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2018 Audi A5 Sportback


Audi won’t quite confirm that the new A5 Sportback is coming to the U.S. market. But trust us, it will. And when it does, it will continue the work begun by the grander A7: redeeming the hatchback in the eyes of Americans. That’s why we got behind the wheel of this sleek variant of the A4 sedan on its German home turf.

The Sportback is 1.6 inches lower in overall height than the A4, but all other dimensions are within a fraction of the regular sedan’s. Mechanically, the cars are identical, which means the Sportback is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder rated at 252 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque—the same as in all A4s other than the Ultra. This engine is more than sufficient—it’s so powerful that it renders the upmarket S5 Sportback a luxury, and we predict it will hurl this hatchback to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds and on to a top speed limited to 130 mph.

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Mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, this long-stroke 2.0-liter is a surprisingly eager and playful companion. It feels like a much larger engine, with virtually no turbo lag, and even the engine note is sufficiently sporty and aggressive. There are six-cylinder engines on the market that sound far less enticing than this boosted four.

The A5 Sportback’s seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox has its own character that differs from that of a conventional, torque-converter automatic. The torque multiplication during launches from a stop is missing, but it is supremely responsive in the 50-to-70-mph range. The gearbox can be manipulated with shift paddles, but drivers soon will notice that it generally does everything right when left to its own devices. Audi keeps improving this transmission; previously, we found the Sport setting to be a bit too extreme, but here it’s easy to live with.

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We’ve praised Audi’s MLB-Evo chassis before. It yields a car that is light, precise, and graceful on the road. The steering is not artificially heavy, and the limits of adhesion are high, with the various electronic helpers discreetly working to keep the handling near neutral. As introduced for the European market, the A5 Sportback does not yet have Audi’s Quattro with Ultra system, which does away with the center differential and decouples the rear driveshaft to improve fuel economy. That system has been deployed on the A4 Allroad, but we think it’ll be a while before it migrates into the A5 Sportback. The current Quattro setup, which is fully engaged at all times and defaults to a 40/60 front/rear torque split, works in perfect harmony with this car.

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The interior is virtually identical to those of the new A4 sedan and A5 coupe, and that’s a good thing. It’s a radical departure from the homely look of the last-gen models, and Audi’s Virtual Cockpit TFT-screen instrument cluster is highly futuristic. The interior also hits the mark in content, ergonomics, and style. What’s obviously different compared with the A4 is the big hatch at the rear, which makes the cargo hold more easily accessible; it also can be expanded from 17 to 46 cubic feet with the rear seats folded.

But the A5 Sportback is really all about looks. While virtually the same as the A4 mechanically, it presents a stylish alternative to the familiar proportions of a sedan. In Europe, the new Sportback has been criticized for looking too much like its predecessor; that’s not a concern in the U.S., where there was no predecessor. And anyway, the design is beautiful. Like the A7 before it, the A5 Sportback should continue the redemption of the hatchback in the United States. When it does, pricing should be virtually identical to the A5 coupe’s, starting at around $44,000.

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It’s not as if we didn’t know what to expect of the 2018 Audi A5. Underneath, it’s the same as the 2017 Audi A4 we recently tested, which we summed up in this way: “It doesn’t make much noise about it, but the A4 possesses a quiet competence that is as wonderful as it is easily misunderstood.”

The same could be said of its two-door brother, with the caveat that it has a more polarizing exterior design even as it strives to look sportier. As we noted in our review of its hotter sibling coupe, the S5, the A5 takes the outgoing car’s shape—one that was among the aesthetic highlights of early 21st-century automotive design—and amps up the contours until our visual VU meters flirt with the red zone.

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Audi’s second-generation MLB platform underpins the A5, so when it gets here next year as a 2018 model in U.S. trim, it will share the A4’s 252-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and that’s no bad thing. (European models also offer a complement of diesel powerplants and a lower-power version of the 2.0-liter gasoline four-banger.) If you’ve spent time in most any recent Volkswagen product, the character of the engine will seem familiar. But mat the throttle, and when the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission grabs a gear and the engine finds the fat part of its powerband, there’s a legitimate pants-kicking punt that goes beyond what the previous 220-horse engine could provide. And, oddly, the new A5 still offers that dual-clutch gearbox, while the supposedly sportier S5 now relies on a conventional eight-speed automatic.

Audi’s new coupe demonstrates a willingness to go around corners, and quickly to boot, but it never quite feels like it wants to play in them. When the curves open up, long sweepers beckon deep prods of the loud pedal, even if the result isn’t exactly a boisterous symphony. Unlike the exterior, the A5’s on-road behavior is subtle, and if the steering feels light and a tad numb, the chassis still telegraphs what’s happening down at the wheels with legitimate accuracy. When it comes time to scrub speed, the brakes offer linear and just-firm-enough modulation, giving the driver fine degrees of control as they go about their business of converting momentum into heat.

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Inside, the A5 follows the TT, the Q7, and the A4 into the maxi-electronic-dash era, providing myriad ways to display pertinent visual information, including in the TFT screen in the instrument panel, directly ahead of the driver. While some of us love this, others would be just as content with Audi’s fine head-up display and the nav screen off to the right. The interior itself, largely shared with the A4, suggests that Audi may cede its long-standing lead in materials quality to an ascendant Mercedes-Benz. Comfort, however, is excellent in both front seats, and outward visibility has not been sacrificed on the altar of style.

Style, however, does mean giving up rear-seat headroom and accessibility; figure the back seats are for occasional use only. The rear seatback folds to expand the 16-cubic-foot cargo area, which allows for plenty of luggage with room to spare for purchases made on an extended road trip, so this is a useful coupe. Those who share our initial reaction of being underwhelmed by the design effort will find that the chassis’ numerous strengths are not tarnished in the least by the addition of two doors—and that a buyer is likely to save a little money by opting for the A4. Just how much, we can’t say, since U.S. pricing has yet to be announced, but we expect the A5 to start somewhere around $44,000 when it arrives next spring.

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