Pity the humble, traditional sedan. Not only is it under attack from the burgeoning ranks of SUVs but also curvier, coupe-ier cars like the Audi S5 Sportback.
As the name suggests, the S5 Sportback is closely related to the S4, Audi’s traditional performance-oriented mid-size sedan offering.
As such, mechanically the two are very similar: there’s a 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 under the bonnet producing 260kW from 5400-6400rpm and 500Nm from 1370-4500rpm.
This is connected to an eight-speed automatic gearbox – a torque converter auto not a dual-clutch – and drives all four wheels. The drive split is 40:60 front-to-rear under normal conditions but can send up to 85 per cent of the torque rearwards depending on the driving situation.
Both the S4 and S5 seat five people, can hit 100km/h in less than five seconds and have an electronically limited 250km/h top speed. Both feature adaptive dampers, Audi’s new 10.1-inch infotainment touchscreen – with smartphone mirroring – and a full suite of active safety features as standard, including park assist, 360-degree cameras, head-up display, adaptive cruise control with traffic assist, lane departure warnings, autonomous emergency braking and more.
So, styling aside, can the S5 Sportback justify its $7000 price premium over the S4 ($106,500 vs $99,500)?
Speaking of buying, Audi is sticking with a three-year warranty for now, despite having trialled a five-year offering at the end of the 2019-20 financial year. The warranty can be extended beyond the initial three years (up to 160,000km) for an additional cost. Servicing costs are $1920 for the first three years and $2950 for the first five.
READ Why longer warranties won't be the norm
To discover the differences between the four-door S4 and five-door S5 Sportback you have to dig deep. The latter is 13mm shorter in length, 4mm narrower and 9mm less tall than the former but has a wider footprint courtesy of a 22mm wider track front and rear. It wears 20 x 9.0-inch wheels instead of 19 x 8.5s and is shod with tyres 10mm wider (265/30 vs 255/35).
That hatchback bodyshell increases boot space from 420L to 480L but adds another 30kg to the kerb weight, which is presumably the culprit for the 0-100km/h claim increasing from 4.7 to 4.8sec. The difference is irrelevant, because the S5 Sportback is still a seriously brisk machine.
In feel and performance the 3.0-litre V6 feels akin to one of BMW’s straight-sixes, which is quite the compliment.
A little softer at the end, perhaps, but smooth and powerful and with a fantastic howling note. It’s a level of performance that is enjoyable without constantly putting your licence at risk and appropriate for road use.
The eight-speed automatic transmission remains inconspicuous, going about its business without fuss. Upshifts occur automatically even in manual mode but downshift requests using the paddles are answered promptly enough.
Fast Audis haven’t always been the most involving handlers but the S5 Sportback is, happily, an exception. It is fantastic to drive.
Selecting Dynamic mode from the Drive Select menu adds welcome weight to the steering, which is a little light and lifeless in Comfort, and firms up the suspension without erasing compliance.
Key to its fleet-footedness, though, is the optional quattro Sports differential ($2990), which allows the engine’s torque to not only be split front-to-rear but also accurately apportioned to the left or right rear wheel as necessary. It works brilliantly.
The S5 Sportback turns into a corner quickly and accurately but continues to rotate mid-corner and through the exit.
You can apply throttle very early in the corner confident in the knowledge that the front end will remain stuck to the road and that the diffs beneath you will shuffle the power to where it’s needed most.
At more regular speeds it’s quick and composed but keen drivers will be able to hustle the car harder than they probably imagined possible.
That said, while the variable-ratio steering is very quick at just 2.1 turns lock-to-lock, it’s quite numb around the straight-ahead which makes it difficult to feel what the front wheels are doing. The ride is also quite reactive, even in Comfort; it’s not too firm, you just feel more bumps than you might expect in a car of this type.
In typical Audi style the interior is a beautiful place to spend time, full of leather, carbon and Alcantara, and you have to search harder in the S5 Sportback to find evidence of cost-saving hard plastics than in some of its German rivals.
The standard 19-speaker, 755-watt Bang & Olufsen stereo should have most audio requirements covered and those in the back needn’t be in the cheap seats. Functionally the Sportback is a four-seater, each outer pew sculpted into a quasi-bucket and has decent legroom and headroom for anyone up to about 180cm tall.
Dual air vents, USB ports, separate temperature controls and fold-out storage and cupholders all aim to make life more appealing, too.
Up front, there are some odd ergonomic quirks. The button placement feels to be a legacy from left-hand drive cars. The Drive Select button is an awkward stretch for drivers, and the with the nearest button to the driver in RHD cars is for turning off the infotainment system.
Likewise, the powertrain robs room from where your left leg would sit and forces the pedals to the right, while the strangest omission is the lack of a fuel gauge.
For some reason, the latest update of Audi’s Virtual Cockpit relegates the fuel gauge to a sub-menu. Once found it’s easy to locate but doing so the first time took around 15mins to press the right sequence of buttons. Distance-to-empty is always displayed and there will of course be a low-fuel warning but this does seem to be a case of “wasn’t broke, don’t fix”.
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Small niggles aside, the S5 Sportback is a deeply impressive machine. It’s fast, sounds good, looks good, is practical and feels expensive. It is also painless to drive slow and exciting to drive quickly.
Styling is subjective, but for me the swoopy Sportback body has curves that the traditional three-box sedan can’t hope to imitate. This is one of Audi’s best offerings.
Likes: Looks; performance; handling; practicality
Dislikes: Ergonomic foibles; reactive ride
Engine: 2995cc V6, DOHC, 24v, turbocharger
Power: 260kW @ 5400-6400rpm
Torque: 500Nm @ 1370-4500rpm
Gearbox: 8-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 4.8sec (claimed)
Fuel consumption: 8.8L/100km (combined/claimed)
Emissions: 202g/km CO2