Audi would be no fan of Nicholas Sparks's melodramas, or the potboiler style of American pony cars: There's not a ton of driving emotion here, no running mascara in the form of tire smoke, and no rear wheels flirting with danger by sliding near their limits. The Audi stays cool and collected at all times. It claws the pavement with about 0.94 g of lateral force, but it's very difficult to make it rotate, even at relatively low speeds. In that vein, the S5 easily managed woodsy two-laners, but it really hit its autobahn stride on the fast sweepers of New York’s Taconic Parkway, which runs up the eastern Hudson Valley toward the Berkshires. (Fun New York State Fact: the state’s longest parkway, the Taconic was part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vision for convenient, scenic access to new parkland in his beloved Hudson Valley.)
That brings us back to the Sportbacks. In any vacation zone or driving playground, the S5 Sportback will romp just as effectively, but with lots more space for people and stuff. That's partly thanks to a 3,924-pound curb weight, just 88 more than the coupe. To be fair, while in the two-door S5, I imagined myself being young and carefree again, the kind of guy who didn’t give a damn about a backseat since I couldn’t yet imagine a squalling baby back there. There are still coupe enthusiasts who are happy to sacrifice two doors and bonus space, even if their ranks are clearly dwindling. And I commend them for their selfishness, for helping keep the coupe (and convertible) dream alive.
Another rider in the Audi cavalry is coming, one that might adjust my view: The RS 5 coupe, which I’ll actually be driving in Arizona in a few weeks. The RS 5's wide-bodied, rally-esque design definitely creates more visual separation from the rest of the “5” lineup. That RS 5 should sound a serious charge as well, adopting the twin-turbo, 444-hp, 2.9-liter V6 from the new Porsche Panamera 4S. I'll bet (old) Deutsche marks to doughnuts that the Audi gives even that hotted-up new Mustang GT a tussle in a drag race.
Then again, I should mention that there’s no two-door RS 5 Cabriolet this time around. It’s to be replaced by—you guessed it—an RS 5 Sportback, packing the same 444 horses, but with four doors and that roomy 35-cubic-foot hatch. Hmm, which of those models would I want, and which will Americans prefer? I’d cue the Final Jeopardy music, but you don’t need that much time to answer.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence@thedrive.com.