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2018 Audi A5 Sportback Test Drive Review
With the debut of the 2018 A5 Sportback, Audi continues to slice and dice the luxury market into razor-thin segments ripe with potential opportunity.
In the $40,000 range, Audi meets your cargo-hauling needs in three different ways. There is the Audi Q5, which is an SUV. There is the Audi A4 Allroad, a station wagon wearing an SUV costume. And there is the new 2018 Audi A5 Sportback, a 5-door hatch blending style, performance, and utility in equal measure.
Look and Feel
Audi knows how to pen an attractive hatchback. Not long after BMW launched the awkward 5 Series Gran Turismo, it responded with the sleek A7. Not only was the A7 the better-looking vehicle, but it also came with a larger trunk.
Now, Audi conceptually shrinks the A7 to create the far more affordable 2018 A5 Sportback, which will compete head-to-head with the undeniably attractive BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe as well as, believe it or not, the new Buick Regal GS and Kia Stinger.
A member of the redesigned A5 family, which also includes a 2-door coupe and a 2-door convertible, the 5-door Sportback is priced from $43,575, making it the most affordable A5 you can buy. It is offered in A5 and S5 model series, and in Premium, Premium Plus, and Prestige trim levels. Rumor has it that an RS 5 version will join the lineup later in the year.
Underneath its rakishly handsome bodywork, the A5 is a fraternal twin of the popular A4 sedan and Allroad wagon. If you’ve read my review of the redesigned 2017 Audi A4 2.0T, you know I absolutely love almost everything about the car. That adoration applies to A5 Sportback, too. It looks special on the outside, and when you get inside it, you feel special, like someone thoughtful has anticipated your every need and knows exactly what you like.
That’s true even though my test car was not the top-of-the-line Prestige trim level or the performance-tuned S5 version. Equipped with mid-grade Premium Plus trim, my A5 Sportback featured a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, metallic paint, wood interior decor, 19-inch wheels, a Navigation Package, and a Bang & Olufsen sound system. The window sticker came to $52,100, and all my A5 lacked to achieve perfection was the Warm Weather Package, which equips the car with ventilated, sport-bolstered front seats in exchange for $1,300.
Compared to the A4 on which it is based, the A5 Sportback displays more than just a fast roofline. It gets a more aggressive front end, clearly defined shoulder character lines that swell seductively over the wheel arches, and decorative fender vents that bleed into the front doors. My test car’s machined-face 19-inch Design Line wheels artfully mirrored the horizontal grille bars and accent trim on the fascias, deftly tying together the A5’s overall appearance from every viewing angle.
Inside, the A5 Sportback’s basis on the A4 is plainly evident, which in my opinion is a good thing. Wood, leather, metal, and quality materials rule, with real and simulated air vents stretched from door to door, neatly bisecting the dashboard. The end result is an environment that looks and feels richer than the car’s price tag.
There are two versions of the new Sportback from which to choose. The A5 has a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. The S5 has a turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 engine. If maximum acceleration and handling are important to you, get the S5. But that is not to say that the A5 can’t thrill you, because aside from a small delay in off-the-line response, my test car drove like a guided missile.
The turbocharged 2.0-liter generates 252 horsepower between 5,000 and 6,000 rpm and whips up 273 pound-feet of torque between 1,600 and 4,500 rpm. What this means is that across nearly the entire rev range, the engine is making either maximum torque or maximum horsepower. And the result of that is speed. Audi claims that 60 mph arrives in 5.7 seconds—the same time as in the A4 sedan—despite the Sportback’s extra 122 pounds of weight.
Audi’s 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission distributes the power, and every A5 Sportback is equipped with standard Quattro all-wheel drive (AWD). Paddle shifters come in handy when you’re really hustling the car, which is likely to be most of the time.
My test vehicle’s optional 19-inch wheels were wrapped with 255/35R19 summer performance tires and bolted to an optional sport-tuned suspension. Grip was extraordinary, but my test car did not have the optional adaptive damping suspension that is reserved for Prestige trim. That omission, combined with the Sportback’s extra weight, the larger wheels and lower-profile tires, the stiffer sport suspension, and perhaps even its hatchback body style, produced subtle but discernable differences in the ride and handling as compared to the A4 sedan I sampled last year.
For example, more suspension noise than I remember from the A4 made its way into the A5’s cabin, as well as more impact harshness and road noise. I also thought this A5 Sportback displayed more body motion while rounding high-speed curves with undulating pavement. None of these traits, however, represent cause for concern. As I said, any dynamic differences are minor, and the A5 is an unmitigated blast to drive.
By toggling the Drive Mode Select button, drivers can choose between Comfort, Normal, Dynamic, and Individual settings, which adjust powertrain response, steering effort levels, and when so equipped, the adaptive damping suspension's calibration. High summer heat did not faze the A5’s brakes, which easily withstood abuse during energetic mountain driving.
Always fun and never boring, the A5 Sportback exceeds dynamic expectations. Whether you’re loafing along on the freeway, slicing-and-dicing past slower vehicles driven by people who either don’t know or don’t care what the left lane is for, diving around city corners, or blazing down canyon roads, this car is engineered to entertain.
As proof, I’m sorry to report that the car returned no better than 22.5 mpg on my test loop, coming in well below its EPA rating of 27 mpg in combined driving.
Form and Function
Audi offers two types of seats for the A5 Sportback: standard and sport. The sport seats have more substantial bolstering and seat ventilation and in my opinion are a necessary extra-cost upgrade to this car.
Don’t get me wrong: The standard seats are perfectly comfortable. But during the week I spent with the A5 Sportback, high humidity and daytime temperatures nearing 100 degrees underscored exactly how pleasing seat ventilation systems can be, as well as how they’re expected in a luxury vehicle priced upward of $50,000.
Additionally, while flinging this car down some of my favorite mountain roads, the driver’s seat didn’t do a very good job of holding me in place. But when you’re not exploring the A5 Sportback’s limits of adhesion, this seat is quite comfy, the steering wheel is pleasing to hold, and the adjustable center armrest helps to perfect your position.
Once ensconced, you face a gorgeously rendered dashboard that exudes attention to detail. The latest version of Audi’s Multi-Media Interface (MMI) infotainment system is easier than ever to use, and the available Audi Virtual Cockpit instrumentation is sensational.
There are a few quirks to the controls. The shifter takes getting used to, an observation I noted last year about the A4 sedan. Also, it takes some memorization before you can operate the center-console knobs and switches purely by touch. Otherwise, it doesn’t take much effort to use the A5’s instrumentation and switchgear.
Getting into and out of the Sportback’s rear seat is not easy thanks to the rakish roofline, especially if you’re a bigger person like me. Once you’re inside the car, which sits quite low to the ground, you’re happy enough, in part because triple-zone climate control is standard equipment. Although the rear quarters feel more confining than the A4 sedan's, by the numbers the A5 Sportback matches or exceeds the amount of space in the A4 except in terms of headroom.
Of course, the A5 Sportback’s sleek roofline is to blame for that, but it sure is stylish. Another benefit of this design approach is extra cargo space and added utility.
At first, the cargo area doesn’t look all that large. But its useful shape will help you maximize its potential. Audi says it holds 21.8 cubic feet of cargo, and with the rear seat folded down, it provides a maximum of 35 cubic feet of space.
My family and I used the A5 Sportback for an airport run to catch a flight for a week-long vacation. Two full-size suitcases, a roll-aboard, my overstuffed camera and laptop backpack, two kid-size suitcases, and two kid-size backpacks fit with no problem. But you know what doesn’t fit, unless you load it diagonally across the floor of the trunk? A compact folding stroller.
Good thing my youngest child no longer requires one.
As far as technology is concerned, the A5 Sportback is equipped with the usual suspects for a luxury car, and depending on the trim level, they’re either standard or optional. Among them, several features call special attention to themselves.
The first is Audi Virtual Cockpit, which is optional for Premium Plus trim and standard with Prestige trim. A 12.3-inch digital instrumentation screen, this system delivers lush graphics and the ability to tailor its appearance to your liking. You can enjoy a traditional gauge cluster with a smaller center driver information display, or you can shrink the gauges and expand the information shown on the various driver information system screens.
By far, my favorite thing about Audi Virtual Cockpit is the navigation map display, which takes over the entire screen except for the small gauges nestled within each lower corner. It features Google Earth imagery. It shows real-time traffic. It allows you to zoom in close enough to see fuzzy residence detail and far out into space. And it gives the cabin significant wow factor.
A full-color head-up display is exclusive to the Prestige trim level, and it projects your navigation route onto the windshield, and in complex intersections shows you exactly the path you need to follow. It also shows current speed and the speed limit on the road you’re traveling.
Adaptive cruise control is optional for Prestige trim, and it includes stop-and-go capability as well as Traffic Jam Assist. That latter feature is designed to reduce fatigue in heavy traffic, letting the A5 Sportback follow the car ahead, steering and maintaining a safe following distance while the driver oversees the semi-autonomous system.
The latest version of Audi’s MMI Touch infotainment system is available for the A5 Sportback, an upgrade for Premium and Premium Plus trim levels. In addition to simplified controls, it offers a larger 8.3-inch display screen and handwriting recognition technology, which allows the driver to input information using a fingertip on the main MMI controller.
Given how easy it is to use modern natural voice-recognition systems, I’m not sure I understand the point of handwriting-recognition technology. In my experience, you must pay close attention to how you write your letters and numbers on the pad if you intend to obtain accurate results, which means that you cannot safely use it while driving. On the other hand, I suppose having another way to input information aside from voice prompts and by twisting the MMI control knob isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Audi has also expanded its subscription service offerings, adding features that bring Audi Connect up to snuff when compared to other automakers. Three stair-step packages are available, the least expensive providing critical safety-related services such as automatic collision notification and emergency calling, and the most expensive powering the car’s 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot.
Finally, the optional 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system deserves special mention. It sounds terrific, is standard with Prestige trim, and is available on a Premium Plus trim for just $950. I highly recommend it.
Every A5 Sportback is equipped with important safety systems, including forward-collision warning, low-to-moderate-speed automatic emergency braking, technology that prepares the cabin and occupants for an impact, and a braking system that brings the car to stop as soon as is possible following an impact in order to reduce the risk of a secondary collision following airbag deployment.
By upgrading to Premium Plus trim, the A5 Sportback also includes a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert and something called Vehicle Exit Assist. Especially useful for people who need to parallel park on busy streets, Vehicle Exit Assist warns front-seat occupants not to open their door when it detects vehicles or cyclists approaching from the rear of the car.
Prestige trim adds front and rear parking sensors and a top-view camera system, as well as a 6-month trial subscription to mid- and top-tier Audi Connect packages. The mid-tier package, called Audi Connect Prime, adds features such as curfew, speed, and boundary alerts, which can be particularly helpful when teenage drivers are in the household. These are also offered for the Premium Plus trim level as a part of the optional Navigation Package.
Exclusively available for the A5 Sportback Prestige, the Driver Assistance Package equips the car with the aforementioned adaptive cruise control system, lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist technology, automatic high-beam headlights, and a traffic-sign recognition system that shows current speed limits on the head-up display.
In crash testing performed by the federal government, the A5 Sportback earns an overall score of 5 stars, but frontal-impact protection for the driver and front-seat passenger measures no better than 4 stars. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had not evaluated the A5 Sportback as this review was written, but the similar A4 sedan earned a Top Safety Pick rating.
Although the A5 Sportback’s base price measures more than a couple of grand less than this car’s primary competitor, the BMW 430i Gran Coupe xDrive, this represents an apples and oranges comparison because of the way the two companies structure their standard and optional equipment packages.
For example, the Audi comes with standard leather upholstery, while genuine leather is a pricey upgrade for the BMW that also requires the addition of an option package. Once you bring the A5 Sportback up to a leather-lined Gran Coupe’s level of specification, it remains less expensive, but the difference in price is measured in the hundreds of dollars, not thousands.
The real test of value, for both the Audi and the BMW, will come when the Buick Regal GS Sportback and the Kia Stinger go on sale. Each is a 5-door hatchback with rakish good looks, each spent plenty of time at Germany’s Nurburgring road racing course while under development, and each will be priced below $40,000 when it arrives in dealership showrooms.
Of course, there is a price to be paid for choosing the less expensive Buick or Kia, and it is measured in prestige. Whether or not people seeking something unique and different to drive will care enough to pay substantially more for it remains to be seen.
In the meantime, in comparison to other offerings from Audi, the A5 Sportback’s combination of good looks, extra utility, and enjoyable driving dynamics is undeniably appealing. Unless you absolutely require a vehicle that sits higher off the ground for easier entry and exit, or you plan to use the rear seats for carrying adults on a regular basis, you’re unlikely to regret buying one.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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