When Audi brought the A7 to market in 2010 it was heralded as a bold take on the traditional sedan. Four frameless doors and a sleek rear hatch gave the A7 a sporty silhouette that still looks fresh today — especially in the guise of the fresh new second-generation A7. Audi may not have invented the five-door liftback, but they’ve certainly elevated it to new heights with the A7 and its S7 and RS7 variants. But not everyone needs the space or refinement of an executive-class vehicle; for those who want the A7’s style at a more accessible price point there’s now the S5 sportback, based on the A4 sedan but with the A5 coupe’s commanding design language.
The A5 Sportback has been on sale in Europe since 2009, but only made it to the U.S. market in 2017 as a 2018 model. The S5 variant, like its larger S7 stablemate, is a sportier variant of the A-badged car. I prefer the S7 to the even sportier RS7 and suspected I might feel the same about the S5 compared to the RS5 I tested in March of 2018. After a week with a Tango Red Metallic S5 Sportback I can confirm my suspicions were correct.
The Good: Nobody has figured out the 5 door liftback look quite like Audi. The S5 Sportback is enjoyable to look at from every angle. The design doesn’t try to do too much: there are creases and sporty flourishes in the right places, but it isn’t shouting. This car can fly under the radar even in metallic red paint — and with the kind of power the 3.0T V6 puts out, it’s easy to fly. It’s funny to consider a car with 354 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque as the “sensible” choice, but that’s where we’re at in 2019.
Who It’s For: People that want an S4 Avant even though Audi has stopped offering sporty wagons in the U.S. Also, anyone who wants the driving experience of a mid-size sport sedan but with more versatility, and who likes to go fast but look subtle while doing so.
Watch Out For: I like the interior of the S5 Sportback (shared with the current A4) but there’s some longing for the next generation design and tech found in the A6, A7, and Q8. As you may expect, this being a German car, options will move the base price from “Reasonable” to “How much?!” without breaking a sweat.
Alternatives: Though Mercedes-Benz kicked off the trend with the CLS, they don’t currently compete in the midsize sportback segment in the U.S. That leaves BMW, which offers the 4 Series Gran Coupe and 3 Series Gran Turismo. Both top out at 320 horsepower and even with the optional M-Sport package don’t achieve the same special feeling of the S5 Sportback, though they do handily outperform the S5’s 35 cu-ft of cargo space with 45.9 and 56.8, respectively.
Review: When you’ve got the keys to a Quattro-equipped Audi and a winter storm bearing down on your favorite mountain resort a couple of hours away, there’s only one thing to do: get while the getting’s good. I shot out of LA just as the sun began its climb over the San Bernardino mountains, early enough for the freeways to be sparsely populated with cars. I’d already had a few days to enjoy Audi’s suite of driver assistance technology, primarily the adaptive cruise control and active lane assist. Both admirably reduce fatigue when traffic starts crawling and keep things in check while traffic is flowing. In the wee hours of the morning, though, I had no need for these advanced systems; it was just me, the turbocharged V6 and six lanes. Those six would eventually become four, then three, then two.
As the hours wore on I came to appreciate more aspects of the car. The interior isn’t as fresh as Audi’s latest design but it’s a great one in its own right, with high-quality materials, tasteful design choices and Audi’s comfortable sport seats with adjustable bolsters at both levels. This “Prestige” trim level came with Audi’s virtual cockpit cluster, which I kept in “Sport” configuration for the large tachometer set dead-center. You can also show a full Google Earth map display on the cockpit, but that’s better suited to the center-mounted tablet-style screen. Of course, Audi could do away that tablet screen entirely, like they do in the TT and R8, but the right-seat occupant might feel left out, this being a grand tourer and all.
Some may question the validity of a sportback as a true grand tourer, but the joyous way this car gobbles asphalt puts that debate to rest. The second-gen S5 Sportback was certainly built with American consumers in mind, offering plenty of comfort in one mode and impressive performance in another. My favorite combination for a balanced driving experience: Steering: Auto; E-Diff: Dynamic; ACC: Auto; Suspension: Auto; Engine/Trans: Dynamic; Engine Sound: Dynamic. Should choosing your own adventure prove to be too much of a headache, you can simply select from the pre-set Comfort, Auto or Dynamic modes.
The S5 Sportback doesn’t have particularly great steering feedback; leaving it in “Auto” lets the computer decide when to slide towards comfort or dynamic feel, and it actually does a good job of choosing based on how you’re driving. The optional rear sport differential, though, should stay set to Dynamic to maximize cornering capability through the magic of torque vectoring. Similarly, the eight-speed automatic plays best in Dynamic: shifts are crisp, power is delivered predictably and the car just keeps pulling thanks to all the low-end torque. (Keeping Engine Sound in Dynamic is self-explanatory — and I’ll go on record saying the authentically visceral noises made by the S5 Sportback exhaust are superior to those of the RS5, which sound too much like a video game.)
By the time I reached the snowline, the storm hadn’t quite blown out as early as expected. A road closure slowed me down, but the S5’s surefootedness guaranteed me turns in fresh powder that day. Slow and steady won the race, but I can only imagine what fun the last 45 minutes of the drive would have been with a set of proper winter tires on the car. But even with the lower ride height that comes with the optional adaptive sport suspension, the S5 Sportback got me through without flinching.
Verdict: The S5 Sportback isn’t perfect, but it’s damn close. Where if falls short, it’s close, and where it succeeds, it soars. It’s the perfect everyday driver whether your commute is 15 minutes or two hours. If you can afford to shop in this price bracket, the S5 Sportback deserves to be on your list.
What Others Are Saying:
• “This swoopy S5 looks cooler than the traditional A4 or S4 sedans, and the hatchback configuration makes it more functional, to boot. Plus, it has four doors, so you can easily throw backpacks and grocery bags (and, you know, people) in the rear seats – no need to flip the front seats forward, like in a two-door A5/S5 Coupe. If I were shopping Audi A4/A5/S4/S5 models, this S5 Sportback is definitely the one I’d buy.” – Steven Ewing, Motor1
• “The steering has a sharper and heavier feel to it in comparison with the A5, that shouldn’t be confused with a harsh suspension. In fact, until those rare moments when the clouds of traffic part along with the clouds in the northwest sky, the S5 doesn’t differ much in feel from its milder sibling, only offering a slightly meaner growl from the exhaust. When pressed, the S5 delivers flat cornering along with a solid kick in acceleration.” – Jay Ramey, Autoweek
Model Year/Brand/Model: 2018 Audi S5 Sportback
Purchase URL: www.audiusa.com
Price: $67,900 (As Tested) $54,400 (Base MSRP)
Engine: 3.0-Liter V6 Turbo
Transmission: Eight Speed Tiptronic Automatic
Torque: 369 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 4.5 seconds
MPG City/Highway/Comb Est.: 21/24/30
Audi provided this product for review.