First Drive: 2018 Audi A5 and S5 Cabriolet

Jerez, Spain – Almost all cars can be categorized as good these days, and there’s more than a healthy handful of great ones around, too. I find that I tend to like many of them, some quite a lot.

These are the breath-of-life experiences that driving enthusiasts long for.

But the truly exceptional cars are the dream-makers, the ones that inspire you and deliver those ethereal moments that stop time and remain frozen in your mind forever.

I had such a moment in the new Audi A5 Cabriolet.

It was in the south of Spain, not far outside Jerez. I pointed the A5 over a nondescript-looking crest, and on the other side was the most spectacular panoramic view of a sun-kissed azure lake cradled amongst the most verdant hills lined with cactus and palm trees. My fingers clutched the supple leather steering wheel as I descended into nature’s beauty, the smooth and razor-sharp steering making it effortless to carve gracefully through every switchback, the entire car biting with tenacious precision at every curve.

These are the breath-of-life experiences that driving enthusiasts long for.

Granted, some of that joy may have come from having the top down and soaking up the Andalusian sun, which burned my Canadian winter-sheltered forehead and nose in less than 20 minutes. (It was awesome.)

But truly, most of what made it special came from the A5. I’ve driven cars many times more expensive that I didn’t enjoy half as much. Audi has done a lot of massaging on the latest generation, and the result is that their latest drop-top grand tourer is edging toward perfection.

A PAIR OF POWERTRAINS

Worldwide there will be a total of four engines available for the A5 and S5 combinations, but two of them are diesels – nothing further need be said about that – so in Canada we’ll get only the other two.

In the A5 Cabriolet is Audi’s 2.0-litre, four-cylinder TFSI making 252 horsepower and 273 lb-ft. of torque, mated with a seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch transmission and standard quattro all-wheel drive. This setup is brilliantly balanced for relaxed and occasionally spirited cruising.

In the S5 Cabriolet is a new 3.0-litre V6 TFSI that’s delightfully burbly in the dynamic drive mode and spits out 354 horsepower and 369 lb-ft. of torque. This may not seem like a rave-worthy number, but it gets better with a bit of math: both power figures are up over the previous generation (by 21 and 44 respectively), and both models have dropped 40 kilograms in weight, which in the S5 adds up to 2,365 kg. Put it all together and the new S5 Cabrio will haul from 0 to 100 km/h in 5.1 seconds, 0.4 faster than the last.

The S5’s only transmission option is the eight-speed Tiptronic. This seems like an unusual choice since to my reckoning the seven-speed dual-clutch seems the more on-point and performance-oriented of the two with lightning quick and razor-sharp shifts, but I suppose the eight-speed delivers the low-end gearing to get the acceleration figure the engineers were seeking. No matter – both transmissions are great.

Both models come equipped in Canada with standard quattro all-wheel drive.

A DROP-TOP FOR SPIRITED DRIVING

But where the A5 and S5 Cabriolets especially stand out is in drive feel and handling. Steering is smooth, precise, and graceful, and torsional rigidity in the body has been increased by 40 percent. If you spring for the sport differential the car will aid in cornering by sending power to the outside wheels, and there’s an optional adaptive damping suspension as well. There was a time not so long ago when buying a drop-top meant making compromises in handling. This car is proof that such sacrifice is no longer necessary.

The drop-top itself is exceptional as well. Thanks to a new insulation system, when the top is up the cabin is quieter than many closed-roof cars on the market. When you want to put it down, it will lower in 15 seconds (and it takes 18 seconds to go back up). That figure is unchanged from the previous generation and is probably best considered average, but what’s different now is that it takes only a single touch of the button to do the job when the car is moving at between 6 and 50 km/h, the latter being the top speed at which the roof can be manipulated. (Oddly, when the car is fully stopped it’s still necessary to hold the button down. But the driver gets their right hand back while the car is in motion, which is the more important improvement.)

Another benefit of the updated roof is that trunk space in the new models is up substantially. While the previous car had 289 litres of cargo space, the new one has 320 litres with the roof down and 380 litres with it up. My colleague and I enjoyed top-down driving while carrying two roller bags, two backpacks, and two (then-superfluous) bulky winter coats, leaving only our handbags to end up tucked into the back seat.

On that last point: though the new generation has grown in length by five cm overall and adds 18 mm in rear knee room, it’s probably best not to count on using the second row terribly often. Unless the front-seat passengers are short-limbed like I am, getting four adults in one of these comfortably will still be a challenge.

SHEER ELEGANCE IN STYLING

One of the greatest joys of these cars is the elegant simplicity of their styling. On the outside this car was already classic, and the wise design team at Audi, knowing a good thing when they have it, only nipped and tucked it very slightly toward some subtle improvements. The sweeping shoulder line has been emphasized somewhat, and the wheel flares are more emphatic to give the cars a wider stance. That’s about all that was needed, really.

Inside, the same principles continue with leather seats and steering wheel – Nappa leather is standard in the S5 – surrounded by purposeful layers of metal and Alcantara. What stands out most about the interior, though, is the excellent visibility. I have a tall torso, so it’s not at all unusual for my eye line to hit the headliner in convertibles. Not only can I see perfectly out of the windshield, but the A-pillar also doesn’t get in the way, even in deep curves. Rearward visibility with the top up could maybe be better, but it’s certainly comparable to the competition.

TOP-NOTCH TECHNOLOGY

It has been a couple of years since I last drove an Audi, so much of the technology I encountered in the new A5 and S5 Cabrio was new to me, despite already being integrated in some of Audi’s other recently updated models like the A4 and S4 sedans. The multi-configuration digital gauge cluster is an especially nice addition, allowing the driver to customize what to display and where to position it to put important things like maps front and centre and avoid issues with the steering wheel blocking key data.

The MMI infotainment system interface is easy to learn quickly and to use without looking down. Some of the features are harder to find than others, but the navigation system gives very clear and precise directions and is ever so polite, and getting to the important stuff like music is logical enough. For those who prefer to stay fully connected, there’s Android Auto or Apple CarPlay compatibility as well.

There are hints here of the technologies that may eventually drive autonomous vehicles one day as well. Each car comes with a pre-installed SIM card that sends vehicle information to the Audi data cloud. This allows Audis to warn each other of hazards along their route such as incidents that are then communicated to the drivers via an on-board notification.

One interesting addition is a row of nub microphones integrated into the seatbelt of both the driver and front passenger, which Audi says is intended to help the car better pick up voice commands and provide better audio on phone calls.

Currently available on autoTRADER.ca

FEATURES FOR CANADIANS

The insulation on the roof is probably good enough that you could make this a year-rounder if you really wanted to – but in reality, most people won’t. That said, there are a few things thrown in here that will extend the top-down driving season deeper into the Canadian spring and fall. Heated front seats, steering wheel, and side mirrors are standard on all A5 and S5 Cabrio models. Consider whether it’s worth your while to spend at least an extra $2,000 to add on a package that includes the neck-level heater. Like the heated seats, this is now set up with a push-button activation on the centre stack that has three stages of intensity.

AVAILABLE THIS SUMMER

The 2018 Audi A5 Cabriolet starts at $62,500 for the Progressiv trim and $66,300 for Technik, and the S5 Cabriolet starts at $72,500 for Progressiv and $76,600 for Technik. Highlights of the Technik trim include a more robust suite of safety and convenience technologies such as side assist, rear cross-traffic alert, and a top-view camera, as well as a Bang & Olufsen sound system.

Both models will begin arriving in Canadian dealerships this summer.

 

 

The new dream-makers. 3/3/2017 6:31:00 AM