The raven stands before the shiny object, cocks his head, and eyes it, unsure. He was headed elsewhere on necessary errands when the glint caught his eye midflight and he descended. It has now captured his attention and he thinks he wants it. Why, precisely, is hard to say. He doesn’t need it. It’s not going to make the nest any more functional or the search for food more successful. If anything, it presents a bit of a risk. But it’s new to him, it’s interesting, and it is triggering some innate urge buried deep within his behavioral biology.
What is it that drives our intense interest in the automobile? At their core, they are tools that obliterate distance and allow even the barely-ambulatory among us to cross continents. That is bound to addict an organism with an evolutionary history of moving at about 3 miles per hour. But there’s something more. We go to great lengths to make them far more than tools. We sculpt them, we furnish them, we inlay wood and metal in the interiors, fuss over material quality on the seats, and even (such silliness) mold the hard plastics to look like leather. None of this enhances the core function of the car. We want them to be unnecessarily fast, to look a certain way, to feel a certain way, to glisten and shine. We imbue them with personality and character and have created an entire universe around them.
Some have turned this interest into constructive cerebral pursuits: the mechanics, the engineers, the product planners, the modders. They understand these machines and can do remarkable things with them. At the other end is the car enthusiast, which is perhaps the lowest form of life in the automotive food web. Their interest is consumptive rather than constructive, and it’s difficult to respect their obsession with the decadent concerns of handling balance, engine performance, or even worse–brand cachet, social status, and gross conspicuous consumption.
Unfortunately, I’m one of them to an extent. I can’t advance a timing chain or diagnose a check engine light, but I notice and appreciate the differences in how a vehicle looks, drives, and accomplishes a task. I recognize and respond to the differing character and details which make each car unique. It is obvious that a lot of people expended a lot of professional talent to get this miracle machine out the door. The car is part of my personal habitat, and I feel the urge to enhance and modify that habitat. I’m the raven zeroing in on the shiny object. And this Audi…well, it’s the shiniest to my eye. This is the one that prompted this entire car-shopping exercise.
I approach this machine with a touch of caution. It is the benchmark and I am expecting a lot from it. The raven is unsure. It’s obtainable, yes. He could pick it up and fly it back to the nest with some effort and a little sacrifice. But if he doesn’t like it, if it doesn’t meet expectations, if the shine is only surficial and already wearing off, then here it will continue to sit. And the raven will be left with a real conundrum: maybe shiny things aren’t worth diverting for after all. Maybe what he has is good enough and this search just needs to end.
The Audi A5 Sportback is a five-door liftback based on the B9 Audi A4 sedan. This is not a common form of car because most people want their five-doors lifted another foot into the air. If it survives into the next generation at all I will be somewhat surprised, and if it does so without becoming an EV I will be fully shocked. It’s unique in today’s automotive landscape. It is shorter and lower than our Camry, yet it has a usable backseat and 20 cubic feet of cargo space under the liftback. The turbocharged 4 cylinder engine can get the car to 60mph in just over 5 seconds while delivering mid-30s mpg on the highway even with the Quattro AWD. The resume is impressive.
I love the way this car looks. It grabs my attention every time I see one, and I have found the quiet confident road manners of VAG products to be a very satisfying blend of capability and comfort in the past. It combines the functionality I need from a family car with the driving character, styling, and material quality–the shine–that I want. Ostensibly, this is The One.
I begin by tentatively pecking at the object. I look at the sheet metal and panel fit. Very tight and consistent, and the sharp styling crease down the side is a good piece of work. I open the liftback to the cargo bay and it’s larger than the BMW 430i. Yes, yes, a fine cargo space indeed, and a spare under the floor. We can continue to pretend this is about practicality. The ruse continues in the backseat, where I have just enough extra space over the 430i. An extra inch of legroom. A smidge more headroom. A tad more toe space. Just enough to matter. The long front passenger footwell allows that seat to move forward enough to add another two inches of rear legroom without impacting an adult’s comfort up front. The boy can grow into a teenager back here, no problem.
The driver’s door opens with the requisite heavy Germanic kerchunk. I like that. Yet it closes with the sloppy secondary resonance of my Fiesta: kerchunk-unk. That’s disappointing. My entry-level Jetta Sportwagen sounded like a million bucks when you closed the door and I was hoping for the same here. The frameless windows are perhaps to blame; you can’t get that bank vault solidity without window frames.
The seats are comfortable but firm, the visibility is good, the clean minimalist dashboard is attractive, and the material quality is generally high. The grained grey wood trim running across the dash, doors, and console is a nice touch. I’d like a little more suppleness to the rubbery door panels and a more solid feeling glovebox, but otherwise this is a crisp, well-executed interior that looks and feels the price. This is also a confident interior that is comfortable with itself. It is the strong silent type as opposed to the insecure C-Class which compensates for self-doubt with gaudy digital glitz and gimmicks.
The A5 drives very nicely if you are looking for a quiet, rapid, near-luxury, near-sport sedan with a turbocharged engine and automatic transmission. There are some drawbacks if you want it to be more than that: it is not tactile enough to be a true sports sedan and it is not plush or rich enough to be a true luxury experience. The engine is astoundingly strong for a 2-liter four cylinder and is the most extroverted part of this otherwise polite and reserved car. When the turbo hits, the car rears back a touch and you are pressed convincingly into the seat. The upshifts are rapid, downshifts are prompt, and it flies. The Acura TLX and G70 aren’t even close and I don’t see much reason to step up to the turbo sixes in the S5 or Stinger GT. It even sounds decent.
The steering lacks road feel, which I’m finding is true of everything I’ve tried so far except the G70. I think that’s a lost cause which I will just need to accept. But it is accurate, responsive, consistent, not artificially heavy, and I prefer it to the BMW for those last two reasons. Ride quality is firm, quite similar to our Camry, and has more tire impact noise over manhole covers than I expected but no associated structural squeaks. The car feels very solid even at this mileage.
The A5 corners strongly with minimal body roll and a surprising level of grip considering how benign it feels at low speeds. I was able to catch a green light and take a left-handed uphill onramp at speed and the way the AWD enables the car to put down power and increase velocity through the turn is very impressive to me. Road noise is well controlled. It’s a car I could enjoy in just about any driving situation and that is, ultimately, what I’m looking for.
Some may have noted by now that this is similar to how I described the BMW 430 I rejected. The parallels are remarkable (or not, given that they’re direct competitors), but the Audi wins on the margins. The steering feels a bit more honest, the ride is a little more compliant without dulling the handling, the road noise is a tad lower, the interior a half-step larger, the engine a bit more powerful and notably less gritty. Since neither are true sports cars and I’ve had to adjust my unrealistic expectations for this class, I’m drawn to the Audi for sanding off the rougher edges the BMW left behind. It feels more cohesive and well-rounded to me and I felt more at home in the Audi than the BMW for reasons not fully known.
Outwardly, the car is holding up well. This one has 82,000 miles on it and you can’t tell from driving it or poking about the interior. That hasn’t always been the case with VAG products. MSRP on an equivalent 2023 is $58,000 but this one has lost 60% of its value and can be purchased for the same price as a base Corolla with a keyed ignition. With a German marque, you never know if that’s a raging bargain or just a down payment on headaches.
It’s not perfect. I complain about lag from small turbo engines in every review and this car has massive amounts of it from a dead stop. Lightly brake-torquing the BMW mitigated it, but this didn’t work for the Audi because it won’t let you rev the engine above idle against the brakes. Dynamic drive mode did nothing. Putting the transmission in Sport did nothing. Whatever left turn you make against traffic had better be carefully timed because that first one-one-thousand is going to nose you into harm’s way and only when the power hits will you scoot out of it. When is a 4-pot Camry much faster than an Audi? Here.
After some scouring of the owner’s forums, I learned that the dual-clutch DSG transmission may be a culprit. The fundamental difference between the automated manual and a conventional automatic like the ZF 8 speed used in the S5 is that the DSG clutches disengage at a stop, putting the transmission in neutral. There is a pause between lifting off the brakes and the DSG engaging the clutch. Some owners claim that lifting off the brake and waiting for the subtle engagement before applying the throttle enables the car to scoot off nicely. I may have to follow up on that one, because I can deal with that. It’s not much different than beginning to blend clutch and throttle a half-second before anticipated takeoff with a manual transmission.
The test driver’s notes from an Edmunds.com review also described a hidden launch control function. Activate it and the computers will let you rev the engine against the brakes and allow the car to fling itself off the line the way you expect a powerful AWD car to do. Very useful for occasional stoplight shenanigans (I’m trying to grow up but it’s hard) but you’re not going to punch that function up in daily driving.
My other hesitation is reliability, because…well, you know why. Does it have four rings on the hood or doesn’t it? First-generation EA888 engines were notorious oil-gobblers in the A4, something to do with faulty piston rings. Failed timing chain tensioners added another fun way to grenade the engines. Apparently this third generation EA888 is better, though the plastic water pump and thermostat housings are already leaking. No biggie, right? Just a little lost coolant. Plenty of it onboard. It’s a less complicated beast than Kyree’s recent A8 COAL, but it’s still an Audi.
The raven is unsure. The object is indeed shiny, so shiny, and it hasn’t lost any obvious luster. He wants it, but he’s afraid this is what the molting juveniles call “hot garbage” and will soon break open and pour filth and misery all over his nest if he brings it home. So he hesitates, and flies off to think about it. He learns some other bird soon swooped in and snatched the object. That’s OK. The fields are littered with them. It provides time to think.
And think he does. How long would he want this car? Will it prove to be a lovely tool or a troublesome bauble? Can it last 6-7 years? Will he cry when it betrays him and throws its coolant all over the interstate on a road trip? Tough questions. Answer one way, and the A5 is The One. Answer the other way and he needs to start scouring for a GS350.
And indeed, we’re down to those two. The next step is to bring the brood along for a follow up test of each. There are questions that need answering. What does my wife think? What do the fledglings want (like I care). What will more thorough assessments of freeway noise levels and ride quality over our neglected old town street grid reveal? We’re getting close, but there is still some probing to do before I fly off with my shiny object.