Take a wild guess how often the power-obsessed freaks at Automobile Magazine prefer the slower version of a car to the faster one. Yeah, not often. Which is why it was such a surprise that I liked the Audi A5 3.2 so much better than the S5 4.2.
First of all, let's call a spade a spade here: with looks like this, who cares how the thing drives? The A5 is drop-dead gorgeous. Stunning, in fact - and it turns heads everywhere you take it. It gets just as much attention as the S5 - big wheels and an S badge are largely irrelevant when the car itself looks as good as this one does.
As always, Audi nailed the interior, too. The A5 has great materials inside, and ergonomics are first-rate. The only unexpected fault is that the A5's steering wheel seems offset from the center of the driver's seat - it's skewed a little towards the inside of the car. It's the kind of thing you usually don't notice except for that it gives a slight sense of awkwardness to the driving position until you figure out what's causing it.
The 3.2-liter V-6 is a pleasure, both acoustically and in terms of its output. It has quick throttle response, revs smoothly, and makes power all over the rev range. It revs happily to seven grand, filling the air with a refined, aggressive honk that, while not quite as sinister as the thundercloud wail from the S5's 4.2-liter V-8, is sufficiently loud to make nearby pedestrians' heads spin around. Its 265 horsepower is more than sufficient. In fact, even though it produces almost 100 hp less than the 354-hp S5, the V-6 communicates so much more directly with the driver that the slower car is more fun.
There is nothing wrong with the V-8, of course - it's a brilliant engine. What lets it down, though, is poor throttle calibration. Try to accelerate slowly off the line in the V-8, and the computer will add a big helping of throttle to ensure you don't stall the engine. So you lurch off the line. As soon as the clutch is fully engaged, the computer pulls that additional throttle, and the lurch ends. Your friends think you're a hack. The truth of the matter is that the V-8 is very easy to stall - it makes almost zero power off idle. Also, because of a heavy flywheel, the V-8 doesn't like to rev quickly. So while it's a very smooth engine, it takes a lot of work to be smooth while driving it.
The V-6, on the other hand, revs quickly. The clutch engages smoothly and positively, and its computer does little to interfere with smooth, slow starts off the line. Inside the car, the V-6 is more vocal, and its vibrations are more noticeable in the car, letting the driver know what's going on even with the stereo on.
Oh, and speaking of stereos, the $850 Bang & Olufsen is the best deal in the car stereo world. It reproduces stunning highs, deep but never muddy bass, and fantastic midrange. It gives the A5 and S5 the best stereo in their class - and that's an accomplishment given the great sound system in BMW 3-series models equipped with the Harman Kardon premium audio system.
There is one big deal-breaker with the A5: the glass moonroof tilts up, but doesn't slide. For someone who keeps his sunroof open most of the year, this is a big problem. The A5's sloping roof prohibits the fitment of a sunroof that recesses inside the roof panel, but surely Audi could have installed an exterior sliding sunroof. Frustrating.
Audi has gone to great lengths to improve weight distribution with the A5 - the new chassis (B8, according to enthusiasts, MLB according to Audi) switched the location of some powertrain components to push the front wheels forward and move the engine rearward. The result is that the A5 is slightly better balanced than previous Audis, but understeer is still the dominant handling mode. The lighter six-cylinder is also better in this regard - but neither the A5 nor S5 is as well-balanced as, say, a BMW 3-series.
Nor does it offer the steering feedback of a 3-series. The variable-boost power steering seems to have two distinct modes - high boost at low speeds (to assist in parking maneuvers) and low-boost for higher speeds. The problem is that this transition is quite perceptible. Accelerate through a turn, and the steering effort on the way in is much less than it is on the way out. Other manufacturers make this transition much less noticeable.
That's not the end of the world, though - the A5 and S5 aren't sports cars. They're fantastic grand tourers - big coupes with fantastic interiors, great engines, and stunning looks. And a few niggles aside, I certainly wouldn't object to having one of these Audis parked in front of my house. Especially the "slow" one.