Audi’s A5 and S5 Sportback: A performance-minded detour from the SUV

Kiss the sub-$30,000 tier goodbye in Audi’s latest niche-specific sportback.

Enlarge / The Audi 2018 S5 Sportback, parked just outside of Snoqualmie Falls, WA.
Sam Machkovech

SEATTLE—When introducing its sportback successor to the A4, Audi minced no words about its intended consumer target: the frequent car updater who is this close to switching to an SUV.

After a few hours’ drive in two flavors of this upgrade, the 2018 A5 and S5 Sportback, I was inclined to agree. If you want a luxury car with the length and carrying capacity of a boat, but not the sense that you need maritime credentials to steer it, then Audi’s new sportbacks might be enough to stop you from buying into America’s fastest-growing car-purchase sector.

0-60mph in a heartbeat—with room to spare

That niche is important to mind here, because unlike last year’s A4 sedan, Audi is not offering a sub-$40,000 option for these models. The 2018 A5 Sportback will set you back nothing short of $42,600, while its beefier S5 sibling, whose upgrades includes a 3.0L engine and S Sport Suspension, starts at $54,400.

Each car also comes in a “prestige” version, which will set you back $50,200 and $58,800, respectively. Opting for this higher spec includes, among other things, the handsome “virtual cockpit” 12.3″ LCD display directly above the steering wheel and a separate, tiny heads-up display shined into your windshield’s lowest point, which will display speedometer and next-turn information. The price tag only grows if you add an S Sport Package to either, which was different for each car. The S5’s S Sport Package includes thicker roll bars, stiffer springs, red brake calipers, and adaptive suspension. Neither car comes with a Driver Assistance Package by default, as well, and this wasn’t enabled in any sportback that I drove.

During a presentation, Audi design lead Frank Lamberty spent a lot of time pointing to older Audi designs and their silhouettes. He was obsessed with what he called the “magic line.” This top-of-car silhouette line, which he also focused on while developing the A7 model, guided his team’s work in extending the A5 and S5 sportback lengths while still looking coupe-like. That design line makes an aesthetic difference when comparing the A5 and A7 sportbacks directly, and this comparison reveals just how handsomely Audi has pulled off its magic trick of making a massive four-door car look almost like a two-door pony.

Audi has shrunken the A5 Sportback’s length compared to the last A7 Sportback by a whopping 241mm—and is only longer than the A4 sedan by 7mm. (The S5 Sportback is 19mm longer than its A5 sibling and 100kg heavier.)

The A5 Sportback comes equipped with a four-cylinder engine measuring 252 hp (187kW) and 273 lb-ft (370Nm), and I was given the opportunity to open this up only a little bit on windy, police-lined roads in wooded neighborhoods leading to Washington State’s Snoqualmie Pass. (Audi did not permit us ample time to pick up any cherry pie, sadly.) In the few moments I felt safe putting both feet on the pedal, I agreed with my driving partner’s brief quip about the performance: “fast, but not quick.” The automatic version of this engine will get you to 60mph in about 5.7 seconds, and pretty quietly at that, but I felt just enough lurching while gunning forward.

After a few hours driving the A5, I hopped into an S5 Sportback, and the performance difference was significant. Multiple drivers at the event uttered the word “sublime,” and I couldn’t help but agree. The automatic engine I steered performs almost identically to the S5 coupe: 354hp (264kW), 369 lb-ft (500Nm), and 0-60mph in an astonishing 4.5 seconds. But the insane thing about this S5 Sportback’s blinding speed is how effortless it feels, almost certainly owing to the S Sport Package on the car I drove. I felt just enough knockback while pressing my foot down, and louder, more pronounced engine rumbling (noticeably louder than the incredibly quiet A5), to know that I was going fast, but I was astonished to see that I had so quickly reached a hair under 100 MPH without really feeling the traces of road noise, rumbling, or shaky control that slightly crept up with this car’s A5 Sportback sibling.

In both cars, I felt comfortable taking winding-road turns at speeds in the high 40s without touching the brakes and without whipping my seatmate around all that much.

Shameless about its niche

Let’s not forget, both models emphasize speed while also offering some options if you want to carry kids, cargo, or even grown-ups. Taller passengers may very well bonk their heads while getting into the backseat—Audi’s Frank Lamberty did so twice while showing off how “spacious” it is back there—but once you’ve got your butt down, rest assured that someone at roughly 6 feet of height can sit in the front and back seats simultaneously, thanks to floor and seat design that give legs and feet enough space to sneak into this build.