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Ingolstadt’s dome-roofed hatchback returns to the executive fray, but more dynamic rivals like the BMW 4-series and Mercedes C-Class set a high bar

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In a universe of infinite possibilities, there must be a reality in which Audi ’s 2009 marketing wheeze of retrofitting the Audi A5 coupé with rear doors and a hatchback boot (and charging significantly more for it than the mechanically identical Audi A4) was met with buyer contempt.

Here, though, and despite the aftershock of recession, the frameless doors and more shapely body were a moderate hit, and the car was easily successful enough for Audi to deliver much the same overhaul that has already been visited on the A4 and the A5 coupé.

Audi suggests the four-eyed signature of the optional Matrix LED lights is reminiscent of the Ur-quattro

The look has changed, but not substantially. The Sportback’s core theme is its retention of an eye-pleasing profile, meaning there’s nowhere for that distinctive rear roofline to go but quickly down to meet up with the jaunty back end.

At the front, the Sportback receives much the same single-frame grille revision and wraparound bonnet front as previewed on the coupé and has been exhibited on the cabriolet as well.

Equally important (perhaps more so if you’re underwhelmed by the exterior) is the cabin revamp, which upgrades the fixtures and fittings and swells the interior gently in size.

The latter is thanks to the Sportback adopting the same MLB Evo architecture used for the A4. The engines are carried over, too, although not all of them; to maintain its more exclusive status, the A5 can’t be bought with Audi’s smaller petrol units or even its omnipresent 148bhp 2.0 TDI.

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Instead, the three TDI and one TFSI options are made up of headier choices, even if the trim levels – SE, Sport and S Line – remain.

The focus on a higher tempo urged us to look at the 249bhp 2.0 TFSI, Audi’s idea of a spiritual successor to the bigger six-cylinder petrol engine now only offered with the Audi S5.

The 2.0-litre four-pot comes with quattro as standard (most Sportbacks will be front-wheel drive) and a seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch automatic gearbox, so it ought to be the version best suited to convincing us that Audi’s five-door coupé can deliver performance to complement its style.

Audi A5 design & styling

The MLB-underpinned Sportback enjoys the same advantages already showcased by the current A4, in that it is marginally longer and wider than the car it replaces and significantly lighter.

Without the full range of downsized engines, the A5 can’t quite claim to have shed the same 120kg its saloon sibling managed, but the “as much as” 85kg quoted by Audi helps the model tested to achieve a respectable 1535kg kerb weight.

The weight loss can be attributed not only to the platform’s mix of aluminium and high-strength steel, but also the kind of far-reaching effort that results in the through-load seat frame being made of magnesium and the carpets being ‘weight-optimised’.

Such attention to detail is admirable and of benefit to both efficiency and performance.

The performance-orientated 249bhp 2.0 TFSI doesn’t share the clever Miller cycle timing of the 188bhp version that is currently available in the A5 coupé and A4 estate and saloon here in the UK, but it is nevertheless armed with Audi’s valve lift system and all the other bells and whistles required to deliver 273lb ft from 1600rpm while emitting just 144g/km of CO2.

The 188bhp 2.0 TDI unit trumps that with 295lb ft (equalling the 215bhp 3.0 TDI’s peak twist), and is offered with a six-speed manual gearbox and front-wheel drive, if you go for entry-level spec.

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Most people, though, will opt for the seven-speed S tronic transmission, newly fettled for the job and attachable to any engine save the forthcoming 282bhp 3.0 TDI and the 349bhp 3.0 V6 TFSI in the S5, both of which will use the latest iteration of Audi’s eight-speed Tiptronic torque converter automatic.

Whichever drivetrain you opt for, the Sportback’s suspension is by way of a revised five-link axle at the front and an entirely new one at the rear, where its predecessor had a heavier trapezoidal-link.

Our test car had standard passive sport suspension; adaptive dampers are a £600 option.

Audi’s Drive Select, though, is featured across the range, as is a revised electromechanical steering rack. The 2.0 TFSI tested gets the quattro-branded self-locking centre differential that defaults to a 40 percent front, 60 percent rear torque split, although 70 percent to the front or 85 percent to the rear is possible. An additional sport diff for the back axle is limited to the option list of the S5 and top-spec TDI. 

INTERIOR

Audi A5 interior

Audi says it has made worthwhile improvements to both overall cabin length and width in this second-generation A5 Sportback.

So after you’ve sat in all of its five seats, squeezed in and out through all of its frameless doors and surveyed the added usefulness of its hatchback boot, are you any more likely than you might have been to consider this the ideal fusion of modern coupé and estate bodystyles?

I like that the Audi lets you use your phone’s sat-nav on the central screen while having the fitted sat-nav displayed on the Virtual Cockpit. The phone is fine most of the time; the fitted system is better if you need to divert

That depends. The frameless driver’s door undoubtedly gives the Sportback an inviting initial feel.

Larger drivers may notice that a lower roof and smaller door aperture make entry a little tighter than it would be with an Audi A4, but once you’re in, there’s enough leg, head and shoulder room for almost anyone.

It still can’t be said that second-row occupants get quite the space they ought to have, though, even allowing for a little bit of practicality sacrificed on the altar of style.

The Sportback’s curved roofline makes getting in to the back trickier than it is with an equivalent conventional saloon for anyone of above average height.

You might think ‘so what?’; if you’re likely to carry adults in the back, you can buy an A4. But an A4 also makes life much easier when you’re lifting bulky child seats in and out of the car, lifting kids in and out, or just leaning in to belt up a youngster. Plenty of people at this end of the executive car market have young families.

Look to the boot, however, and you may find what you consider to be worth the trade over a regular four-door.

The Sportback’s load bay offers only 480 litres, which is exactly what an A4 saloon provides, but the roof-hinged hatchback grants such good access that it makes the space seem far bigger than it otherwise might.

It’s certainly a big-enough boot: over a metre of load length is enough to put folded baby buggies in longways, but it’s not quite in the estate league.

The material quality of the cabin is high and the Virtual Cockpit’s sophistication still hugely impressive despite earlier familiarisation with it in the A4, A5 coupé, Audi TT, Audi Q7 SUV and Audi A3 hatchback. But none of that need necessarily sell you this car in particular, of course.

The A5 Sportback gets a slightly more generous level of infotainment kit than the entry-level A4, specifically a bigger trip computer screen and a 10-speaker stereo that costs £275 extra on the latter car.

Move up to mid-level Sport trim and you get SD card-based sat-nav and an Audi Connect trial subscription.

Splash out on a top-spec S line car, however, and you’ll still need to find an extra £1100 for Audi’s Technology Pack to get its widescreen infotainment system, fingertip-input MMI rotary controller, full online connectivity and wireless smartphone charging. You’ll then pay more still if you want Virtual Cockpit (£250) or the Bang & Olufsen premium audio (£750).

Our test car had widescreen MMI Navigation Plus and Virtual Cockpit but not the top-level audio — and its sound system hardly floundered.

The systems aren’t cheap but they are brilliant once you’re familiar with them and know how to put the information you want exactly where you want it. The sat-nav takes free text input and is easy to use.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Audi A5 side profile

This is, for now, the only petrol engine in the A5 Sportback range (ignoring the turbo V6 in the Audi S5), so it has to do a bit of everything.

Private buyers and lower-mileage company users will want distinguishing refinement and driveability from it; keener drivers will expect a bit of verve, rev range and pace.

Throttle-on balance out of sharper bends is a little lacking; there’s always a smidgeon of understeer to contend with

Anyone switching from diesel to petrol in the wake of the emissions scandal will likely expect all of that, plus economy comparable with that which they might have got from a like-for-like diesel without feeling like they’ve made a bad choice.

As unlikely as it may seem, the 2.0 TFSI in the A5 Sportback delivers on almost all of those considerations very well indeed.

This is a swift, slick car to drive and it can hit 60mph from rest quickly enough to put a hot hatchback in its place, but its powertrain also has balance, reserve and multi-faceted strength.

Even in chilly conditions the quattro drivetrain found more traction than it needed during standing-start testing.

It recorded sub-six-second 0-60mph acceleration times in both directions, but it did so smoothly and without ever feeling remotely strained.

Accelerating from 30-70mph through the gears, it was two seconds faster than the A4 2.0 TDI 190 S tronic that we figured, but it matched the diesel’s 30-70mph sprint in fourth gear to the tenth, at 8.3sec.

In a nutshell, that’s diesel-level in-gear performance flexibility with extra high-range power thrown in for good measure. Have your cake and eat it territory, in other words.

The engine revs keenly beyond 5000rpm when you want it to and yet feels refined and well isolated at other times.

Our noise meter confirmed as much, recording the car to be quieter than the A4 diesel at all times except at maximum revs in third. The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, meanwhile, has moments of hesitation but can be manipulated to adopt almost any shift style you like via several drive modes and manual paddle shifters.

Slightly underwhelming cruising economy is the only fly in the ointment: the 2.0 TFSI 252 registered 41.1mpg on our touring test, where wider experience suggests that the almost identically priced 3.0 TDI 218 would have pushed 50mpg.

It became obvious during our testing that the petrol engine’s economy dipped more markedly during hard driving than a diesel’s might have and that you need to use Efficiency mode to get the best cruising range (it’s worth at least 10 percent on the motorway).

Even so, the potential for just over 40mpg from a 249bhp petrol executive four-door is pretty commendable, even in 2017. 

RIDE & HANDLING

Audi A5 cornering

Mid-sized, mid-level executive Audi models don’t seem to be built for driver engagement. And this new A5 Sportback doesn’t change that.

Plenty of more expensive and specialised Audis do it better, of course.

Lowered sports suspension makes for some unsympathetic bangs over the transmission bumps and it can disrupt grip levels

And yet, despite the widened axle tracks, the lowered centre of gravity and the firmed-up suspension settings of the Sportback relative to the standard Audi A4, and despite the lowered passive suspension and 19in alloy wheels of our S line-spec test car to boot, the second-generation A5 Sportback rides, handles, steers and generally seems like a slightly muddled and misguided attempt at dynamism.

The occasionally fidgeting, often short-feeling ride of our test car characterised it most obviously as a pseudo-sports saloon.

That’s in part because the car’s steering, although pacey, precise and variously weighty, lacks dependable feedback – even when Dynamic mode is selected – and fails to give a meaningful sense of connection to the front wheels.

It’s also because the A5’s chassis doesn’t do much to pique your interest, either. It controls the car’s body very well indeed and creates a great deal of grip and steering response, but it isn’t even remotely adjustable or vaguely communicative, although it is determinedly surefooted and inscrutable – as so many Audis of this ilk have been over so many years.

Consistency of control weight, rate of response and stability of handling are everything that it seems to have been configured to provide.

As a result of all that, of course, and ride apart, the A5 Sportback may make a fine executive saloon for those uninterested in the driving experience.

It’s easy to drive, predictable, supremely tolerant of a hurried pace on the road and forgiving when it comes to it. But it’s still not driver’s car – and for something that might have done so much to endear Audi to keener drivers, it has to go down as another opportunity missed.

The A5 Sportback makes short work of Millbrook’s Hill Route, right until you stray beyond about nine-tenths of its maximum pace. At that point, its remoteness and ebbing handling balance can become a problem if you choose to disable the stability controls.

But the speed you can carry up to that point — braking late for every turn, hitting each apex and finding huge traction on corner exit — is considerable.

Even on a cold day, the Audi proved that 19in wheels, low-profile tyres, quattro traction and a torquey, free-revving powertrain can take a relatively humble executive saloon a long way into sports saloon territory on point-to-point pace.

When the grip does give way, it does so quite suddenly. And while understeer will always be the consequence, you can’t feel it coming through the steering or do much to mitigate it once it arrives. Leave the electronics on, of course, and the car protects itself consummately.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Audi A5

The A5 Sportback starts at £32,365 for a manual, front-drive SE with the 188bhp 2.0 TDI Ultra engine.

As it does elsewhere in the Audi line-up, this version, employing different gear ratios, low-resistance tyres and optimised aerodynamics, is intended to wring every last ounce of efficiency from the car, and succeeds in whittling the CO2 and combined economy down to 108g/km and 64.2mpg respectively.

Popularity may work against the A5 here. CAP predicts a steeper decline than either rival from BMW or Mercedes

Fit the S tronic gearbox and you’ll get 106g/km and 68.9mpg – only marginally less than the same mechanical combination achieves in the Audi A4.

Crucially, though, because you can’t have the 188bhp Ultra in SE trim in the saloon, you’ll only pay a £1k premium to have the entry-level (but not poorly equipped) Sportback. The BMW 4 Series Gran Coupé is virtually the same money and offers much the same efficiency.

Similarly, the 2.0 TFSI tested is comparable to the four-door 430i, with the Audi’s 47.9mpg playing the BMW’s 48.7mpg – albeit with the Gran Coupé only powering its rear axle.

With True MPG testing unavailable, we recorded 30.6mpg as an average and 41.1mpg on a touring run. Buy the middle-of-the-road Sport trim for £39,575 and you’ll even avoid the new £40k VED supplementary rate due on 1 April. 

 

VERDICT

3.5 star Audi A5

The A5 Sportback was never going to lack technological sophistication or premium refinement, or feel anything less than supremely well engineered.

And yet, while Ingolstadt seems to set itself ever-higher standards and lead us to expect ever-greater technical brilliance from every new product, this particular Audi has still taken us by surprise.

Mid-sized sleek exec is still short of a selling point beyond its style

The multi-talented turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine makes it perfectly positioned to take advantage of the mood to ditch diesel that’s becoming so prevalent.

It also makes this A5 genuinely evocative of the silken executive options that forged Germany’s reputation for superior car making some 40 years ago.

But for this car, for our money, that’s still not quite cutting the mustard.

Appealing style undoubtedly played a bigger part in the overall appeal of the last A5 Sportback than either perfected executive-car usability or genuine driver engagement.

We were hoping for a better-executed vision of a new-age executive car and for more reasons to consider this the definitive mid-sized Audi.

But it seems the stylish A5 still has some maturing to do, which is why the A5 has the edge over the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, but lags behind the Jaguar XE, BMW 4 Series Gran Coupé and Alfa Romeo Giulia.

Audi A5 First drives