By Mark Elias
Thursday, Nov 13th, 2008 @ 12:28 pm
 
First, there was the older gentleman on the busy main street. As I rolled past in the Audi A5, he stopped dead in his tracks and made quite a show of pointing out the red sports car to his companions. There was a look of bedazzlement on his face. Or perhaps the Viagra choose that moment to kick in.

Then there was the trio of automotive engineers, busily wrenching away under the hood of a formerly British sport utility vehicle prototype. One looked up and then the others followed his gaze. Work immediately stopped and their eyes locked on the coupe until it passed out of view. The look on their faces seemed to be one of longing. They'd rather be under the hood of an Audi. Who could blame them?

Finally there were the teenage boys sitting on the bus stop bench. Once I started away from the red light, the guy closest to me saw the A5 approach. He elbowed his friend and soon there were six pairs of eyes staring in awe. To look at these guys you would've thought all of the 2007 and 2008 Playmates of the Month were passing by in a hot tub on wheels with half of them suffering wardrobe malfunctions at that very moment.

There are a million such stories when you drive an A5. Men and women of all ages gawk. It is a car that is not at all shy about its good looks. It's got it and it's flaunting it.

What is it?
The A5 is Audi's middle child coupe, slotted between the smaller, spryer TT and the bigger, fiercer R8 super car. The A5 marks Audi's return to the mid-size coupe arena after yielding to the competition for more than 20 years.

What's it up against?
The A5's main rival is the BMW 3-Series coupe. The Infiniti G37 and Mercedes-Benz CLK350 are also players in the mid-size coupe racket. Fortunately for the Audi, it's the best looking of the quartet. Only the BMW is in the same zip code when it comes to sheer beauty, at least to this author's eyes.

It would be easy to leave it there and let the A5 rest on its aesthetic laurels alone, but it's not quite that simple. An A5 that's fairly loaded with options will run you a little over $50,000. For a grand or two more, you can get an equally optioned up BMW 335xi coupe. The catch is the twin-turbo, inline six-cylinder under the hood of the Bimmer. Spool that puppy up and you're heaps faster than the Audi; about half a second faster to 60 miles per hour.

The G37 causes even more of a problem by offering almost the same performance numbers as the BMW, but at a whopping $5,000 less.

At the bottom of the pile, the aging CLK350 is, quite honestly, dowdy, over-priced and slow. Thankfully for Mercedes, the next-gen CLK is almost here.

Or, you could spend a bit more end take home the more powerful S5 - that Leftlane reviewer Mark Elias recently drove.

Any breakthroughs?
The A5 is the first Audi to utilize the all-new MLP (Modular Longitudinal Platform) chassis architecture. The main advantage to this new setup is allowing a longitudinally mounted engine and transmission to be set farther back behind the front axle. This allows for a more even weight distribution, which results in better handling. This chassis also allows for flexible wheelbase lengths and will underpin the new A4, A6, A7, A8 and Q5.

Audi Drive Select, an adaptive steering, suspension and throttle mapping system, is now available on the A5. For instance, hit "comfort" and the steering weight is very light and easy to move; the suspension is at its softest; and the throttle eases into your acceleration inputs. Press "dynamic" and it's entirely opposite. Firmer weighted steering for more precise maneuvers, stiffer suspension for better handling and aggressive throttle tip in.

There is also an "auto" button that will let the computer decide for you, but unless your grandma is in the car, pressing "dynamic" should be the second button you hit after the engine start button. You can also use the custom button to set up the various systems individually.

How does it look?
The A5 is beautiful, it's true. If you see its face in crowed place, you'll know right away - mostly because a pair of LED daytime running lights will be staring back at you. These two strips of LEDs make for a look unlike anything else currently on the road. They add a menacing look to a front end that's already sneering. To hell with BMW's "angel eyes;" Audi's "angry brows" are king.

The LEDs are the reason most people stare slack-jawed at the A5 in the first place. From the lights, their eyes follow the perfectly sculpted lines all the way to the rear of the body. It's at that point that they realize they are looking at one of the most unique, alluring new cars on the road.

A lot could be written about the A5's near flawless design, but the photos can also do a lot of talking. A warning, however. Some of the A5's beauty manages to escape the lens of most cameras. There have been countless cars in the past that need to be seen in person to be fully appreciated. The A5 is one of them as it holds back that last bit of "wow factor" until you're standing next to one in the showroom reaching for your checkbook.

And inside?
You may grow tired of automotive journalists using lines like "typical Audi interior with high quality material, fit and finish." Well, what can I say? There isn't really a better way to say it. Audi is very good at making interiors with great materials that look, fit and feel great.

Inside there are grays and blacks offset by handsome aluminum accents. The design of the dash and center stack is simple and elegant. One need not be intimidated by Audi's MMI interface. Given a bad rap by BMW's iDrive system, Audi's controls are really quite easy to pick up. For the most part, a day or so of using MMI should be all the lesson time you need.

While the inside of the A5 is quite a nice place to be, it's not without faults. If you opt for the S-Line package (I'll explain why this is a must shortly) you get seating surfaces covered in alcantara. That's fine -- only, it's perforated alcantara. It seems to cheapen the look a little, though to be fair, you'll be sitting on it.

Another problem with the seats is the side bolstering. The bolsters are pretty sizable, but when you have a car capable of these kinds of cornering speeds, they need to be bigger.

Finally, it's worth mentioning the back seats. There are definitely two seats in back, but if you happen to have legs, sitting in them might pose a challenge.

But does it go?
Many of the A5's initial critics said that the car doesn't corner very well. They say it's more of a highway cruiser than a sports car. After spending some time in the A5, I started to wonder if everyone was stupid but me. This A5 didn't go around corners; it carved corners like Bode Miller, only, without the booze and lackadaisical approach. Want to take that corner posted 35 mph at 55 mph? Simple. It'll rotate through that corner, hold the line with ease and then dare you to do it faster. Your courage will break before the grip does.

The reason my experience was so different from the others was the suspension. My car had the S-line package, which includes, among other things, a sportier suspension and 19-inch wheels with Dunlop summer performance tires. The S-Line package is a game-changer for Audi's seductive coupe. It's optional, sure, but it should be standard equipment for any enthusiast. Add the Drive Select on the test car and your handling will improve even more.

Speed-wise, as we've already said, it's not the fastest car out there. Though to call it slow would be asinine as the A5 still manages a 5.8 second 0-60 time with the 265-horsepower, 3.2 liter V6 mated to a six-speed manual transmission Drop the hammer and you will accelerate with authority. Even with the high-revving V6, the A5 returned a 23 mpg average by the end of the week.

The six-speed, cog-swapper falls under the "pretty good" category. Somewhere in there, there is a notch, or some anomaly, that feels like third gear, but when you go there, it ain't third. Overall, shifts are fairly smooth and the throws are a moderate length.

Why you would buy it:
The A5 gives you a little of everything. It's a devastatingly beautiful car, is quick and handles very well when equipped properly. Even better, the fuel economy isn't typical "sports car" horrible.

Why you wouldn't:
You crave the power of a V8, or BMW's twin-turbo inline six, and aren't willing to compromise.


2009 Audi A5
base price, $40,300. As tested, $53,490.
Premium package, $1,900; Technology package, $2,200; Navigation package with voice control, $2,390; Audi Drive Select package, $2,950; S-Line package, $2,900; Bang & Olufsen audio system, $850; Destination, $775.

Words and photos by Chris Doane.