Review: 2011 Audi S5

Alex L. Dykes
by Alex L. Dykes

Everyone hates the BMW M3. If you need proof of that, simply look at the sheer number of times auto manufacturers compare their latest wares to the M3. The green-eyed monster is alive and well for a reason: the M3 is a performance legend whether or not you agree it’s the performance king. The M3 is Elvis, King Arthur, Robin Hood and the Fountain of Youth all rolled into one. The seemingly insurmountable task of dethroning the M3 encourages all manner of attempts from every unlikely angle of the automotive world from the former Volvo V70R to the Nissan 350Z. In Audi’s corner: the S5 coupe.

Audi has had BMW in its sights for some time, but the A5/S5 is the first real shot across the performance coupe bow in a while. Back in 2007 Audi’s R&D department seemed to suffer from the same issue Volvo was up against in 2004: designing a vehicle to battle E46 M3 instead of the soon-to-be-announced E92 M3. When you look at the S5 in this light, it makes sense that Audi didn’t deliberately take a 354HP V8 to a 400+ horsepower fight. In attempt to perhaps make up for the power shortcomings, Audi revised the S5 gently in 2010 bringing a revised telematics system (the third generation MMI), redesigned lamps and a new trick active sport differential to the party. At just about the same time, BMW announced more appropriate S5 competition in the form of the 335is. Coincidence? You decide.

Stylistically, the Audi S5 is the farm girl with perfect skin compared to the airbrushed fashion models from BMW and Mercedes. The flowing lines are undoubtedly sexy however slightly plain in comparison to the crazy bulges, flares and creases worn by the competition. For 2010 the only changes to the exterior are new LED tail lamps bringing the S5 up to date with the rest of the Audi lineup.

Inside, Audi’s recent goth trend continues unabated. Henry Ford would be proud of Audi’s interior design color palatte; buyers can have whatever color dashboard, center console, doors and carpets they desire, as long as it’s black. The monochromatic theme was slightly broken up in our tester by the creamy “Silk Napa Leather” covering everything that wasn’t plastic. Although you can opt for beige, brown or red leather, the majority of the interior will always be black. While I do appreciate a dark interior, the all-black style and high beltline may turn off some buyers. Still, interior components are all first rate in terms of feel and the available birch wood trim adds much needed warmth to the interior. Compared to the M3 and 335is, Audi’s interior parts are all of similar quality, but BMW’s more liberal use of color and optional trim allow buyers to break up the vast expanses of soft-touch plastics in a way only the more expensive Audis allow.

Audi shoppers I spoke with were confused by the S5 coupe and s5 cabriolet, so allow me to explain. Despite the fact that the S5 coupe and S5 cabrio are basically the same car, the drivetrain is totally different. The S5 coupe is motivated by ye olde 354HP 4.2L V8 that has been Audi’s V8 of choice for some time coupled to a choice of 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission, whereas the S5 sans-top benefits from Audi’s latest 3.0L supercharged V6 engine and a 7-speed DSG.

Despite the slight horsepower reduction vs the 4.2L V8 (333HP & 325lb-ft vs 354HP & 325lb-ft) the only major downside to the 3.0T is the distinct reduction in aural satisfaction caused by the missing cylinders. The upside to the new engine and transmission can readily be seen in the 0-60 times (5.1 as tested for the coupe vs 5.2 according to Audi for the cabrio) and in the significantly better mileage; 17/26 vs 14/22 for the V8. On the surface it sounds like the V8 is the better engine for the job, but the topless S5 weighs as much as a BMW 740i tipping the scales at 4310lbs almost 400lbs heavier than the coupe. While the aural purists may welcome the continuation of the V8 in the S5, I’d take the supercharged six any day.

When it comes time to hit the gas pump the 4.2L V8 proves to be a thirsty companion, I averaged a lowly 18.1 MPG over 800 miles (80% highway) with my first tank coming in at 14.6MPG. Compared to the 23.6 MPG average I recorded in the BMW 335is tester I had back in 2010, or the claimed 26MPG highway average of the S5 cabrio. Buyers should consider their gas budget before purchasing. Does that make the S5 coupe’s V8 a liability? Yes and no. If V8 sound is what you desire in a car, then look no further; the 4.2L V8’s swan song is one of the best.

Pricing and Quattro have long been Audi’s two major selling points, so how does the S5 coupe stack up? Well, $53,650 is your rock-bottom starting price (ouch). This will get the bare-bones buyer an S5 nicely featured with Quattro AWD, xenon headlamps, rain sense wipers, Audi’s Multi Media Interface (MMI) without navigation, automatic climate control and Bluetooth. Stepping up to the Prestige model for $59,550 adds keyless entry and ignition, Bang & Olufson audio system, navigation and the third-generation MMI navigation system. Our “Prestige” tester rang in at a whopping $64,375with a 6-speed manual and the $3,950 Audi Drive Select system. A comparably equipped M3 (keeping in mind the M3 is of course RWD only) rings in around 10K more before dealer markup and the335is is more or less similarly priced when you adjust for option package content. It should be noted that the Infiniti G37x AWD rings in a veritable bargain at $49,575 (comparably equipped) but its AWD system just isn’t as nimble as Audi’s Quattro.

Speaking of that third-generation MMI, while I appreciate the ability to manipulate all the various features while in motion, (mostly because I value my right to fiddle with buttons more than my own life) I do put some value in a vague attempt to make a system inherently safer regardless of your decision to fiddle. Despite revising the MMI controller to include a mini-joystick disc on top of the MMI controller, they have done nothing to address the ergonomic flaw in the button and knob layout. While you can change the volume on the steering wheel and voice command is available for some functions, I found myself spending a great deal of time looking down at the array of buttons surrounding the MMI dial and hunting for the volume knob. Still, the system’s menus are fairly intuitive and as easy to learn as much of the competition but I found the addition of the joy-stick like disk on top of the MMI knob more of a hindrance than a feature. iPod and USB device integration is very good allowing control from the MMI screen or the color screen between the tach and speedo, but it would be nice if the voice command system extended to at least minimal iPod control, after all a $14,000 Fiesta can do it.

Options and gadgets aside, it’s the drive that the S5 is all about. Audi’s clutch and shifter action is close to my definition of perfect: short shifts and a slightly firm clutch. While straight line performance and handling are not up to M3 standards, the V8 has excellent low-end grunt (something missing from the G37X, 335is and even the S5 cabrio) and epic, pucker-free grip. On my second day with the S5 the heavens opened and my rain gauge recorded 8 inches in 50 hours, this is where the Quattro system in the S5 went from fun to amazing.

There is of course a reason I’m partial to AWD; no matter how many clinics I attend I’m still a moron with RWD in an oh-shit-I-made-my-ass–spin-out-of-control kind of setting. AWD? It’s a cinch. Does that make the S5 a car that you can easily overdrive? Maybe, but that’s between you and your insurance carrier. Of course not all is rosy in Quattro-land, aside from binding in certain tight parking lot maneuvers, the AWD system makes the steering feel heavy and isolated at times. Personally, I think the increased traction is a worthwhile tradeoff but purists are bound to disagree.

A quick web search indicates that many reviews deride the S5 as a nose-heavy porker. While the S5 is undoubtedly nose heavy compared to the balanced 335is, Audi has given this little piggy a new active rear differential. Several reviews imply the general public would not benefit from this new trick torque shifter, but as often happens on TTAC: I beg to differ with the “mainstream press”. A quick trip to the local Audi dealer to wring an S5 with the active diff (our tester was not so equipped) for a quick flog on slippery mountain roads yielded surprising results.

While I would not say it turns the S5 into a tail-happy M3, it certainly does make the S5 a great deal less understeer-prone leading to a surprisingly well balanced personality in slides. This feat is accomplished with a computer controlled hydraulic rear diff that can torque vector, sending power to the outside rear wheel in a turn whenever it pleases. The S5 won’t ever feel like a 3 series, but when you stab the gas it does allow enough tail wagging fun to satisfy most drivers while maintaining epic grip and something of a safety factor. It’s this ratio of grip-to-effort that makes the S5 so rewarding behind the wheel. The M3 may have superior power, but for those of us that aren’t professional drivers, 400+HP and RWD can leave you with this sneaking suspicion that your car is trying to kill you.

At the end of the day the S5 remains something of an expensive niche vehicle. Even if it had an extra 100 horses under the hood, the S5 will really never be M3 competition, it’s just too heavy. If you want balls-out, power sliding performance and the thrill of RWD: the M3 reigns supreme. But if you are interested in something that maintains its driving personality rain or shine, the S5 trumps BMW’s 335is any rainy day. The only fly in the S5’s ointment? The V8. The problem is deeper than just weight and power; with new CAFE numbers looming it’s clear that the cabrio’s supercharged V6 is the right dance partner for the S5 coupe, so if you want a V8 Coupe with AWD to tackle the next snowpocalypse: get one while supplies last, the rest of us will wait for the S5 3.0T coupe.

Audi provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for the review.

Performance statistics as tested:

0-30: 2.0 seconds

0-60: 5.2 seconds

Average economy: 18.1MPG overall

Facebook followers. Neal S: If AWD is what you seek, then yes $15K more than a mustang 5.0 is worth it. If you just want fast, get the ‘stang. Kevin F: Yes you can, the price for refinement is at least $15K.Daniel L: Understeer is really not that bad, yes it is there if you REALLY push it, but 99% of drivers will never notice. S curves are fine until the limit, at the limit the active diff helps calm the beast.

Alex L. Dykes
Alex L. Dykes

More by Alex L. Dykes

Join the conversation
2 of 54 comments
  • DiveJumpShootUSMC DiveJumpShootUSMC on Aug 14, 2017

    I know this article is several yrs old but I am looking for a new commuter car and the S5 of this and the current series is one that appeals to me. Anyone have any experience or knowledge of these and long term maintenance etc. I just got rid of my BMW 550 that I firmly believe was sent to this planet to nickel and dime me the moment I ran past the warranty. I have had BMWs many in a row now and I am looking at a possible switch any scoop is appreciated!. My current daily drive is an old rigid frame HD that gets a bit gnarly in winter months in SF Bay area. So please be gentle :)

  • Nookieman Nookieman on Dec 30, 2017

    I have a 2011 S5 v8 coupe, six speed manual coupe. Best car I’ve ever owned.

  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
  • CAMeyer Considering how many voters will be voting for Trump because they remember that gas prices were low in 2020–never mind the pandemic—this seems like a wise move.
  • The Oracle Been out on the boat on Lake James (NC) and cooking up some hella good food here with friends at the lake place.
  • ToolGuy Also on to-do list: Read the latest Steve S. fiction work on TTAC (May 20 Junkyard Find)
  • 1995 SC I'm likely in the minority, but I really liked the last Eldorado best. That and the STS.