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First drive: Audi fights bias with A5/S5

Style leader: Two-door Audi has great road presence.

Audi's first coupe in a decade makes a play for long-held BMW territory

8 May 2007

AUDI continues to hunt down BMW in Australia with its rapidly-growing model portfolio, and from October it will finally plug the four-seat coupe gap with the all-new A5.

More importantly, the A5 introduces a vital new platform – or ‘architecture’ as the boffins prefer to more accurately call it – that will be used for Audi’s next-generation sedans. These range from the compact A4 (due in 2008) through to the big A8 (2010).

This new highly flexible architecture has the engine located further forward than before to improve dynamics, but it turns out to be only an incremental rather than dramatic move. Still the engines tend to hang over the front axles.

What this means is that the A5 falls well short of the optimum 50:50 weight distribution that theoretically provides the perfect dynamic balance for a car (and is the norm for BMWs).

In the A5 range, the front weight bias ranges from 53 per cent for the four-cylinder entry-level model to a whopping 58 per cent with the turbo-diesel V6.

Audi remains constrained by the requirements of longitudinal engine location combined with front-wheel drive as well as four-wheel drive.

Other features of the new platform include a new five-link front suspension made mainly from aluminium, a refined trapezoidal-link aluminium rear suspension and relocating the steering rack forward of (and closer to) the front axle line, which is aimed at improving steering control and feel.

Of course, the coupe market is all about style and on that score there is no doubt that Audi has hit the mark.

For a company that has a distinguished coupe history, including the original legendary Quattro model that revolutionised rallying – and, indeed, the reputation of Audi as a major global player – the new A5 is somewhat overdue.

It was even later than expected because chief designer Walter de’Silva took the unusual step of going to the Audi board late in the development phase requesting extra time to get the design just right.

Many Australians will have judged the car’s looks at the Melbourne International Motor Show in March, where it made its international debut in conjunction with the Geneva show, but seeing the car on the roads around Verona it is hard not to conclude that the noted Italian designer got it right.

Aided by L-shaped LED daytime running lights, the A5 turned plenty of heads in car-mad northern Italy and it will surely do the same in Australia.

Not coincidentally, we are sure, the A5 measures up very closely to the BMW 3 Series coupe in all its major dimensions.

7 center imageFrom top: A5 rear, side and interior. Sports-tuned S5 (bottom three pics) is distinguished by trademark grille, aggressive front bumper, bigger wheels and a quad-tipped exhaust system.

The 3.2-litre V6 A5, which will be the initial entry-level model until the turbocharged petrol 1.8T arrives next April, sits on a 9mm shorter wheelbase than the BMW 325i coupe, but is 45mm longer overall and 72mm wider. It is 23mm lower than the 325i, but about line-ball with the sportier 335i.

This familiar V6 petrol engine (featuring in a range of Audis) develops 195kW of power at 6500rpm and 330Nm of torque across a wide rev band of 3000rpm to 5000rpm.

In terms of performance, the V6 slots between the BMW 325i’s 2.5-litre ‘atmo’ engine (160kW/250Nm) and the 335i’s mighty twin-turbo 3.0-litre unit (225kW/400Nm).

Audi has not yet confirmed specifications for any of the A5 models, but has revealed that the 3.2 V6 with multitronic (continuously variable) transmission driving only the front wheels will be priced at around $90,000, rising to about $95,000 for the quattro four-wheel drive model with a superior tiptronic transmission when that model arrives here in March.

That also places it between the BMW 325i coupe ($81,900 manual/$84,500 auto) and 335i coupe ($108,900 manual/$111,500 auto).

When the 1.8T arrives in April – fitted only with the multitronic transmission – it will be priced between $70,000 and $75,000, line-balling with the entry-level BMW 323i coupe ($70,200 manual/$72,800 auto).

Although Audi has not revealed full specs for the 1.8T (and did not have one to test at the launch in Italy), the 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine from the A4 will produce around 125kW/225Nm, compared with 140kW/230Nm for the 2.5-litre straight-six in the Beemer.

The multitronic transmission comes with a sport function for sharper response and also an electronic ‘manual’ mode, which provides eight pre-set gears that can be selected manually.

At the top of the range sits the high-performance S5, which has a power edge over the 335i and is therefore four-tenths faster from 0-100km/h with a time of 5.1 seconds.

It is the only model in the new coupe range powered by the 4.2-litre V8 petrol engine that is already seen in the S4, A6, S6, A8, Allroad and Q7 models.

In the S5, the V8 produces 260kW at 7000rpm and 440Nm at 3500rpm, which is marginally more than any of the aforementioned models with the exception of the mighty RS4 (309kW/430Nm).

That puts is way out in front of the top-spec BMW coupe, not only in performance but also price as it arrives in October at between $130,000 and $135,000, driving all four wheels through a standard six-speed manual.

A semi-automatic tiptronic transmission will arrive here for the S5 six months later (just after the V6 tiptronic) and will be priced $4000 higher.

The S5 naturally features sports suspension and is slightly lower than the A5.

It also runs high-performance brakes that are identified by black painted callipers clearly visible through the wheels and the electronic stability control system can be deactivated in two stages for those wanting the full driving experience.

Apart from lower-profile tyres and the bigger 18-inch wheels revealing those black callipers, the S5 can be identified by the bolder grille, air inlets and front and rear bumpers, plus aluminium-look mirrors, a slightly bigger rear spoiler and, of course, the S5 badging.

There are also four big oval exhaust outlets at the back to remind those you have just passed that a V8 lurks under the bonnet.

The LED daylight running lights will be standard on the S5, but will likely be optional on most A5 models.

Inside, the electric sports seats provide the necessary extra lateral support, a sports steering wheel is fitted and the overall trim level is of a notably more sporty nature.

A new keyless key that holds service information still needs to be inserted into the dash, but some models have push-button start and all enjoy an electronic parking brake.

The final piece of the A5 puzzle will not fall into place until August next year, when the first diesel model finally makes it to these shores.

Although there is a 2.7-litre unit available for Europe, we will only get the more powerful 3.0-litre turbo-diesel, equipped with the tiptronic transmission driving all four wheels and priced just under $100,000.

This EuroV-compliant engine produces 176kW from 4000-4400rpm and 500Nm from 1500-3000rpm, which hustles the A5 3.0 TDI from rest to 100km/h in just 5.9 seconds – only eight-tenths slower than the S5.

With such enormous mid-range torque, the diesel probably matches the S5 for overtaking times, while returning a fuel consumption figure of just 7.2 litres per 100km on the combined cycle (compared with 12.4L for the S5 and 8.7L for the 3.2 V6).

Drive impressions:

THE hills around Verona provide just the sort of driving we love from a purely sporting point of view, but are so smooth that the A5’s new steering, suspension and platform were not fully tested.

All of the variants we tried – which covered all the engines and transmissions we are getting in Australia, with the exception of the entry-level 1.8T – displayed an expected bias towards ride quality over outright grip levels, as you would expect of a GT coupe.

Understeer is certainly the prevailing handling trait, which is hardly surprising when you see the weight distribution figures and note the engine overhang. Sometimes you just can’t beat the laws of physics.

Inevitably, comparisons will be made with the class-leading BMW 3 Series coupe and, while these are best left to back-to-back tests at home, we feel that the Beemer is a much more lithe and well-balanced machine, with sharper handling and steering.

Our best experience, perhaps predictably, was with the S5 manual, but only after the intrusive stability control system was switched off.

With the superb growling V8 revving hard all the way up to 7000rpm and driving through all four wheels, there was incredible traction, with virtually no wheelspin, even from standing starts in the wet.

There was also plenty of lateral grip and neutral handling, the brakes were rock-solid and the gearbox – which is apparently the same as in the 3.2 quattro – felt altogether smoother and more precise in the S5.

Even with bigger wheels and lower-profile tyres than the other A5 models, the S5 demonstrated good ride quality for such a sporty car (though, as we said, the roads around Verona are much smoother than we have in Australia).

The biggest problem was one of visibility. With big wing mirrors mounted on that high waistline and strong but wide A-pillars sweeping up in front of your face, seeing around the corner for oncoming cars, let alone picking a corner apex, was always a challenge.

We also found that the variable steering system provided just a bit too much lock at slow speeds.

Just as satisfying from an engine perspective was the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel, which sounds much better than the average diesel and had enormous response down low and in the middle rev range.

Unfortunately, we only drove it with the six-speed manual gearbox, which is not coming to Australia. We get the tiptronic auto.

Less impressive was the multitronic continuously variable transmission, which did the smooth and powerful 3.2-litre V6 engine no favours.

In auto mode, it felt lazy on the ‘downshifts’ and required plenty of throttle to kick into it life, at which point it tended to rev like crazy before finding a happy medium.

Using the ‘manual’ mode – which unfortunately requires the lever to be pushed forward for upshifts rather than back – the transmission often chose what gear it wanted regardless.

Combined with the intrusive traction control and prevalent understeer in this front-driver, it made for a rather uninspiring drive at anything more than urban trundling speeds.

More satisfying was the manual gearbox quattro version, which we will not be getting in Australia. It still had plenty of turn-in understeer, but had great traction on exit, giving the engine the opportunity to rev out and display its strong performance and great sound.

These regular A5 models have wider seats than the S5, but they are still sufficiently supportive and certainly comfortable. In fact, we have no complaints about the classy interiors throughout the range.

Rear seat passengers will also be comfortable once they manage to struggle inside, with snug seats, plenty of headroom, separate air-con controls, a centre armrest/console with a lid, bottle holders and a good view to the outside world.

However, they will require considerable co-operation from those in the front seats to have any sort of legroom.

The boot is a reasonable size and has convenient release levers to easily fold the split rear seat backrests down without having to bend over into the boot.

On the negative side, we were disappointed that the front seatbelts lack height adjustment and we found the windscreen wipers on at least one of the cars to be disturbingly noisy.

And we did not welcome the latest useless electronic gizmo – a read-out in the driver’s information screen that not only tells you what gear you are in (in a manual), but also what gear you should be in. We can make that decision, thanks all the same.

Style is what the A5 is really all about, though, and on that score there is not much doubt that it is already a winner.

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