CASTAIC, California — Audi has long fended off criticism its cars look boring, clinical, and dispassionate. One notable exception came out in 2007, when Walter de Silva’s A5 coupe stole away haters’ hearts with its stunning elegance and clarity of form. The rowdier S5, first with its 4.2-liter V-8 and then later with its 3.0-liter supercharged V-6, would make those hearts quicken. Given that big shadow, it’s probably best we can’t see the outside of the all-new 2018 Audi S5 from the vantage point of its driver’s seat. From this intimate perspective, we’re too busy glancing between the hot coupe’s gorgeous Virtual Cockpit display and the scenery above southern California’s Castaic Lake, awash in greenery following months of heavy rains.
As many swivel-necked passers-by can attest, the new S5’s sharper, more geometric lines cut a clean but striking profile. The demure poise of its antecedent has been chiseled away. Nowhere is that clearer than head-on, where the once-soft grille and rounded taillights have grown edges with confident exactitude. Out back, too, the taillights have more defined presence, echoing the tighter surface tension of the rear decklid. Even the trademark character line, running from the front fender to the taillights, is missing some of its original wave-like smoothness. “With a successor [to an icon], the story is always different,” contends Audi designer Frank Lamberty.
Not only does the 2018 S5 have its own legacy to reckon with, but BMW and Mercedes have recently cast their lines into the M- and AMG-lite ponds, hoping to split the difference between hum-drum luxury and raw performance with their respective M Sport and AMG 43 models. The hallmark of Audi’s S cars, from the S4 to the S8, has always been a balance of performance, subtlety, and everyday usability. If all of the advanced tech baked into this new S5 is any indication, Ingolstadt isn’t ceding an inch of its territory without a fight.
For starters, the S5’s interior presents a restrained, refined alternative to the C43 AMG’s glitz and glam. Balancing the stellar Virtual Cockpit instrument display is a pleasant mix of metal, leather with Alcantara door cards, and well-hidden plastics. If you opt for black rather than red or gray, the standard panoramic sunroof solicits brightness to an otherwise glum interior.
Optional carbon-fiber inlays add a moody vibe, while contrast stitching for the diamond-pattern S sport seats lends a touch of style. The buckets are heated, complete with eight-way adjustability, lumbar support, and driver memory function. Their chunky bolstering has the right heft to keep the driver snug during hard cornering without bruising ribs and the fat flat-bottom steering wheel is easily maneuverable, particularly when wrapped in leather as part of the Nappa hide package.
When the new 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6 hurls you back into your seat, it’s nice to feel the support and have something to hold onto. The engine brims with 354 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, up 21 hp and 44 lb-ft. Not only is the engine 31 pounds leaner than the old supercharged V-6 — courtesy of an aluminum crankcase and pistons — but peak torque is now on tap at 1,370 rpm instead of 3,000 and the curve stays as flat as Ryan Reynolds’ abs until 4,500 rpm. The twin-scroll turbo is mounted between the cylinder banks in a “hot V” arrangement, yielding shorter runs with better throttle response and reduced turbo lag.
That muscle is managed by a ZF-derived eight-speed automatic transmission similar to that of the RS 7, which powers all four wheels according with a 40:60 bias in favor of the rear. If you’re wondering why Audi would forgo a dual-clutch here, apparently the new motor’s torque would have made the S5 too jerky at low speeds, while the torque converter in the eight-speed manages things better. The other upshots are shorter initial gears for better acceleration feel and taller top gears for better highway fuel economy and reduced engine noise. As for a six-speed stick? It never had a chance. Demand simply isn’t there, and full functionality with Audi’s driver assistance systems is tied to the automatic.
Audi claims a sprint to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, which is 0.2 seconds quicker than the Mercedes C43 AMG and 0.4 seconds quicker than the BMW 440i xDrive. The truth is that the S5 feels even faster. Given Audi’s historical tendency to play it safe with these figures, our butt estimates something more like 4.2 seconds. Put your right foot to the mat, and prepare for a smooth, seemingly unending swell of oomph as the V-6 rises from a healthy growl to a progressively richer, more expressive song at about 5,400 rpm.
The powertrain is so effective and seamless that, combined with the sport rear differential and continuous damper control from the $2,500 S Sport package, as well as the $1,150 dynamic variable-ratio steering, we found ourselves terrorizing the mountains north of Los Angeles without necessarily meaning to. Body control is almost total just north of the triple-digits, the adaptive dampers soaking up bumps and quick transitions before our own feeble neurons even fire to react. Ride quality doesn’t suffer one iota on the larger 19-inch wheels, which look far more stylish than the standard five-spoke 18s. The upgraded steering varies its ratio according to vehicle speed and selected driving mode (Dynamic is the way to go), ensuring the car always responds naturally to inputs and never feels like it’s getting too far ahead of you. The standard 15:9:1 ratio feels listless and disconnected, by comparison.
We chew up big, downhill sweepers with ease as Lake Castaic sparkles below. At 3,836 pounds, the S5 feels hefty but sure-footed, thanks largely to the optional rear diff. The center diff can send up to 85 percent of the engine’s torque to the rear axle, where the rear diff can send all of that available mustard to either rear wheel. Corrections happen seamlessly and without a trace of brake-based intervention. When you step onto the brakes of your own accord, the six-piston front calipers send the pads biting into the 13.8-inch rotors with predictable and generous force.
For all its virtues, the S5’s planted poise and unflappable neutrality come at something of a cost. The nature of Audi’s handling philosophy, and of Quattro, is to remain balanced at all times. If sliding and hanging out with the rear out is your thing, then look to the rear-wheel-drive basis underpinning the Benz and Bimmer. If the Audi’s conservative interior isn’t flashy enough compared to the C43, or the BMW’s six-speed manual is just too irresistible, the other Germans are perfectly good options. But Audi’s focus on timeless design, advanced tech, and stout, usable performance makes the 2018 S5 every bit the worthy heir to its predecessor. That sort of beauty, perhaps, is more than skin deep.
2018 Audi S5 Coupe Specifications
|ENGINE||3.0L turbocharged DOHC 24-valve V-6/354 hp
@ 5,400-6,400 rpm, 369 lb-ft @ 1,370-4,500 rpm
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine AWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||21/30 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||184.7 x 79.9 x 53.9 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.4 sec|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph|