Chaos reigns. It's Sunday afternoon on the roads east of Verona in the north of Italy. Muddied four-by-fours lean drunkenly around the tight curves on these high hills. Dense packs of sport bikes fizz past in 13,000-rpm eruptions, diving onto their forks as yet another short straight comes to an abrupt end. Our Audi fills their mirrors until, finally, they wave us past.
As a means of dealing with congested Italian roads, the S5 coupe is hard to beat. A 350-hp V-8 coupled with Quattro all-wheel drive lets us get on the power ludicrously early coming out of corners. And as for straight-line performance, it's headline-grabbing stuff: 0 to 60 mph in about 5.0 seconds, with a top speed electronically limited to 155 mph, according to Audi.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Audi chose the S5 as the launch model for its new A5 coupe range. The S5 goes on sale here in November and will be joined three months later by a tamer 265-hp, 3.2-liter FSI V-6 model. Prices have yet to be finalized; Audi will say only that the S5 will be priced in excess of $55,000, and the 3.2 will top the $40,000 mark.
Well, the A5 certainly looks expensive. Volkswagen Group design boss Walter de'Silva says the A5 is the most beautiful car he's ever styled. It combines Audi's geometrically muscular stance with a dash of Latin whimsy in the form of an undulating character line on the body sides. There are some fantastic details, too, such as the LED daytime running lights that give the A5 an instantly recognizable face (BMW has pulled off much the same trick with its "angel eyes" headlamp surrounds). The A5's headlights also have beautifully sculpted surfaces.
Regardless of how you feel about de'Silva's visual treatment--and I'm not a huge fan--there's plenty more under the A5's skin to talk about. In order to reduce the front overhang, the front differential is repositioned ahead of the clutch, which allows for a longer wheelbase (four inches longer than the current A4's). On that note, the A5 is also significant in that its architecture will underpin the A4 replacement, bringing the benefits of better weight distribution and a longer wheelbase to that model.
In pursuit of better dynamics, the A5's steering rack is situated lower down, closer to the wheel centers. Shorter steering arms and fewer joints aim to improve steering feel and provide more agile responses.
All of that said, the S5 is not a sport coupe in the BMW 3-series mold. It's a very effective means of covering ground at high velocities, but it just isn't very involving to drive. Carry a bit too much speed into a tight corner and the default mode is understeer, and there's little point in trying to use the throttle to adjust the cornering attitude.
The consolation prize, however, is horizon-warping straight-line speed. The V-8 frenetically revs to its 7000-rpm peak, and the meaty, accurate six-speed manual gearbox is a good match for this powerhouse. The S5's ability to accelerate hard from 120 mph is remarkable. But having driven our Four Seasons Audi RS4 sedan a few days before flying to Italy, I missed the RS4 engine's hooligan yell, a classic V-8 woofle-and-wail sound track that's muted in the S5. In a candid moment, an Audi executive admitted that the company is reserving the Big Noise for the RS5, which is a couple of years away.
European customers can order their A5 in front-wheel-drive-only guise, which means it can be specified with Audi's Multitronic continuously variable transmission (available here on the front-wheel-drive A4 and A6). Too bad that model won't be available here, as it's hard to argue with the combination of eight artificial ratios and absolutely seamless shifts. For the record, the S5 is available only with the six-speed manual. Sadly, the best A5 variant is the one we won't be getting: the 240-hp, 3.0-liter turbo-diesel with 369 lb-ft of torque. Matched with the Quattro drivetrain, this engine delivers sports car performance and, Audi claims, overall fuel consumption of 33 mpg.
Inside, the A5 and the S5 are vintage Audi. All of the instruments are logically laid out, and Audi's MMI operating system remains one of the most intuitive on the market. The cabin also imparts that quality look and feel that have become Audi hallmarks. Neat details include the electromechanical handbrake, which has an automatic mode that applies the brake whenever the car stops and then releases it as you drive off. The rear seats actually accommodate adults, although headroom is a bit tight for six-plus footers. The separate trunk is quite generous, and the rear seatbacks can be folded down for even more cargo capacity.
Apart from their flamboyantly curvy sheetmetal, the A5 and the S5 represent a fairly conservative evolution for Audi. The dynamic gains don't seem to reflect the engineering effort that the company has put into the chassis; this isn't a car that will tempt those wedded to a great driving experience. But the S5, while no agile sportster, is a brilliantly executed blunt instrument with which to subdue a raucous Sunday afternoon, Italian-style.