Words and Photos: Robert S. Schultz
“Let’s go to Door County for our anniversary!”
Wonderful idea, my dearest, but remember the last time we went to that place at this time of year? We drove right into an early winter storm, white-knuckling my TT through a fusillade of snowflakes, peering into the flak for any sign of tracks or taillights we could follow. Not eager to repeat that experience. But wait. As coincidence would have it, Audi is making a 2013 S5 available for evaluation. Might this not be the ideal opportunity to assess the all-season capabilities of one of Audi’s high performance models? Let’s get packing.
If you’re not familiar with the Midwest, Door County forms the “thumb” of Wisconsin, hitching its way into the waters of Lake Michigan to the northeast. It’s a 70-mile long peninsula of small towns, bays, orchards and parks along the Green Bay and the Lake Michigan shores, well known for boating, biking and hiking, gallery gazing and cherry picking. The local communities have been vigilant about keeping big box retailers and fast food restaurants at bay to preserve an authentic seacoast-like feel in the “Cape Cod of the Midwest.” Come late fall, many of the venues close for the season, but a handful stay open to serve the hearty year-round residents, winter sports enthusiasts, and occasional Audi test drivers. Our destination, the Blacksmith Inn bed and breakfast in Baileys Harbor, is as charming and gracious as Door County gets, opening up to lake views (and sounds) on the less touristy side of the peninsula.
As it turned out, the warmer temperatures that have been the weather story throughout the U.S. all year produced plenty of fog, drizzle and rain, but no snow. Our test car, an S5 Cabriolet, was ready nevertheless, shod with full-size 19-inch Blizzak snows. It’s a shame they weren’t put to the ultimate test, as it would have been instructive to discover how 35-series snow tires perform in the ruts that so often develop on snow-packed midwestern roads. Snow or no, however, our test drive weekend must go on.
The A5/S5 freshens up
The A5/S5 has aged gracefully since its introduction, the Coupe in 2008 and the Cabriolet in 2010, a tribute to the original design by Walter de’Silva. In this segment, however, where visual pizzazz is paramount, “coupe years” pass by quickly and the A5 was due for a refresh. Audi stylists exercised their typical restraint, updating front and rear fascias and making minor changes to the instrumentation and controls. Upfront, the headlights are deeply notched and framed by Audi’s most complex LED array yet, the grille folded into six-corner configuration, and the fog lights shape-shifted into smallish rectangles. A5 and S5 receive trim-specific grille inserts. In the rear, taillight internals get rearranged and the lower valence streamlined.
Where the original A5/S5 went boldly with simple rectangular headlights counterbalanced by oval fogs, the refresh presents a more chiseled, refined face. By no means does the latter make the former obsolete, and the changes are subtle enough that only Audiphiles are likely to detect the difference.
Under the hood, however, regime change has taken place, the more fuel-efficient, supercharged V6 supplanting the gasoholic V8 (in fact, the S5 Cabriolet has been equipped with the V6 from the beginning). Horsepower is down some—333 vs. 354—but torque remains the same at 325 lb-ft., and reports for work earlier, at 2900 rpm.
Under the hood, controversy stirs
Devotees of the 4.2 V8 have been in a funk over this impending change for some time, bemoaning the loss of power and the signature V8 sound. With the first stab of the S5 Cab’s start button, I wonder if they don’t have a point. The supercharged V6 comes across like mild-mannered Clark Kent—quiet, even docile, effectively concealing its super-ness. In everyday driving the S5 Cab is surprisingly easygoing; the sport suspension is firm but not too stiff, the steering is light and effortless, and the engine note is a pleasant, distant rumble. These are first impressions only, and I suspect our Door County adventure will reveal more of the S5’s character.
The S5’s interior shows its hand immediately. It exudes a distinctive, classy ambience, as much architectural as automotive. Our test vehicle was fitted with the optional Carbon Atlas inlays, a handsome complement to the brushed metal bits and supple black leather upholstery. The multi-adjustable sport seats will accommodate small to large-framed occupants, and we found it easy to get—and stay—comfortable. For 2013 the S5 has adopted Audi’s flat-bottomed steering wheel, another clue to the car’s sporting nature. The refresh also brings Audi’s latest-generation MMI, highlighting an improved user interface and Google Earth graphics with navigation. It’s a fascinating and almost distracting feature, tempting you to compare the passing terrain on the nav screen with your actual view out the windshield. Virtual reality or the real thing, take your pick. We could not get the joystick function of the controller knob to work, probably due to human error, and the HD radio that was supposed to be included in the MMI package on our Premium Plus model was missing.
Speaking of sounds, it’s worth noting that Audi refers to the “acoustic” roof of the S5 Cab. With the top up you absolutely don’t know you’re in a convertible, the insulation is that good. But too good? It’s just possible that the roof soaks up some of the good sounds, too, like the engine note and the fidelity of what should have been an excellent Bang and Olufsen audio system.
All in all, the cabin of the S5 is a wonderful environment in which to travel, at once serene lounge and also sports car cockpit. It even won over a non-materialistic 13 year-old, who would otherwise prefer to be chauffeured to school via non-polluting horse and buggy. One morning she asked if she could just stay in the S5 listening to jazz classics on Sirius radio instead of attending class—and she likes school.
The abundant creature comforts of the S5 made for a relaxing and entertaining three-hour drive from Milwaukee to Door County. At highway speeds the S5 tracks straight and true, sloughing off crosswinds with ease. The steering, now electromechanically assisted, firms up with speed, but not so much as on other sporting Audis, such as the TTS. At first, the steering exhibited a disconcerting slackness when turning off center, almost the way a front-drive car feels on slippery pavement as it just begins to break away but then grabs hold. The tendency either disappeared or I got used to it over the course of the week; I suspect it might have been an artifact of brand new snow tires not quite broken in yet.
True character is revealed
Despite early impressions, the S5 does, indeed, lead a double life. Stomp on it or throw it into manual mode. No waiting for the lag-free supercharger to transform the character of the car, accompanied by the exhaust singing a more treble tune. The throttle quickens its response, too, and the reflexes of the whole car just seem to sharpen. These are especially fine qualities to have at your disposal when scooting around farm vehicles on the two-lane rural roads of Door County at dusk.
On tightening-radius curves the S5 wants to push some, but it takes a more predictable set on constant-radius turns. Though our car was not equipped with the optional adaptive suspension, it cornered flat and kept squat and dive in check. Adjustable damping would no doubt add another dimension to the S5’s handling, but the sport suspension felt just right as calibrated over a wide range of roads. True stopping tests were out of the question due to weather and the snow tires, but the S5’s brakes hauled us down quickly and stably enough on the two occasions when resident deer wandered across our path.
The S5 Cabriolet feels athletic. Sort of. It’s not overly agile because, well, there’s no tactful way to say this: it has a weight problem. The entire A5 line was designed prior to Audi’s current “ultra” lightweight emphasis so all the models are substantial. The S5, though, tips the scales at 386 pounds more than an S5 Coupe S tronic, according to Audi’s numbers. That’s like carrying around two additional adults. And their luggage. All of the time. You’re continually aware of the S5 Cab’s mass and it takes a toll on performance, adding .4 second to its 0-60 time, again, using Audi’s stats. Still, you make allowances. 5.3 seconds 0-60 is plenty quick, and this is one svelte beauty.
The S5 goes out to launch
Besides, if acceleration is your exhilaration, there’s always launch control. Disable traction control, brake, shift into sport mode, and step on the gas. The engine revs to 3500 rpm, and when you release the brakes, it’s barely controlled mayhem. The car slams down to the pavement, then rockets forward until you run out of road or dare. Best of all, this thrill ride is factory authorized.
The further north you drive in Door County the more rural it becomes, until you reach Gills Rock, the turnaround and the departure point for the ferry to Washington Island Along the way, speed limits vary between 25 mph and 55 mph as you pass through the small towns, and the terrain alternates flat stretches with rolling hills. Although the S5 gains Audi’s latest, seven-speed dual-clutch S tronic and suffers none of the jerks and clunks present in other applications, it’s still an S tronic. That means quick up shifts often strand you in too high a gear, too low in the rev band.
Driving the S5 in sport mode proved to be the ideal compromise for the changing road and speed conditions of Door County. It up shifts later, and executes well-timed downshifts when you slow, generally keeping the supercharged V6 at the ready. Manual mode was less satisfactory. Up shifts were crisp enough but there was occasional and uncharacteristic lag on some downshifts. Other test reports on the S5 have noted this as well, so it’s apparently not an isolated issue.
We venture onto the moors
Fog and mist worthy of The Hound of the Baskervilles precluded a full-on run of my favorite road in Door County, a one-mile stretch of continuous S-curves and little rises where you can grab some air with enough speed. Even driven at 4/10ths, the S5 took to the challenge, hustling its weight through the quick transitions and inspiring confidence at the outer edge of visibility. Although we did not call on the Blizzaks to trudge through snow, they performed quite ably as rain tires during our time in Door County. Stability control never intervened, which was probably an indication that the car’s quattro system (split 40/60 front/rear on the S5) was also doing its job.
A weekend trip for two is an occasion to indulge in the personal car and leave family transportation in the garage. The S5 Cab fulfilled this mission to perfection. It accommodated our over-packing without complaint (the trunk is deep but not very high; soft-sided luggage works best). On the road it coddled us with virtually every luxury. All day long the S5 was content to tour leisurely up and down the peninsula, wandering through Peninsula State Park and rolling past the villages as they each celebrated their Christmas tree lighting ceremonies. With valet-envying style (if Door County had valets) the S5 delivered us to our favorite restaurants at night. And always, it was eager to spiral up the excitement with instant-on supercharging, while returning a remarkable 26 mpg.
The supercharged V6 of the latest S5 will never replace the V8 in the hearts of some purists. But fuel efficiency is playing a role in almost every class of automobile today. Audi hasn’t dumbed down the performance of the S5. They’ve made it more desirable and accessible to enthusiast drivers. In the past, I might have considered the S5 to be more car than I needed. After spending a week with one, I now know differently. The S5 simply elevates every moment spent behind the wheel. It would make a very thoughtful anniversary gift, wouldn’t it?
The test car:
2013 Audi S5 Cabriolet quattro S tronic
Options: Ice Silver metallic, $475; Audi MMI Navigation plus package, $2,950; Bang & Olufsen Sound System, $850; 19” 5-segment wheels, $800; Audi advanced key, $550; Carbon Atlas inlays, $500
Total price: $66,320
POSTSCRIPT: For the sake of comparison, I was able to log a few miles in an S5 Coupe, courtesy of the local Audi dealer. A few observations:
•The Coupe definitely feels more nimble. The extra weight of the Cabriolet creates a higher polar moment of inertia and contributes to directional stability, but the Coupe is just more tossable and alive.
•Audi can still build a decent six-speed manual. Throws on the Coupe were short, a bit notchy, and the clutch actually required some effort. Plus, it saves 66 lbs. and $1400.
•The Audi quattro with sports differential option is a bargain at $1250. Not only does it vector torque to the outside rear wheel in hard cornering, but, for 2013, the package also includes most of the drive select functions (minus adaptive suspension). Yes, it presents an almost bewildering number of variations, but it’s worth it for the ability to firm up the steering alone.
Audi supplied the car, a tank of gas, and insurance. Thanks to International Autos Milwaukee for providing the test drive of an S5 Coupe.