June 2, 2008

Photo Gallery: 2008 Audi A5

Specifications: 2008 Audi A5

The Guide: 2008 Audi A5

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Ottawa, Ontario – It can be tough to justify the purchase of a luxury car at the best of times. But when the price of a litre of regular unleaded is at or above $1.25 in much of Canada (as it is at the time of this writing), buying a vehicle that does any more than satisfy your most basic transportation needs starts to look plain old irresponsible.

So, on paper, Audi’s new A5 looks like a less-than-perfect purchase in times like these. It packs a 265-horsepower V6 engine and all-wheel drive, when a four-cylinder and two-wheel drive would be a more economical powertrain. Then there’s the fact that Audi – like most luxury vehicle makers – recommends premium fuel for optimum performance.

However, Transport Canada’s EnerGuide fuel consumption numbers for the A5 are 12.7 L/100 km (city) and 7.7 L/100 km (highway). At this point, the A5 starts to look very promising in spite of its low-slung, two-door body.

What’s more promising is that, in a week of mixed driving – about 60 per cent stop and go and the balance at highway speeds, all within city limits – my six-speed manual A5 tester averaged 11.4 L/100 km, according to its on-board computer; this, in a car that is worth every cent of its $54,650 as-tested price for both its looks and its performance.

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The A5 is a new model for Audi, but is essentially a coupe version of the forthcoming 2009 A4 sedan and wagon (Avant). Unlike the A4, which has traditionally been offered with both four- and six-cylinder engines, along with a choice between front- and all-wheel drive, the A5 comes exclusively with Audi’s 3.2-litre V6 and its quattro all-wheel drive setup.

When colleague James Bergeron drove this car, he figured that the A5 attracts at least as much attention on the road as the company’s R8 halo model. I tend to agree; it’s not often that so many onlookers gawk at a car. The A5’s low, wide stance and the LED daytime running lights – first used on the R8 and slowly making their way to other Audi models – do catch the eye.

The valet at Ottawa’s ritzy Chateau Laurier hotel certainly seemed grateful for the opportunity to park the A5, a task that involved reversing all of 20 metres. The A5 does make the R8 look a bit ordinary, especially when you consider that it costs about a third as much, offers far more practicality and is just as fun to drive, only at lower speeds.

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The seating position is low, significantly lower than in the A3 and A4, but the seats are near-perfect. It’s easy to find a comfortable seating position, too, thanks to standard power-adjustable front seats and a steering column that adjusts for reach and rake.

Interior space is good, but the compromises of the coupe body style become obvious in the rear seat, which is useable, but tight on leg- and headroom. Fit and finish is terrific, with a nice colour scheme and wood trim that actually looks like it came from a tree.

The MMI interface – this is analogous to BMW’s iDrive – is easy to deal with here, as my tester didn’t have the navigation option. The tiny volume control was frustrating, though, and it was easy to confuse it with the MMI knob at the centre of the dash. The climate controls are simple, however. Both the audio and climate control systems use the easy-to-read MMI screen to display most settings.

The big sunroof is standard. It helps make the A5’s cabin bright and airy, but those hoping for an almost al fresco driving experience will be disappointed: while it tilts open a couple of inches, it doesn’t slide back.

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Rearward visibility isn’t great: the wide C-pillars and high-profile rear headrests conspire to make reversing and lane changes a little more difficult than they need to be. The view out the front and sides, however, is very good.

The trunk is typical Audi, trimmed almost as well as the passenger compartment and offering plenty of cargo space. The 60/40 rear seat folds almost flat, too. The trunklid opens "automatically," springing up without any more than a push of the release button, and a handle inside the lid allows you to close it without getting your fingers dirty.

My six-speed manual tester paired a light but precise shifter with a clutch whose only fault is a somewhat abrupt take-up. It’s not difficult to stall the car the first time you mean to drive away. Get used to that, however, and it’s smooth shifting all the way. A shift "helper" in the gauge cluster tells the driver when to shift for optimum economy. For those more interested in simply driving, this unobtrusive feature can be turned off, or simply ignored.

In the first couple of gears, acceleration is very quick. According to Audi, 100 km/h comes in 5.8 seconds with the manual transmission (the available automatic, the company says, slows things down a tick, to 5.9 seconds). Sixth gear’s tall ratio has the motor turning at a sedate 2,000 rpm at around 100 km/h, and you’ll need to downshift for quick passing manoeuvres; the engine’s 243 lb-ft of torque hits full boil at 3,250 rpm.

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On the road, the A5 feels deliberate and heavy when driven sedately. At 1,695 kg (3,737 lbs), of course, it is a weighty car. But the weight translates into a solid structure, and good distribution of the heft makes for a balanced car when the going gets frisky.

Audi doesn’t specify front-to-rear weight distribution, but the A5’s press materials do talk of placing the bulk of the engine aft of the front axle to keep the car from being front-heavy. That, and an all-wheel drive system that routes 60 per cent of the engine’s power to the rear wheels in normal driving, works well to create balanced handling.

Turn-in is sharp, and while the steering is quite light at low speeds, it tightens up nicely as velocities increase. It all makes for a car that’s a heck of a lot of fun, despite its weight.

The A5 does seem geared toward spirited driving: the throttle is sensitive just off idle, and the brakes are touchy. It takes calculated footwork to drive this car smoothly when you’re not interested in getting somewhere quickly.

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The A5 isn’t cheap: my tester rang in at $54,650 including freight. Added on to the car’s $51,850 base price were $1,200 for the stylish 19-inch wheels and $800 for metallic paint. While $2,000 isn’t much of a discount on a car that starts north of 50 large, this car would still be quite a looker even in base form.

Sure, the A5 is nice to look at, and there’s plenty of performance to be had here. But it’s the A5’s practical points – an everyday-useful interior and a drivetrain that’s economical when you ask it to be – that make this coupe a keeper.

Pricing: 2008 Audi A5

Base price: $
Options: $
(19-inch alloy wheels, $1,200; metallic paint, $800)
A/C tax $
Freight: $
Price as tested: $


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