First Drive: 2018 Audi A5/S5

PORTO, Portugal – Driving mountain roads as often as we do, we’re used to seeing the occasional cyclist. But coming out of a tight corner and encountering a multi-coloured flock of goats spread out across the roadway – well, that’s a new one. We slowed to a crawl as a pair of enormous, black dogs bounded up, and began to expertly herd the goats onto the wide, grassy shoulder. It was an impressive display of teamwork. For centuries, farmers in the Portuguese highlands relied on guard dogs to protect their flocks from Iberian wolves, but the advent of firearms, traps and poisoning effectively looked after predators and made the dogs redundant.

A racier, two-door variation on the A4 sedan, the A5 is the stylish option to Audi’s bread-and-butter compact.

With the endangered wolves now under protection by Portuguese law, there’s been a resurgence in the use of these very rare dogs, the Cão de Castro Laboreiro, who are prized for their intelligence and protective instinct. Evidently, we posed no threat, as one of them approached with what was unmistakably a friendly greeting – a wide doggy grin with lolling tongue and gently waving tail. After a couple of pats, the dog returned to his flock and we climbed back into our Audi S5. The sleek, modern cockpit made a strange juxtaposition against the timeless scene we’d just witnessed.

Our S5 is no sheep in wolf’s clothing. As penned by Walter de Silva, the original A5 was a study in subtlety, its potency merely suggested beneath the beautiful lines of its sheet metal. A racier, two-door variation on the A4 sedan, the A5 is the stylish option to Audi’s bread-and-butter compact. It returns for 2018 with a crisp, new edginess and an abundance of character lines across its sheet metal. Yet the new design is not so much a departure as it is an evolution of the original; a first look reveals the same outline and same distinctive C-pillar, with the changes emerging slowly. More than simple aesthetics, the A5’s slippery outline and 60 kg weight loss helps establish a new drag coefficient of 0.25. While the appearance of both cars is essentially the same, the S5 rides 23 mm lower and features 19-inch rims through which peek S5-badged callipers, front fog lights, xenon headlights with an LED running light step and the S5 logo on its “single frame” grille. But the Mercedes-Benz C Coupe’s design – particularly in AMG mode – is flashier, and appreciation of looks being subjective, could make the A5 seem plain by comparison.

Under the A5’s newly straked power-dome hood is the same 2.0L turbo-charged four-cylinder powering the A4. It’s been tweaked to deliver 252 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque – up from 220 hp / 258 lb-ft. Power is channelled to all four wheels through Audi’s dual-clutch seven-speed S tronic transmission. Europeans get a diesel engine, and a smaller-output four-cylinder.

As for the S5, it receives a new 354 hp / 369 lb-ft. turbo-charged 3.0L V6, replacing the previous supercharged V6, which in turn replaced the original 4.2L V8. Unfortunately, the previous six-speed manual or dual-clutch seven-speed have been phased out for this car, which is available only with a conventional eight-speed automatic. Strange – as you’d think the spicier variant would get the DCT. Apparently, the extra 44 pound feet of torque was too much for the DCT and the standard gearbox equipped S5 simply wasn’t selling. Boo.

Both the A5 and the S5 ride on the same Audi MLB2 platform as the A4, which allows the engine to be pushed further back, improving the front-to-back weight ratio and reducing the nose-heaviness – particularly in the S5.

The interior is essentially the same as the A4’s with finely stitched leather, tight panel gaps and switchgear that looks and feels first rate. But one must suffer for style, or so they say, and thus the coupe’s rear headroom is slightly compromised by the sexy rake of its roofline.

The conventional gauge cluster has been replaced with Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, which features a rather astonishing 12.3-inch colour display screen of crystal clarity. The driver can customize the display’s appearance by rolling the wheel-mounted display button – minimizing or maximizing the tachometer and speedometer in order of preference, or simply embedding them in the corner of a full-screen navigation map. Audi’s MMI (Multimedia Interface) now gets the same handwriting recognition found in the TT and A7. Simply tracing a letter, or number on the console-located MMI knob can initiate a search in whatever menu is current.

Both cars were equipped with Audi’s Drive Select, which lets the driver pick and choose the level of throttle response, steering weight, transmission shift mapping and suspension stiffness to suit the road and mood. “Comfort” Mode was fine for in-town loafing, “Dynamic” imbues it with raucous urgency, and “Auto” comfortably travelled the fine line between.

New for this year is available adaptive damping on the A5; base cars come standard with the non-adjustable suspension.

The A5 goes about its business with typical German efficiency and its taut handling soaks up the tight curves with little drama. It’s a more subtle car than its spicier sibling, but the chassis and suspension’s supple efficiency bolster’ driver confidence while keeping clear lines of communication open from the road to the wheel. The new turbo-four is a lovely engine, with a big fat power band, and its smaller size results in a better centre of gravity and more balanced weight ratio. It’s perfectly suited to the seven-speed DCT, and if it lacks some of the thrilling bark of the S5 on downshift, there’s a thrust when the throttle’s pegged that’s head-snappingly delightful.

The S5 shows more refinement than its predecessor, its reduced noise intrusion the benefit of improved sound insulation. Like the A5, the suspension is supple, yet not soft, when “Comfort” is selected. Choose “Dynamic” and the damping becomes dramatically stiffer. Downshifting through the tunnels produced husky barks that echoed off the walls and made us look forward to the next one.

The extra weight of the V6 becomes more noticeable in the tight switchbacks of the Portuguese mountains, but decent grip comes courtesy of Hankook tires developed expressly for the S5. Standard Quattro AWD with has a 60 percent rear bias, but can increase that up to 80 percent; or up to 70 percent to the front within milliseconds of sensing wheel slippage. There’s an optional rear Sport Differential that divvies up the power to whichever wheel needs it most while cornering. The result is tremendous confidence during hard cornering – although it doesn’t achieve the gymnastic balance of the BMW 435i with its better front-to-back weight ratio.

You won’t feel short-changed if you opt for the A5. Its supple handling, lack of turbo lag and nice balance make it the ideal tourer. But if high drama and more power is your thing, the more potent S5 may just strike the right chord for you.

Overall, the coupe has evolved nicely while maintaining its character – offering more refinement, a higher level of technology and greater power. The 2018 Audi A5/S5 is scheduled to arrive in 2017, with pricing available closer to delivery date.

No sheep in wolf’s clothing