Test Drive: 2008 Audi S5 car test drives audi
2008 Audi S5; photo courtesy Audi Canada. Click image to enlarge

By Laurance Yap

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2008 Audi S5

Toronto, Ontario – When Audi’s chief designer Walter da’ Silva proclaimed the A5 and S5 as the most beautiful car he’d ever designed – this from a man who was responsible for several gorgeous Alfa Romeos – I originally thought it was just PR puffery. The original photos that Audi released showed a blocky two-door coupe with an interesting curved line across the side, but not much more. In person, though, it’s a different story. There’s something about the way that line curves, the way the sides of the car have an elegant sort of muscularity to them, that makes the S5 a real stunner. Particularly in darker colours, where reflections dance across its gently undulating surfaces, the S5 looks beautiful when it’s standing still and is even better when on the move.

Part of the elegant new look comes from the S5’s proportions. The long nose, with the wheels pushed way forward, and the short rear deck are new for Audi and come as a result of many changes underneath the skin. The A5/S5 is the first car Audi’s built on its new platform, which features an engine mounted behind the front axle for improved weight distribution and better driving dynamics. Instead of being mounted in front of the front wheels, necessitating a long and tall front end, the engine’s positioning now allows a long, elegant hood to flow out of Audi’s aggressive single-frame front grille. The S5, being (for now) the top-of-the-line model, gets other great styling details: five-spoke alloy wheels that look as sharp as razor blades, aluminum mirror housings and four fat exhaust pipes poking out underneath the rear bumper. In short, it looks like a real sports car.

Test Drive: 2008 Audi S5 car test drives audi
2008 Audi S5; photo courtesy Audi Canada. Click image to enlarge

This is not, in fact, an illusion. The S5 is fast, real fast. It’s powered by a new, direct-injection version of the 4.2-litre V8 we’ve become familiar with in the S4 line-up. Thanks to a host of revisions, it now produces 354 horsepower and also has improved fuel economy. More importantly, it revs more cleanly and aggressively than ever before, its increased eagerness punctuated by a delicious snarl from the exhaust when you punch the throttle. The six-speed manual transmission the S5 comes with is a great match for the high-tech V8; its throws are moderate in length but exceptionally precise, with a terrific snick-snick action from the high-set lever.

It’s not just the engine that gives this package its sportiness, however. The rest of the car backs it up too, with athletic responses and an immediacy that belies its substantial size and weight. A compact three-spoke steering wheel guides the front tires with a light touch but plenty of road feel. The suspension hunkers down in corners, delivering terrific grip and very little body roll without an unnecessarily jarring ride. The massive brakes respond to a mere brush of the pedal and remain linear in their responses right up to where you’re standing on them in full-ABS mode. All the while, Audi’s revised quattro all-wheel-drive system, which now divides torque 40 per cent front/60 per cent rear as a default, gives the S5 a feeling of excellent stability, particularly in poor weather conditions and on sub-optimal roads. All together, it’s a compelling package, one that you can drive hard down a winding road without breaking a sweat, as well as one that’s more than happy to cruise for hours on end.

Test Drive: 2008 Audi S5 car test drives audi
Test Drive: 2008 Audi S5 car test drives audi
2008 Audi S5; photo courtesy Audi Canada. Click image to enlarge

The S5’s cabin does a good job of balancing sportiness and comfort. In typical Audi fashion, it is beautifully made out of the best materials. There’s rich leather and Alcantara on the seats, real aluminum trim on the dashboard and console and high-quality, low-gloss plastic. There’s plenty of room to relax and stretch out on long hauls, with more head- and legroom than you might expect, even in back, while the excellent stereo system pumps out clear, clean sound no matter what the volume. The sporty feel comes from small, cut-down side window openings, high-gloss trim, big-bolstered seats and the design of the cabin, which is unabashedly shaped around the driver: all major controls are angled towards the left, while the instruments and MMI display screen are housed under a deep binnacle that keeps them hidden from the passenger’s view.

As nice as the cabin is, there is a certain amount of fussiness in the S5 that is surprising from Audi. The design of the gauges is beautiful but they’re not very easy to read; the centre console, with its central MMI controller flanked by more than a dozen other buttons, is a bit of a mess; the slot for the CD changer seems to sit forlornly in its own trim panel, as if it was added as an afterthought. Years ago, when the current-generation A6 was launched, the company admitted to trying hard to remove some of the “perfection” of its interior and exterior designs, which were seen as kind of cold and calculating; by injecting some more emotion into the S5’s style, Audi seems to have left just a little bit of logic behind.

Test Drive: 2008 Audi S5 car test drives audi
2008 Audi S5; photo courtesy Audi Canada. Click image to enlarge

Still, these are minor complaints about what is, in the end, an exceptionally well-balanced and attractive GT coupe. The icing on the cake is the price – at around $65,000 to start, the V8-powered S5, which comes with a whole load of standard equipment, is priced competitively with a loaded-up BMW 335i, which has less room inside, less power under the hood and is a much more common sight on our roads.

I wasn’t expecting to like the S5 very much, but in fact it’s one of my favourite cars of the year.

Pricing: 2008 Audi S5


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