Friday, May 15, 2009

Rolling sculpture is what you’d call Audi’s fiendishly rakish A5 coupe if your mouth wasn’t already slobbering down the front of your shirt at the mere sight of the car.

Audi is all about making a design statement these days, and the 2009 A5 is one of the best from a stable of gorgeous new models running the gamut from the formidable R8 supercar to the slinky TT to a couple of the market’s most sculpted crossovers, the Q5 and Q7. Even the new A4 and A6 are an eyeful of style - and style never comes easy with sedans.

Despite that, when the high-performance S5 went on sale in late 2007, it had been 16 years since Audi last sold a luxury coupe in the U.S. The S5 is in a different league, but with the A5 3.2 you get the same chiseled styling that has neighbors spending uncomfortably long periods in your driveway just looking.

Truth is, we didn’t mind joining in: Staring at the A5’s classically long hood and ogling the subtlety of the rear roof pillar and the bulge of the back fenders is for “car” people, and not unlike pondering the Renoirs and the Monets in the Louvre as art lovers do.

Coupes with this much flair - and this much price tag, frankly - have to walk the walk, though. If 265 horse power doesn’t sound sufficient to back up the visual statement the A5 makes, consider that it’s enough to fling the A5 from 0-to-60 mph in 5.8 seconds. But that figure doesn’t really describe the propulsion available from Audi’s V-6; the direct fuel-injection system helps efficiency, but a happy circumstance is that it also boosts low-speed torque, allowing the engine to more quickly develop power at your command.

Our test coupe, with a base price of $40,700, had Audi’s gloriously tactile six-speed manual transmission, probably the best shift Audi’s ever offered. The company’s Quattro all-wheel-drive system, standard for the A5, is absolutely non-negotiable for any Audi, but in the past it has often forced a rubbery vagueness in the clutch and shifter. No longer. The A5’s stick has a surgical-grade action.

You’ve got to tip your hat to Audi for even offering a fat-cat coupe with a “genuine” manual transmission - i.e., one with a clutch pedal - as opposed to the otherwise wonderful new breed of automated manual transmissions that does the clutching for you. Last time I checked, less than 5 percent of new-vehicle buyers want to be bothered with a clutch anymore.

The A5’s interior is typical for Audi: exquisite and painstakingly assembled. There are plenty of expected luxury features and surprise touches, such as the nifty (though largely unnecessary) gear-position display in the central instrument cluster, a nice little trick for a manual transmission.

I used to argue against selecting Audi’s “S-line” trim packages because although you got some great appearance features, the S-line trim never seemed to be a good value. But for the A5, $2,900 for the S-line stuff is a good proposition, particularly for the extra sharky look derived from the S-line’s specific bumper treatments and special grille. The package also brings superb leather sport seats with suedelike Alcantara inserts and a sport suspension that’s firm but not too thumpy.

One disappointment is that the A5’s sweet-but-severe roofline means the glass sunroof, though large, cannot slide open: it merely tilts open a scanty couple of inches at the rear. Like just about everything else inside this Audi, though, it is endowed with some beautiful detailing, in this case, one of the nicest sliding sunshades around: a neo-looking aluminum-framed job.

The luxury coupe segment often is called one of “grace and pace.” Audi’s A5 3.2 Quattro has more than enough performance - and one look at that luscious sheet metal leaves no doubt the A5 has that grace thing covered. In spades.

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