COAL Update & Rental Review: The Prole and the Princeling: Camry Xtra Sporty Edition vs. Audi S5

Well, that figures. Our family road trip has landed me in the midst of the best driving roads I’ve ever seen and my Fiesta ST is seven hundred miles away.  I’m up early as usual and have found miles of steep and winding Southern California mountain two-lane with no traffic…in our 2016 Camry XSE.  It’s tempting to scour Turo for a local GTI or Miata to keep at the rental cabin for the next few days just for morning use, but right here and now I’m looking down an empty ribbon of asphalt and need to make a choice.

This really isn’t the type of car for this road and I’m a bit out of my depth and probably shouldn’t be doing it, but as the surgeon Willard Bliss famously said before plunging in with bacteria-laden fingers to find the bullet lodged in President James A. Garfield’s back, “You go to war with the Camry you have, not the sports car you might want or wish to have”.  Or something like that.  In any case, I’m sure everything worked out well for everyone involved, and that’s precedence enough for me to chuck our family sedan down a road suited for mid-engined roadsters.  There’s no choice, really.  Does the trunk lid say XSE? Yes it does. Akio Toyoda demands it and the wife and kids are safely in bed and can’t scream at me.  

It’s Camry Time!

I do a quick systems check in my head. The brake fluid was changed last year but the pads are original and have 75K on them. That’s not optimal, they’ve got to get us back home at the end of the trip.  Those will be a weak point on the downhill, but there are paddle shifters on the steering wheel so we have more control over the transmission and engine braking than several competitors of recent vintage.  Tires are General G-Max AS-05, a very affordable “ultra high performance all season”, which I’m aware is a “jumbo shrimp” description, but don’t laugh–I’ve got them on the Fiesta too and they grip well at nearly any speed I can safely achieve on public roads.  OK, it’s Camry Time! Let’s see how this old platform does.  

Car & Driver action shot, since I haven’t taken a single picture of this car since the original COAL.    

I’ve been driving the Fiesta a lot over the past two years–far more than I intended, in fact.  Its darty and playful nature have calibrated me to a new normal.  Perhaps that’s why this Camry now feels like a Sun Tracker going into the first set of tight bends.  Body response is a half note behind steering input, roll is more palpable, and there’s a sense of the front contact patches working far harder to hold the car on its line.  A recalibration is required. 

Once I do, this car does alright.  Not great, but alright. The roll is well contained and there’s grip when it settles, but rapid transitional response is a bit clunky so it strings together longer sweeping esses far better than tight and inconsistent ones.  Road trip miscellanea I forgot to secure is thundering side to side rhythmically in the trunk and glove box and that doesn’t improve the subjectives.  The manual transmission control is enormously helpful uphill and down and there’s just enough pop from the engine.  You’ll quickly gain on higher-dollar machines whose timid lessees blanche at the first sensation of lateral forces, but the pace at which this car feels good on these roads lies north of prudence and politeness…but south of actually fast.  I feel what limits the car here is the tame steering ratio that makes it hard to quickly dial in enough angle on the tight right-handers and my use of SE-trim 17″ wheels with 55-series tires for summer instead of the XSE’s stock 18″ 45 -series on which the winters are mounted.  It’s a tall rolly-polly sidewall for this type of silliness.  Shocks are also 6 years old and may have lost a touch of discipline. 


Camry Time resulted in scrub marks down to the sidewall lettering. 

So it isn’t genuinely fun to push hard and won’t keep pace with the elite 5% of traffic on these roads.  Those are the SoCal Car Guys, and they drive everything from slammed straight-piped LS400s to Porsche 911 Turbos to some banana-yellow Ferrari, and they’re also out there in the early hours specifically to terrorize these roads without some stupid blue Camry in their way.  Their judgment behind the wheel seems compromised, and their skills, like mine, dubious, but the performance envelope of their machines gives them considerable speed.  If I too would like to vaporize the straightaways and risk sending road bikes over my hood by outrunning sightlines on the twisties, I’ll need to make an upgrade.

And so I did.  The car you see before you is the result of vacation FOMO and poor impulse control.  It’s a locally-rented Audi S5 convertible  and it’s quick and looks really stylish until you see me in it.  Half the reason for this was to enjoy my early morning drives, the other half to give my kids a memorable experience.  I could have chosen an RC-F or Giulia Quadrifoglio and was badly tempted, but the looks on their faces as they watched the power top do its origami thing all around them to let in the sunshine and coastal breeze were well worth the “compromise”.  No one wants to be the passenger in a fixed roof sports car, but everyone does in a convertible.     

Drop-top aside, the powertrain dominates the experience.  A 3.0 liter aluminum turbo V-6 routes 354 horsepower through the ZF 8 speed and Quattro.  It’s very clearly turbocharged. It’s very clearly AWD.  And it’s very clearly controlled by electronics.  In Comfort mode, throttle response is severely muted and the car is astoundingly slow to step off, build boost, and provide downshifts.  It’ll move if you really want it to, but expect big delays and deep compression of the gas pedal.  It’s everything I dislike about turbos with automatic transmissions.  This is, of course, to squeeze some semblance of fuel economy out of a powerful 4200 pound(!) car, and it’s fine on the boulevard and interstate where the slower swell of torque gently builds serious speed for overtaking in the left lane.

I wasn’t remotely impressed until I selected Dynamic Mode, where the computers encourage rather than restrain.  The combination of massive torque, AWD traction, and quick throttle response snaps the car off the line and puts everything in the rearview without revving above 4000 rpm.  It pulls everywhere on the tach and the upshifts are firm and immediate.  Dynamic keeps the engine in the power band on the uphill, downshifts smartly when slowing for turns, and makes amateurs like me feel like heroes on corner exit. 10% uphill grades simply evaporate as the exhaust howls and burbles and pops through the tailpipes.  Audis have a reputation for being boring. I don’t think that applies to this one.  

It takes a lot of wheel and tire to keep such a heavy car glued so well to the road

The S5 will crack off a mid-4 second run to 60.  Amazingly, that’s unexceptional for the class, running right alongside similar engines from Genesis, Acura, and Mercedes and falling well behind the BMW turbo inline six. What a world, eh?  But with twice the rated horsepower of our Toyota, this merely average S5 feels like God Mode.  I rule these roads!  Until a bright red C8 appears behind me. That’s a whole ‘nother level right there, so I move over to let him by.  

The engine has character, but the rest of the car is pure competence honed and polished to a gentle anodyne luster.  The steering is quick and clean and the car has very high cornering limits and strong braking, but isn’t very chatty about any of it.  It arcs through corners again and again at speeds that began entertaining/alarming me, but there was no push, no wag, no squeal, no lean, no vibration through the wheel. It easily erases the 1400 pound weight difference with my ST in the turns and any time the turbo six can breathe deep for more than a second or two it’s no contest, but the little Ford has more personality for good and ill. 

Is it fun? Well, the pace and confidence surely are.  This thing moves and the cool fragrant coastal air rushing all around you creates an experience. But if you want feedback through the wheel and the ability to get the tail a bit loose, this is probably the wrong chassis. This raises a pair of questions for me: does any of that matter out here in the real world, and will you be taking your $72,000 German luxury coupe to a racetrack where it might?  There’s no runoff on these shoulders–it’s a few feet, maybe a guardrail, and then oblivion.  Do you really want the tail to step out? Are you really good enough or just overconfident? Here’s my hypothesis: most enthusiasts probably cannot get close enough to the limits of this Audi on public roads for the driveline architecture to become transformative, and a skilled driver who could ride that edge and exploit a touch of oversteer would be outrunning his sightlines and endangering others.  Just a thought.  

Thin margins for error 

I rattle off all of these driving nuances and specs (as if I really know anything) as a smoke screen to distract from the real danger of becoming a lower-caste knockoff of this guy I overheard in a Malibu parking lot. He had a British accent and a Mercedes AMG GT roadster–a one-hundred fifty thousand dollar showpiece with near-supercar performance–and was discussing it with someone else: 

“I can’t really get technical about it because I don’t know, I just like the aesthetics and the style. I’m told it has a V8, I haven’t looked”.  

This whole little scene raised some populist hackles within me.  No one can afford an apartment anywhere anymore, yet this automotive connoisseur knows nothing about his six-figure toy and the boutique grocery store behind him is easily selling $10/oz “Meditation You Can Sip” new age drink supplements and $23 loaves of sourdough to people living in this complete la-la land.  The old straight-piped and slammed LS400 may have been obnoxious and laughable on the surface, but the kid behind the wheel knew far more about his car than either me or this AMG dweeb, and he was cooking nicely through the corners with it.  I respect that more than a man who simply buys the biggest piece of automotive jewelry that catches his fancy.  I bite my tongue and walk on. Don’t do it, man, don’t say anything.  You ain’t perfect neither, and you’re on a not-exactly-beans-and-rice vacation so what makes you think you get to complain about the wealth gap?

S is for Status

Annoyed and conflicted, I climbed back into my rented status symbol and started reconsidering my affection for it.  After five days of driving this Audi, I was smitten to a degree I feel some shame about. It really is very good at a surprising range of things. You can upset your inner ears rocketing through sequential hairpins and within 30 seconds raise the top to create a grand tourer fit for crossing the entire continent. But as the AMG princeling showed, at its core this is a shallow car.  The purpose is to provide 2-3 years of “aesthetics” and image to those who quickly lose interest in their baubles and have the excess means to discard them on a whim.  It is not intended for middle-incomers like me, or for the skilled mechanic who could keep this running as it ages, but rather for the fortunate-born leisure class with augmented butt cheeks wider than their shoulders and a life-affirming concern with keeping those awful 99-percenters off the beach in front of their Malibu retreat.  


So what’s a guy like me to do? Well, that one’s obvious. You say goodbye to both it and the California sunshine you can’t remotely afford long term either, and you get your non-augmented butt back in the Camry where it belongs and drive home to Utah.  And, as I reflected on the return journey, that’s really as it should be. SoCal beaches get old in the face of the oppressive pricing, crowding, and jejune displays of wealth, and that S5 would get old the first time the lease ended and I had to write another $6000 check to begin the next round of $800 monthly rental installments. 


Best to merely dabble, to see how the other half lives for just a moment, then leave them to it.  A week in the Audi on the golden coast is to see through a glass, darkly.  But to return home afterwards is to put away childish things.  It’s not so bad here in Camry Land.  The seats are still comfortable and road fatigue absent after eleven hours behind the wheel, it’s stable and composed at a constant 85-90mph, the yeoman engine struggles not at all to keep this pace while returning 32 mpg, and it has a good shot at continuing to do so with minimal effort until 200,000 miles.  That’s arguably more impressive cost-scaled engineering than the S5.  And when I needed to feel better about my station, I looked at the numerous Teslas driving slowly in the right lane of Interstate 15, preserving range on those long rural stretches and receding far into the distance behind us.  In them I found a convenient target for my own insecurities, and I succumbed to the knee-jerk tribal belligerence and dehumanization that has rocketed so many delightful people to political stardom in recent years: “Ha!” I yelled into the rear-view. “Who’s got the status now, coastal EV elites?  How’s all that hopey chargey stuff working out for ya?  You know, they say the difference between a Tesla bull and a Camry mom is…Lipstick? No, that’s idiotic, where’d you hear that? The answer is: range anxiety!” 

Postscript: In penance for allowing a bellwether for our tragic present to inspire such an awful sign-off I believe it fair to point out to EV owners that I paid nearly $8/gallon to refuel that fat fuel-swilling pig of an Audi.  Go ahead and laugh, I deserve it.