Coupe – feminine noun. Cutting; cutting out; cut. According to the Oxford-Hachette French Dictionary at least, this is the definition of a word that always held special promise for car lovers worldwide. But the evocative nature of the term, and the fact that French is no longer the world’s lingua franca, have given today’s automakers license to apply the term to almost anything. If a car’s roof line even remotely resembles a rotten piece of a banana, it’s a coupe. Marketing, after all, is a more powerful force than grammar.
Short of running out of letters and integers, nothing will stop Audi from launching an assault on the competition’s league of French-illiterates. Its two entries in the world of un-coupes, at least at the moment I type these words, are the soon-to-be-launched Audi A7 and the Audi A5 Sportback.
Audi’s A5 Sportback is supposed to slot between its bestselling A4 and the two door A5, which is a lot like asking for a compromise between a fruit salad and a cheeseburger. Nevertheless, the good folks from Inglostadt are convinced that there is room (got it?) for a coupe-like hatchback with four doors, in the price bracket of its popular sedan. And so, the Sportback is longer by a mere third of an inch than its flat-roof sibling, one inch wider and most importantly, another inch lower.
The ‘real’ A5 Coupe is a rather handsome automobile, and the Sportback gives up nothing to its older sibling. It’s also markedly more handsome in person than in any photo. Audi have done a good job of masking the two extra doors – looking it at certain front-side angles, you’d be hard pressed to even tell they’re there, and you definitely can’t tell that this is actually a five door.
The sloping roof is surprisingly convincing, and the rest of the exteriordesign’s careful attention to detail – like the sculptured rear sides and the twin profile lines flowing over the car – is particularly impressive. The front end is carried over unchanged from the A5 Coupe, and that’s a good thing, even if you don’t find the standard Audi grille an exciting design experiment.
In contrast with the exterior design, the interior is much less exciting. In brand-typical fashion, the inside of this Audi is a well engineered, good quality effort. It’s not the prettiest in the business, but the materials, build quality and general ease of use compensate for the lack of aesthetic adventurousness.
Size-wise, things are distinctively A4 in the back, with headroom that’s surprisingly almost identical to the traditional sedan. Legroom gets a little drop – and that’s not saying much in favor of the Sportback, since the A4 isn’t exactly the roomiest sedan to begin with. Still, two adults average sized adults who haven’t called shotgun on time will find sufficient space in the second row.
Emphasize ‘two’, because there are two only seats. The Sportback is actually wider than the A4, so the omission of the third seat is purely a marketing-driven “coupe” signifier. Good news comes in the form of the trunk (literally), which is 17 cubic feet in size – exactly the same as in the A4 sedan, but with the ease of use of a hatchback.
It’s unusual for automakers to hand out base engine cars for reviews, and yet, there it is: a metallic blue A5 Sportback with a 2.0 turbocharged inline four (TFSI) producing just under a 180 horsepower, front wheel drive (gasp!) and a proper six speed manual box (double gasp!).
Let’s start with the basics: 8.3 seconds to 60 (if you can shift like superman) and a top speed of 138 mph (if you’re brave enough to veer into the left lane of an Autobahn). Not exactly numbers to set the enthusiast’s heart racing, but this is a turbocharged engine – so numbers don’t count. Come 2,000 rpm, the horses come-a-prancing to this Audi’s front wheels and the result is impressive midrange grunt. Performance is only let down by mild torque steer if you’re really, er, pushing things.
The 2.0 liter lump is a rev-happy engine that doesn’t feel anything like economy. With a heavy right foot, this free-spinner makes relentless progress all the way up the rev range, until 6,500 and beyond. The results are better than you’d expect from a four pot midsize, and definitely a more entertaining experience than the 8 second 0-60 time would lead you to believe.
But the rev-over-grunt tuning isn’t just another coupe affectation. “Base” now means “green”, so Audi have equipped all manual transmission A5s with a start-stop system and a shift indicator. Stop and put the gearlever into neutral, and the engine automatically shuts down. Press the clutch pedal, and it’s alive again. This sounds good on paper, but it hasn’t quite been executed perfectly. Unlike in, say, a Toyota Prius, you can feel the engine vibrating into life, and the electronics get confused during short stops.
The gearshift indicator constantly urges you to shift upwards. Follow it and you’ll find yourself cruising on less than 1,500 rpm, which is still nighttime in turbocharger country. In-gear acceleration requires great patience as the car gathers pace towards the 2,000 rpm mark and beyond.
There is a healthy payoff to these two not exactly silent passengers: fuel economy. Even while not religiously following the gearshift fairy, I had no problems getting readouts of 33 mpg on a variety of roads and close to that on mildly spirited drives.
Judging a car’s ride on smooth Bavarian tarmac is about as objective as judging a pacifist in a pillbox, but strangely this Audi demonstrated an unsettling, harsh ride. Pretty surprising, considering the GT-riding nature of the Coupe. The blame is on the S-line package and the added benefits of a sporty suspension and 245/40R18 tires. This is one option you should definitely skip, because an unsettling ride on German roads is intolerable on others.
Other than the ride, the A5 is a great cruiser on a smooth autobahn. Wind noises aren’t apparent until speeds north of 90 mph. And even then, you really feel like you’re doing about half that speed. The engine is also well silenced while cruising at high speeds, but the raspy engine note does penetrate the cabin when you’re clearly into acceleration.
I now realize I haven’t said a word about handling. That’s because there isn’t much to write home about. Even without Quattro, you could still describe the A5 Sportback with adjectives such as ‘planted’, ‘safe’ and ‘predictable’ – it can certainly take turns at high speeds, but without much vigor. Technically, most everything is sound – there’s minimal body roll and chassis responses are good. But somehow, it just doesn’t work out into a sports-sedan. The nicely weighted steering stiffens suddenly and artificially on turn in, making it hard to judge exactly where the wheels are. The dreadfully long clutch and gearbox don’t exactly make shifts a joy, either. The two exiled driving wheels are missed when you lose your manners. This is when the Quattro-less Audi will gently understeer you back into reality, reminding you of your rightful place in the Bavarian food chain.
The Sportback is not a perfect car, and definitely not the greatest Audi of the past few years. It’s not the most exciting car to drive (though the same is true for the A5 Coupe… and several other Audis), neither does it remarkably cosset its driver or passengers. Its stronger points are a quality feel, excellent powertrain and a healthy dose of style. The positive and negative bits blend into a likeable car, but it just doesn’t offer many technical advantages over its sedate sibling. Unless style is your definition of premium. In which case, you’ll have no problem calling the Sportback a coupe.
Audi provided the vehicle, insurance and gas for this review.
This review brought to you by icar.co.il