PER­FOR­MANCE MEETS COM­FORT

The 2018 Audi S5 Sport­back’s at­trac­tion is all in its bal­ance, David Booth writes.

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - DRIVING -

For the first time in an age, I don’t mind the automotive in­dus­try’s whole­sale switch to tur­bocharg­ing. For many en­thu­si­asts — my­self in­cluded — opt­ing for a (usu­ally) down­sized turbo engine, while it typ­i­cally comes with big boosts in horse­power, even big­ger gobs of torque and sup­pos­edly su­pe­rior fuel con­sump­tion (in of­fi­cial test­ing, at least, if not in the real world), the trade-off is usu­ally a di­min­ish­ing of the drama that can be in­ter­nal com­bus­tion.

M cars haven’t been the same since BMW adopted tur­bocharg­ing. Mercedes’ AMG mod­els, once the paragon of Eu­ro­pean-sound­ing V-8s, now sound like they’re pip­ing the Day­tona 200 into their cab­ins. And McLaren would lit­er­ally rule the su­per­car world, were it not for the fact that their twice-tur­bocharged

V-8 sounds as dull as dish­wa­ter.

Some­how, Audi has man­aged to avoid this malaise. Oh, the com­pany’s ubiq­ui­tous TFSI 2.0-litre four­cylin­der is still a lit­tle weedy, but the 4.0-L twin­turbo V-8 that finds its way into so many of its S and RS sedans is pos­i­tively mon­strous, all boom­ing bari­tones and sharp, crisp over­runs. Big power and big sound — now, there’s fuel econ­omy I can get be­hind.

It seems Audi has now worked the same magic on the new V-6 that’s do­ing yeo­man duty in its lower-end S and RS coupes and sedans. Power is re­spectable — 354 horse­power from 3.0 L is no chal­lenge to the 464 hp Cadil­lac gets of its sim­i­larly twice-tur­bocharged V-6, but it’s enough to scoot the 1,784-kilo­gram S5 Sport­back from zero to 100 km/h in sig­nif­i­cantly un­der five sec­onds.

But it’s the sound that dif­fer­en­ti­ates Audi’s lat­est 3.0 L from the host of V-6s now pow­er­ing ev­ery­thing from Mercedes’ C-Class to the Cadil­lac ATS. Save for the su­per­charged 3.0 L per­form­ing in Jaguar’s F-Type S, this is the most au­rally pleas­ing V-6, more sub­dued than the overtly mus­cu­lar Jag sport­ster but re­tain­ing that engine’s crisp notes. De­spite the S be­ing the mid-level vari­ant in Audi’s sport­ing spec­trum (the Eu­ro­pean-spec RS4 ups the same ba­sic engine’s game with twin tur­bocharg­ers) the S5 sounds and feels al­most as sporty as BMW’s M-pack­aged 440i x Drive.

That is, strictly speak­ing, the lim­its of the S5’s pure sport­ing abil­i­ties. Oh, it’s a fine-han­dling fam­ily sedan, but un­like a BMW M4 or Audi’s own RS5, you’re not likely to for­get the “fam­ily” por­tion of that de­scrip­tion. Audi’s S mod­els are the Mitchell Marn­ers of the sporty sedan set: not quite good enough to grab the head­lines from Aus­ton Matthews, but prob­a­bly a lit­tle more steady when it comes to day-to-day hockey, er, driv­ing. Credit a slightly firm sus­pen­sion, ad­e­quate weight bal­ance (this gen­er­a­tion of A4/A5 doesn’t seem to push the front end as much as pre­vi­ous ver­sions) and brakes that would work on the au­to­bahn, if one was close by.

But no one is go­ing to take an S5 to a track day and, if they did, they’d quickly be re­minded of the dif­fer­ence be­tween road hold­ing and track ready. All that said, I put some se­ri­ous miles on this S5, try­ing re­peat­edly to de­ter­mine if it is Ot­tawa or Toronto that boasts the most se­verely pot­holed roads in On­tario. The Audi’s com­pli­ant damp­ing made the judg­ment not only dif­fi­cult, but largely moot.

As you must be tired of read­ing, an Audi cabin is a model of crafts­man­ship and ex­quis­ite ma­te­ri­als, leather that even top-flight lux­ury sedans would be proud to call their own and panel gaps that speak to an ob­ses­sion with qual­ity con­trol. The lay­out is also ex­cel­lent, the switchgear er­gonom­i­cally cor­rect and eas­ily de­ci­phered. I am a par­tic­u­lar fan of Audi’s cli­mate con­trols and the adap­tive cruise con­trol stalk. And, of course, the Vir­tual Cock­pit dis­play is quite won­der­ful, both leg­i­ble and eas­ily con­fig­urable to your spe­cific in­for­ma­tional needs. Top stuff.

The one thing that’s be­gin­ning to look a lit­tle dated, though, is Audi’s MMI telem­at­ics in­ter­face. Oh, it’s per­fectly com­pe­tent and not a great bother to ma­nip­u­late. But com­pared with, say, Volvo’s Sen­sus sys­tem — which fairly em­u­lates a slide-and-swipe tablet screen — well, the S5’s sys­tem is start­ing to look a lit­tle dated.

For in­stance, in a Volvo, if I want to know what song is play­ing on a dif­fer­ent Sir­ius chan­nel, I just have to swipe down for the artist’s name and the spe­cific tune play­ing. On the Audi, I have twid­dle the ro­tary knob onto the sta­tion I want to check and, after a few sec­onds pause, it will dis­play the info I am look­ing for. It may seem like small pota­toes, but it can take an ex­tra 20 or 30 sec­onds to find the ex­act song I want, which is about 20 or 30 sec­onds too long. That said, the Google Earth nav­i­ga­tion trans­posed onto the Vir­tual Cock­pit’s gauge set is way trick.

Fi­nally, a word about the styling. Audi’s lat­est A4 has taken some guff about be­ing too staid a re­design of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion sedan. For those look­ing for the an­ti­dote to som­no­lent styling, the S5 Sport­back of­fers its swoopy roofline and bulged fend­ers. Al­though os­ten­si­bly in the “5” coupe fam­ily, the S5 is based on the “4” sedan, which means there’s an ex­tra 60 mil­lime­tres in its wheel­base and this al­most, but not quite, com­pen­sates for the loss of rear head­room. It’s a beau­ti­ful car, better look­ing in my mind’s eye than ei­ther of its Mercedes Benz or BMW di­rect com­peti­tors. And, if you’re sen­si­tive enough to care about your rear pas­sen­ger’s head­room, there’s al­ways the A4. Be­sides, the hatch­backed S5 has about 40 per cent more cargo ca­pac­ity un­der its pow­ered lift­gate.

In the end, the S5’s star at­trac­tion is its bal­ance. That new tur­bocharged engine is force­ful but not over­bear­ing, the sus­pen­sion taut but not jar­ring and the styling is fluid with­out gross com­pro­mise. Even its best at­tribute — the new tur­bocharged V-6 — is melo­di­ous with­out be­ing over­pow­er­ing. Chrissie Hynde was wrong: some­times the mid­dle of the road is not a cul-de-sac.

PHO­TOS: CHRIS BALCERAK/DRIV­ING

2018 Audi S5 Sport­back fea­tures a swoopy roofline and bulging fend­ers that gives it a bold ap­pear­ance.

The cabin is a model of crafts­man­ship and ex­quis­ite ma­te­ri­als.

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