2018 Audi A5 Sportback Test Drive Review: A Sedan In Wolf’s Clothing
Crossovers are killing off our beloved sedans. This is how we fight back.
Pulling out of airport parking under street lamps that shower Phoenix streets in dim yellow light so pilots can more easily see the runway from the skies, I drove towards the empty intersection ahead and came to a stop. That’s when the heads-up display beamed a timer onto the windshield and began counting down the “time-to-green.” Thirteen seconds, then five, then zero. Then the red light turned green and I took off towards Interstate 10 where I could contemplate the technology and physical proportions of the 2018 A5 Sportback I was driving. One can argue that the term “four-door coupe” debuted with the 2004 Mercedes CLS and turned ugly (literally) upon the 2010 release of the first-gen Porsche Panamera. But that was then. Now, four-door coupes are beautiful again and Audi, along with the rest of Germany’s Big Three, can’t seem to stop itself from giving its sedans the coupe makeover.
Exterior Design: Spicy, Not Offensive
In Audispeak, “Sportback” refers to just that-a sedan with a coupe’s roofline and a fastback rear end that doubles as the hatch to a large cargo bay. Following the precedence set by the A7, the A5 Sportback features a front end that vies for attention with a large chrome-colored grille featuring an octagonal border and horizontal slats. To designers, the long hood was just a larger canvas where creases could be placed to create a muscular look that backs up the aggression in the headlights’s gaze. The midsection is the most talked about area, with the roof starting its gradual descent towards the small fastback trunk shelf just behind the front seats. The rear profile looks similar to the A4 save for the A5 badges while widened rear haunches and a high beltline on the sides reinforce the notion that the A5 Sportback is a sports car that just happens to come with two extra doors.
Engine, Performance & MPG
Like the A5, the A5 Sportback’s only available powerplant is a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four engine making 252 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. Power is sent to all four wheels via the quattro AWD system and is washed through a 7-speed automatic transmission on the way there. Combined, the engine and transmission can launch the Sportback from 0-60 mph in 5.4-seconds before topping out at 129 mph. Even though the engine is a happy revver, though not wholeheartedly a willing one, nailing the throttle and searching for redline is a pointless act since full torque is available throughout much of the rev band.
Under the care of saner drivers, the A5 Sportback can deliver a combined 27 mpg (24/34 city/highway) thanks in part to an energy recuperation system that uses the alternator to store energy and later release it, effectively turning the vehicle into a mild (like ultra-mild) hybrid.
Interior Design & Features
For the most part, Audis have differed from the competition by being the most cold, calculated, and archetypically German cars in their segments. That ethos is already made clear by the design of the body, but it’s far more pronounced inside the cabin. With a lighter-than-it-sounds shade of Rock Grey coating the interior and contrasting the Scuba Blue Metallic paint job of the exterior, the insides of the A5 Sportback are beautiful, ergonomic to an almost unthinkable degree, and slightly cold on the eyes. A different interior color scheme would have helped the cabin feel as warm as a hearth during a freak night of rare Southern Arizona snow, but at least the heated steering wheel, heated seats in the front and rear, and ambient interior lighting helped the neutral interior color scheme feel more welcoming. Looks aside, the design of the A5 Sportback’s interior stands out due to how sensical it is.
No button or switch is present if it doesn’t have a reason to be and what is there has been planned for-the location and the context of a given button’s function always seems to fit in with the surrounding controls. And then there are the toys that really pop. Most notable among them is Audi’s virtual cockpit, essentially a 12.3-inch display that replaces the gauge cluster. It’s as cool as it is useful and integrates well with the MMI infotainment system, which could very well be the industry benchmark on its own.
Controls aside, occupants pay a space penalty for the low roofline, but those using the Sportback as their main commuter or as a lease while the kids are still small won’t have much to worry about. Sure, the soul of the A5 is one that shines with the cutthroat effectiveness of its technology and its logic-first design rather than with warmth of its the character, but what Audi has done is to pull off a small miracle by making such a stylish design so utile.
Dimensions & Cargo Space: The Practical Pick
Carrying checked bags full of Christmas presents home from the airport, I was pleasantly surprised to open the motorized hatch to find 21.8 cubic feet of storage space greeting the material incarnation of my love of family. Fold the rear seats down and that number jumps to 35 cubic feet. Not so bad for a city commuter, but the situation isn’t as pretty north of the storage compartment.
While the Sportback’s 35.1-inches of rear legroom is more than the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe’s, it still feels cramped at the rear given that there’s only 37-inches of headroom. Beauty is pain though, and in this case, it’s also performance. Standing 54.6-inches high, 79.9-inches wide (including mirrors), and 186.3-inches long (with 111.2-inches of that length going to the wheelbase), the A5 Sportback has just the right footprint to coax a smooth and planted ride out of the chassis at any speed.
If there’s a distinguishable characteristic in a car that can make or break whether it’s perceived as luxurious, it’s whether or not it can convey the feeling of being a sliding hockey puck guided by telepathy. Luckily, that’s how the A5 Sportback’s feels. Make no mistake, it can pull tightly calculated corners with quattro’s help, and spit out surprising G-force despite a light and numb steering wheel that could use a hair of extra on-center feeling. But in my hands, it glided away from left turn lanes and found itself on the next Arizona road with minimal effort as if it were being gently guided where I wanted it to go while resting on a layer of ice slick. Though the S Line sport package loaded onto this tester meant the ride got bumpy when the road roughened, the A5 generally strikes a good balance between feeling sporty but comfortable.
It can even encourage naughty behavior by promoting more confidence in a driver than a Tony Robbins seminar can instill in gullible people. Turn the wheel at speed and the A5 hunkers its outer shoulder into the corner, exhibiting mild body roll but mainly turning steering input into lateral Gs. Put your foot down and you’ll learn the engine and transmission work together almost seamlessly, shifting imperceptibly and rarely finding themselves in the wrong gear upon corner exit to let you know they’re two separate pieces of hardware.
You can even catch the satisfying whistle of the turbo if you nail the throttle, and just a few stops will build trust in the liner brake pedal that’s easy to modulate for hard stops or gentle arrivals to the red light. Despite its capacity for fun, the overall gist of the A5 Sportback is that of a highly refined machine with hints of sports car accenting its light, clean flavor.
Reliability & Problems
If there’s one thing Audi could have thought through a little better, it would be the rear seats. Not because they can make rear-seat passengers feel cramped, but because traveling over bumpy Arizona roads-which gain cracks and bumps as a growing population sucks its aquifer dry-jiggles the body and makes the rear seats rattle loudly. The source of the noise is one of the clasps that holds the folding rear seats upright and has too much travel even in its locked position. And then there’s the fact the MMI infotainment system got stuck displaying the backup camera’s view one cold morning and wouldn’t allow me to switch to another menu and use the functions for three minutes. It was a short-lived problem but along with the noisy rear seat, one that’s hardly acceptable on a sedan/coupe costing $56,450.
Price & Trims
One reason the A5 Sportback I tested felt so advanced is because it was the fully-loaded Prestige trim, ranking ahead of the base Premium trim and mid-grade Premium Plus. Pricing has increased for 2019 models, meaning that replicating the trim and options for the 2018 A5 Sportback I drove on a 2019 model would cost $57,490 including destination. Moving down to the base 2019 A5 Sportback will slash the price down to $45,195 including destination, but that means going without power folding mirrors, color-changing LED interior lighting, leather accenting, a memory driver’s seat, MMI navigation and advanced radio, the virtual cockpit gauge cluster, the full Audi Pre-Sense suite of driver aids, adaptive cruise control, a 360-degree camera system, lane-keep assist, high-beam assist, a parking assistant, a Bang and Olufsen sound system, and the heads-up display with traffic sign recognition and that genius “time-to-green” countdown timer.
One mistake many car fans make is to ding Audis for having souls that feel plainer than Mercedes, which drip with decadence, or BMWs, which cling to youth like graduated frat bros working on Wall Street. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, Audi’s obsessive-compulsive nature can come across as too serious for some, but it brings its straight-A aspirations to playtime as well. By relying on the MLB platform and Volkswagen Group’s high standards for build quality as a canvas for the A5 Sportback, Audi has managed to churn out a four-door sedan that perfectly nails the big picture as well as the details and, in this case, makes minimal sacrifices and reaps many gains in its quest to be pretty. If the four-door coupe is the look you’re into, it’s hard to go wrong with the A5 Sportback.