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Expert Reviews 1 of 4
By Kelsey Mays
January 25, 2010
Audi positions both its A5 and S5 convertibles to compete with luxury droptops like the BMW 3 Series, Infiniti G37 and Lexus IS C, and the German automaker is onto something with the S5. Though pricier than its peers — and perhaps a bit more nose-heavy than its A5 sibling — it delivers a unique brand of fun that's worth checking out.
In an age when folding metal hardtops are becoming the norm, however, some will be turned off by the S5's cloth soft-top. It will be interesting to see if the car's comparative versatility is attractive enough to make up for it.
The A5 and S5 coupes are identical cars, save their performance aspects, and both are newly available as convertibles for 2010; the Germans call them cabriolets, but I'll stick to English. The A5 and S5 convertibles succeed the dated A4 and S4 convertibles; click here for a comparison of all four models. I'll focus here on the S5's performance aspects. For a broader review of the car, check out our A5 convertible review here. Supercharged V-6 Like the redesigned S4 sedan, the S5 convertible gets a supercharged 3.0-liter V-6. Fire it up, and the 333-horsepower engine settles into a low, flat burble. I'll admit it — at times, I found the noise taxing, but I'm not one to crank the bass on my stereo. (In my well-worn Toyota, such shenanigans might blow out a speaker … or an A-pillar.) Past idle, the exhaust turns into a higher whine I'll take any day over the 211-hp A5's gravelly roar. The engine pulls strong as revs build higher, but its character comes closer to the G37's normally aspirated V-6 than it does to BMW's turbocharged six-cylinder. There's no wall of grunt early on. Push harder, and the engine turns out thrust comparable to the 335i's — and then some, evidently. BMW says an automatic 335i convertible takes 5.7 seconds to hit 60 mph. Audi says the S5 does it in 5.1 seconds.
So why, despite taking longer to get up and go, does the S5 win the race? Some credit belongs to the traction advantage of the S5's standard Quattro all-wheel drive; other credit belongs to Audi's marvelous dual-clutch seven-speed automatic. It pops through gears far swifter than any stick-shift driver could, with short ratios that allow the engine to hit its stride lickety-split. Upshifts come with virtually unbroken power delivery and, under hard acceleration, a satisfying exhaust pop. (Audi says the noise is a result of latent ignition to manage smoother gear transitions — not the backpressure release that's typically responsible for exhaust barks.)
Activate the automatic's Dynamic mode, and it fetches lower gears to power through corners or accelerate up on-ramps with near-instinctive response. Even in the transmission's in-between Auto or cushier Comfort settings, kickdown happens without too much delay. In any of the three modes, the transmission comports itself far smoother at low speeds than most dual-clutch automatics.
The standard four-wheel-discantilock brakes are larger here than in the A5. The pedal delivers firm stopping power, and it's easy to fine-tune your deceleration. Hammering the brakes on hilly roads all afternoon, I didn't find any objectionable levels of brake fade.
At least for the foreseeable future, the S5 coupe will retain its 4.2-liter V-8. That marks a reversal of earlier plans to switch to the supercharged V-6. Count me pleased; dismal gas mileage notwithstanding, other Cars.com editors are a big fan of the 4.2. The S5 convertible, at least, gets a respectable EPA-rated 17/26 mpg city/highway. Here's how the engines compare:
3.0-liter supercharged V-6
Horsepower (@ rpm)
333 @ 5,500-7,000
354 @ 7,000
Torque (lbs.-ft., @ rpm)
325 @ 2,900-5,300
325 @ 3,500
7-speed dual-clutch auto
6-speed manual or 6-speed auto
Base curb weight (lbs.)
Acceleration (0-60 mph, sec.)
4.9 (manual), 5.1 (auto)
EPA mileage (city/hwy., mpg)
14/22 (manual), 16/24 (auto)
Source: Manufacturer and EPA data
Ride, Handling & Audi Drive Select Comfort, Auto and Dynamic modes are part of the S5's optional Audi Drive Select system, which our test car had. ADS allows drivers to toggle the aforementioned transmission response among the three settings. You can do the same with accelerator sensitivity, steering response and the firmness of the S5's optional adaptive suspension. Changes between the ADS settings are difficult to detect across suspension and accelerator settings, but ride comfort is generous in any case. Over broken pavement, however, I noticed more cowl shake than I did in the A5 convertible we evaluated last fall.
Characteristic of an Audi, the S5 in Comfort mode takes light effort to steer at low speeds — but it feels too artificial, never unwinding to center as naturally as I'd like. On the highway, the wheel seems a bit loose, requiring too many minor corrections to stay on track. Auto or Dynamic settings remedy much of this: The wheel takes on a firmer, more secure feel at high speeds, and there's more feedback from the road. The wheel requires more effort to turn at low speeds, but on curvy roads it rewards drivers with confident precision that's easy to fine-tune.
Still, the S5 feels a bit nose-heavy compared with the A5. Audi's rear-biased Quattro — with an optional rear differential that routes more power to the outside wheels during corners — can't mask the extra drivetrain weight up front, and the S5 feels more prone to understeer than the remarkably neutral 2.0-liter A5. From the Top Check out the "Topping Things Off" section in our A5 review for a full assessment of the S5 soft-top versus its hardtop competition. The top powers up and down in less than 20 seconds, while the G37 and Volvo C70 each take 30 seconds. Like the hardtops, it requires no latches to secure or undo. Another major plus: The S5's trunk loses only about a quarter of its 10.2 cubic feet when the top is folded. (Audi doesn't have specific figures for trunk intrusion, so I eyeballed it.) Folding hardtops, in comparison, are large contraptions that take up, at minimum, half their trunk's space — and often much more.
Such are the inherent advantages of a soft-top. Consider, for example, that Mercedes-Benz says the soft-top on its 2011 E350 convertible takes 20 seconds to raise or lower, and it takes up less than one-fourth of the trunk's 13.8 cubic feet.
On the downside, wind noise in the S5 starts to creep up by 60 mph or so. Generally speaking, hardtops are as quiet inside as coupes. Also, if you like the spectacle of a folding hardtop in action — even a dozen years after seeing the first Mercedes SLK, I'll admit it's still kind of neat — the S5's soft-top just won't do. The Inside The S5's cabin materials are consistently good, but I've never been a huge fan of Audi's controls. Elements from the window switches to the turn signals feel too rubbery in some places, too brittle in others. Still, the S5's cabin should please, with high-rent leather and enough room for adults to get comfortable.
The rear seats are workable for adults, which is impressive. Even more impressive: They fold down to accommodate larger items from the trunk. Most convertibles offer, at most, a center pass-through for skis. Add that to a number of other touches — power-extending seat belt hooks for the driver and front passenger, a height- and length-adjustable center armrest, the convertible top's minimal trunk intrusion — and it's clear that, for a convertible, the S5 packs a lot of versatility.
Audi's third-generation Multi Media Interface uses a knob controller to operate the navigation and stereo systems. Optional on the S5, it's an improvement over prior MMI generations, but still far from perfect. See the "Updated Multi Media Interface" in our Q5 review to learn more. (The forthcoming A8 has an improved version of MMI, and it's likely the S5 will adopt it somewhere down the road. Check it out here.) Safety, Features & Pricing The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hasn't crash-tested the A5 or S5. Standard features include frontal and knee airbags, as well as front-seat-mounted side airbags designed to protect occupants' heads and torsos. Antilock brakes and an electronic stability system round things out. Click here to see the full list.
Available in Premium Plus and Prestige trim levels, the S5 convertible starts at a pricey $58,250 — nearly $6,000 more than the S5 coupe and $10,650 more than an A5 Premium Plus convertible. (Compare it with the base, front-wheel-drive A5 Premium convertible, and the difference works out to a staggering $16,250.) Standard features include all-wheel drive, power-adjustable sport seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated leather upholstery and an iPod-compatible stereo.
Options include a navigation system and backup camera, Audi Drive Select, an adaptive suspension, keyless startup and a Bang & Olufsen stereo. Fully loaded, the S5 crests $70,000 — a few grand over a loaded 335i, and an entire Honda Fit beyond the price where the Lexus, Volvo and Infiniti top out. (Mercedes hasn't yet priced the new 2011 E350 convertible, but its predecessor, the soft-top CLK350, tops out around $70,000.) S5 in the Market Sales for the A5 and S5 amount to a drop in Audi's bucket, but it's steadily becoming a bigger drop. That can only improve with the introduction of convertible variants. Sharp styling, unlikely versatility and a snappy drivetrain give the S5 a fighting chance, despite the absence of a retractable hardtop. In an economy most would characterize as dubious, though, I wish the car wasn't so doggone expensive.