Review – 2009 Audi A5 3.2 quattro

The Good: Playful chassis, movie-star looks, surprisingly versatile.

The Bad: Needs more power, S5 only a few grand more expensive.

The Verdict: About 100 horses shy of being a great sports coupe.

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Just like people, some cars are destined to stand in the shadows of their siblings. The Porsche Cayman may be considered by many to be the superior driver’s car, but the 911 will always be the car that stirs the hearts of 12-year-olds of all ages.

Likewise, the Audi A5 is doomed to sit one row behind its brother, the S5. Rocking a 354-horsepower V8 and aggressive bodywork, the S5 is a sinfully lustful piece of machinery, capable of dropping jaws and seducing women with a glimpse.

And then there’s the (barely) more prosaic A5, waving, “Hey, I’m cool too! What about me?”

To be sure, without an S5 nearby for comparison, the A5 will suck in gold-digging women and midlife-crisis-afflicted men for blocks around. With its long hood, taut lines, narrow headlights and wide grill, there’s a predatory mien to the A5, as if it fuels itself by stalking the streets at night, hunting for unlucky deer and pedestrians.

The car is so good-looking my tester’s black paint job seemed detrimental, hiding the car’s creases and blurring its crisp lines. Anyone purchasing an A5 ought to consider something a little more vivid. I mean, you’re not buying this car to blend in.

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Anyone with experience sitting in an Audi (or frequent readers of this blog, for that matter) won’t be surprised to hear the interior continues the stylish trend set by the sheetmetal.  Controls and materials are Audi standard – which is to say, top of the class. The interior is a feast for the senses, and controls fall easily to hand. The only variations from the Audi status quo are the sport seats partially upholstered in Alcantara (fake suede) that came along with the sporty S-line package.

Those seats lived up to their name, proving supportive while I wound the car through the twists and turns of north central New Jersey. Highway slogs, however, weren’t quite as ideal in the chairs; while comfortable at first, a not-quite-pleasant case of numb butt seemed to creep in sooner than one would like. Still, given they were designed more for spirited driving than cross-country expeditions, it’s a minor complaint.

The rear seats, however, proved another story. I’ve always been of the view that people ought to only buy as much car as they’ll need most of the time – that is, if you usually only drive around with one passenger or by yourself, you should get a coupe, not an SUV or sedan. But the backseat of the A5 was…well, let’s just call it inconvenient. It proved quite suitable as a parcel shelf, helping me and my girlfriend move most of her possessions from one apartment to another across Manhattan; however, any living creatures you want to put back there had better either weigh less than 100 pounds or lack limbs. Even large anacondas and Mini Me-sized amputees will probably want out of there before too long, as the scarcity of headroom and lack of view makes for a claustrophobic ride.

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But stick to the front seats – especially the one on the left – and the A5 makes for a pretty thrilling ride. It only takes a couple of turns to realize this is a true sports coupe – not a luxury sedan given a stylish makeover, but a two-door car aimed at people who love to drive.

Toss the Audi into a curve, and it claws its way around the bend with glee. Body roll is minimal, and the suspension doesn’t give in easily. This car wants to play, wants to dance around slower vehicles and through weaving two-lanes. As in the best cars, when you’re driving the A5, those yellow “winding road” signs are less a warning and more an invitation.

And, lo, what’s this sprouting from between the seats? Why – it’s a stick shift! Praise the Lord and pass the gasoline! Yes, while the A5 can be had with the six-speed automatic common to nearly every Audi, my tester came with a six-speed manual with a baseball-sized shift knob that fell right into the palm of my right hand. While shifts aren’t quite as crisp as those of BMWs or Hondas – who tend to set the standard for pleasant shift feel – it’s still a joy to use, and further indicates the Audi’s goal of being perceived as a sports coupe, rather than a two-door luxury car.

Paradoxically, though, choosing the manual also forces you to deal with a frustrating indicator under the speedometer telling you to upshift. As if its existence alone weren’t bad enough, the light often starts blinking ridiculously early – often telling me to shift up to the next gear at a mere 1800 rpm. Clearly, it’s designed to maximize fuel economy – but follow its guidance, and you’ll find yourself frequently outaccelerated by passing scooters. Razor, not Vespa.

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(Devastatingly, though, as of the 2010 model year, Audi no longer offers the six-speed stick on V6-motivated A5s. You might be able to find some new ‘09s still on dealer lots if you look, but finding them might be hard, given the American preference for slushboxes. However, Audi now offers their torquey 2.0 liter turbocharged I4 in the A5, and it’s still available with a manual.)

Unfortunately, even winding the most out of the A5’s 3.2 liter V6 won’t result in earth-shattering acceleration. Five years ago, 265 horsepower would have put the Audi at the top of its class; these days, however, it just can’t hold its own against engines like BMW’s silky smooth 300 horsepower twin-turbo inline six or Infiniti’s snorty 330 horsepower V6. And given that the S5 starts at $1,490 less than my tester, the A5’s place in the lineup becomes a little unclear.

Still, my loaded model was strapped down with nearly 14 grand in options, which cost-conscious customers could consider chopping (alliteration five!).  The S-line package (including sport suspension, tires and the aforementioned sport seats) is probably worth the $2,900 if you’re a performance driver; it also makes the $2,950 adjustable suspension seem somewhat redundant.

Likewise, the technology package ($2,200 for a rear parking camera and sonar, turning headlights, a blind-sport warning system and keyless entry) and the rockin’ Bang & olufsen sound system ($850) seem worth the money for a choice ride like this; however, I for one could do without the $1,900 premium package (though it does include those badass LED daytime running lights) and the navigation system (handy, but not worth $2,390 – not when a top-of-the-line Garmin GPS system costs $500).

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The Bottom Line: The Audi A5 is an honest sports coupe – a two-door vehicle bigger than a real sports car, but still capable of handling itself with as much glee as Fox’s Wednesday night lineup. Sadly, though, there’s little to distinguish it from its faster, sexier sibling, the S5, beyond a smaller engine.

The A4 and S4 sedan manage to stand apart because of their more utilitarian nature; there are plenty of people out there who want a capable luxury sedan, but don’t crave driving the way David Duchovny does poontang. Coupe buyers, though – especially ones looking at performance-oriented ones like the A5 – are more likely to be interested in the extra grunt of its V8-powered sibling.

But if you can’t stretch to the S5 and are forced to make do with the A5, you probably won’t regret it. After all, they say it’s better to drive slow cars fast than fast cars slow. And that way, you give the bystanders more time to stare.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $40,700/$54,715

0-60: 5.8 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 16 city/27 highway (EPA estimates)

Key Competitors: BMW 3-series coupe, Infiniti G37 Coupe, Audi S5.

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