Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2018 Audi S5 Sportback

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Can we be honest with each other here for a minute? Do you really need that silly “sport activity coupe” thing you’re driving? Are you putting that extra couple of inches of ground clearance to good use? Is the gravel laneway to your cottage riddled with that many potholes, roots, and rocks?

With the backseat folded flat, the cargo space of the S5 Sportback surely exceeds the square footage of the average Toronto condominium.

I’ll bet not.

And I’ll also bet you’ll tell me you need a vehicle that gets you and your partner and your kid and your Weimaraner from point A to point B safely and comfortably, all year long. You probably think that jacked-up German Quasimodo is pretty sporty too, and in fairness, it doesn’t drive half-bad for what it is.

But there’s a better choice for folks like you, and it’s a five-door hatchback car, just like the all-new 2018 Audi S5 Sportback you see here.

This car can do it all, and will do it in any weather, and best of all, it’s far less of a compromise than many of the new sport-utility-things that are infesting the roadways.

In Europe where they really get the wisdom of hatchback cars, the S5 was offered in a previous generation as a five-door. Now, for 2018 the folks at Audi have decided we are finally deserving of a properly sporting compact car that’s also sensible.

Based on the S5 Coupe, which itself is based on the S4 Sedan, the S5 Sportback rides on a wheelbase that fits between those two. This means there’s room for a pair of small rear doors the S5 Coupe doesn’t possess, that allow access to a rear seat that’s a little more spacious than the Coupe, but a little less spacious than the S4. Got that? Good. There’s more.

The S5 Sportback has the biggest cargo hold of the S4/S5 family with a volume of just over 480 L behind the rear seat. To put this into perspective, that’s roughly 25 percent more space than a BMW X4, or about what you’ll find in the back of a mid-size Mercedes-Benz GLE-coupe-thing. With the backseat folded flat, the cargo space of the S5 Sportback surely exceeds the square footage of the average Toronto condominium. It really is remarkable.

The interior finishes are better constructed and of much higher quality than most condos, too. The leather is wrapped tightly around well-bolstered sport seats, and decorated with embossed S-logos and beautiful diamond-pattern stitching. Disappointingly, the seats are not cooled – a feature that shoppers at this price point have come to expect.

The door panels and ceiling present a rich, synthetic suede material and our test car also wore $900-worth of carbon-fiber inlays that make the interior feel both more lavish and sporty.

Audi has long been celebrated for its exceptional interior designs and here in the S5 (like its S4 sibling), the tradition continues. While lacking some of the flowing artistry of a Mercedes C-Class interior, the Audi presents a more serious demeanor that hails from high-tech influences over flamboyant imagination. It all works well, and makes for an excellent driver’s cockpit.

Key controls are arranged within easy reach, and there are enough buttons to provide redundancy to the wealth of operations executed by Audi’s MMI infotainment interface. Rather than smearing greasy fingers all over a touchscreen, the S5’s system puts Audi’s excellent rotary knob to great use. The console-mounted controller makes navigating through menus a snap, and enables on-the-fly data input through either voice command or a touchpad atop the dial. This means the driver can spell out words, scribbled with a finger-tip on the touchpad, without eyes ever leaving the road. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are also available for those who appreciate such connectivity.

A small diameter, flat-bottom steering wheel could almost convince a driver it had been pillaged from a race machine, if it wasn’t so beautifully wrapped in leather and covered in buttons for the infotainment system.

It’s fitting that such a serious steering wheel would be attached to such a serious performer, and that’s just what the S5 is. With the tenacious grip permitted by the dedicated summer Continental rubber and Quattro all-wheel-drive, this Audi takes its handling seriously, even if the organic matter behind the wheel does not. On a stretch of new road through what will someday be a suburban subdivision, I piloted the S5 through a succession of dusty roundabouts with considerable speed, and the Audi remained composed and flat, transitioning from one direction to the next. The optional Quattro Sport Differential helps direct torque to the rear wheel that can better use it when pushing hard out of corners, helping to reduce understeer.

Best of all, having the low centre of gravity of a car versus an SUV makes mitigating body roll an easier task. This means that even when set to its sportiest setting, the Adaptive Suspension provides a surprisingly compliant ride in the S5.

Modern electrically-assisted steering has improved dramatically in feel over the past couple of years, but still lacks the visceral connection between the driver’s hands and the rubber meeting the road that performance cars used to afford in the olden days. The S5 is no exception to that rule, and I’d love to have more feel through the wheel. The test car was fitted with the $1,500 Dynamic Steering option that changes the ratio from light and quick at low speeds to heavy and slower at higher speeds for stability. It works as promised, but I think I’d be just as happy without the variability.

It’s possible to option up a more pedestrian (and affordable) A5 Sportback to look and handle much like this S5 Sportback, but what you can’t get in the lesser Audi is this car’s brilliant engine. Displacing three litres, the direct-injection, 24-valve V6 is given a second wind (quite literally) thanks to a twin-scroll turbocharger. The result is 354 peak horsepower spanning a 1,000 rpm aperture between 5,400 and 6,400 rpm. More impressive (and definitely felt) is the 369 lb-ft of torque between 1,370 and 4,500 rpm. That gives the S5’s engine tremendous flexibility, helping it achieve a claimed 0–100 km/h time of 4.7 seconds.

What the numbers don’t convey is the astonishing mid-range rush this car is capable of, that makes squirting through holes in traffic, or executing ballistic-missile-style passing moves effortless for the S5. It requires far more effort to keep a Cheshire-cat-grin from becoming a permanent fixture on the driver’s face.

The S5 has a bit of a split-personality disorder, though. With the Audi Drive Select mode set to Comfort and the eight-speed ZF automatic transmission left in D, what little bit of turbo lag the V6 has is exacerbated by a second-gear start from standstill. Shifts are dispatched early and the computer’s mission is focused on attaining its best fuel efficiency. And in fairness, these efforts pay off with entirely decent average of 8.0 L/100 km highway, 11.5 city and 9.9 combined. As well, an over-anxious auto stop-start function contributes to the efficiency in a most intrusive way.

Switched to Dynamic mode, with the transmission in S, or better yet, in full manual operation, the S5’s aggressiveness presents itself. There’s a distant, but distinct snarl from the engine bay and the blazingly quick shifts are punctuated by a quick whump sound from the exhaust. And the acceleration is fierce. Suffice it to say I left the S5 in Dynamic mode for the majority of the test week.

Sport and luxury sedans are losing favour with buyers and when all is said and done, to some degree, I get it. I see the appeal of those sportiest of the compact machines. But those pricey SUVs and crossovers that claim to offer driving enjoyment and practicality are simply more compromised than a hatchback car or wagon. With its scintillating performance, sleeker styling and superior efficiency, a sporty five-door hatchback like the S5 Sportback holds greater emotional (and visual) appeal, yet gives up nothing in practicality to a compact SUV.

So be honest, don’t you think the S5 Sportback is the better choice? I sure do.

Engine Displacement 3.0L
Engine Cylinders V6
Peak Horsepower 354 hp
Peak Torque 369 lb-ft
Fuel Economy 11.5/8.0/9.9 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 480 / 991 L seats down
Model Tested 2018 Audi S5 Sportback Technik
Base Price $65,600
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,095
Price as Tested $78,035
Optional Equipment
$10,240 – Navarra Blue paint $890; Dynamic Steering $1,500; Adaptive Suspension $1,000; Heated Rear Seats $350; Carbon Atlas Inlays $900; Red Brake Calipers $500; Quattro Sport Differential $1,900; Advanced Driver Assistance Package $2,100; Head-Up Display $1,100