In one of Nick Hall's articles on the Murcielago, he had written that if you were driving the Lambo in Italy, even men would sleep with you. Well, I was certainly driving around in Italy, not in a Lambo (phew!), but in a brand new Audi... but heads were still turning. No, they were not hungry, desperate, jaw-drop expressions reserved for stunning supercars, but more of open curiosity. Well, what do you expect. This is an Audi certainly, but it looks quite different from any of the other cars that wear the four-ring logo. And with those bluish LED daytime running lights giving it an R8-kind of menacing look, it drew attention in this beauty-filled land.
In fact, Walter de Silva, the design chief of the Volkswagen Group who was mooched from Alfa Romeo, says that the A5 is the most beautiful car he has ever designed. Wow. Strong words from a man who also penned the gorgeous Alfa Romeo 156. No matter what de Silva says, to me the Alfa is much more stylish – you see, making a three-box sedan look dynamic and different from the rest of the competition is much more difficult than penning a sporty, two-door coupe. One of the critical elements that distinguishes a GT coupe is design, and top management usually makes sure that the engineers have to bend over backwards to accommodate the designers in this case.
Still, one must accept that de Silva and his team have created a refreshing new Audi, one that you can look at and say, 'Hey, that's an A5.' At this point, let me be brutally honest and admit that I find it difficult to distinguish between the A6 and A8 – they look like identical twins that even their mother may sometimes find it difficult to distinguish. The A5, on the other hand, bears a classic de Silva touch – no, not that East European beard – but a wavy lightcatcher that runs along the waistline that wouldn't be off-place in a Seat. Oh, and do I sight a Bangle-like 'cow's belly' crease on the lower portion of the car? Hmm...
And there could be one more reason why the Italians were turning their heads looking at the car. I was driving the S5 which wore that Brilliant Red shade that one would rubberneck even if it was daubed on a Maruti 800. Did I say S5? You bet. Audi had lined up A5s with several drivetrain options and colours, and the one that immediately pulled me towards it was the red S5. Before any of my fellow motoring journalists (not just from India, but from Taiwan, Korea and Israel too) could realise what was happening, I was strapped up and exiting the parking lot of the funky, baroque Villa Amista Byblos Art Hotel in the S5. With that legendary Audi V8 powering it, it was not difficult that difficult to vamoose.
Yes, Audi is flogging that 4.2-litre V8 for all its worth across various models, and deservedly too. The 4163cc DOHC V8 with four valves per cylinder and FSI petrol direct injection develops 354 bhp at 7000 rpm and 44.4 kgm of torque at 3500 revs. Enough to propel this grand tourer to 100 kph in 5.1 seconds and to an electronically limited top speed of 250 kph, claims Audi.
Great, but the route that Audi had laid out in and around Verona, didn't exactly allow you to re-check that claim. Heck, the maximum speed allowed on the motorway was only 130 kph, and there was not much of that in the A5 route map. Instead, the roads wound up and down picturesque, hilly roads most of the time. As far as locations go, it was an eyeful: pretty whitewashed houses, plenty of those tall, typically Italian cypress trees, and with occasional glimpses of the biggest lake in Italy, Lake Garda, thrown in for good measure. Ah, but there was a catch, the roads were terribly narrow. So narrow that I would have to reverse several kilometres if there was a huge truck in front of me.
Which meant that every time I wanted to take one of those delicious curves, it had to be done slightly gingerly and I couldn't exactly go flat out. Pity, because the S5 is a machine that's designed precisely for enthusiastic driving. It features quattro and the latest generation ESP, and the suspension setup is also tuned for an overtly sporty ride, almost as harsh as a luxurious GT can be allowed to. The engine is one helluva masterpiece and the acceleration it provides is instantaneous; it collects thousands of revs in what seems like milliseconds and unleashes all the power across the countryside. Just revving the car, enjoying those short, sweet bursts, being pinned to the specially designed sports seats, and of course, listening to the exhaust soundtrack that would make any baritone at La Scala blush with envy made the S5 drive completely memorable. The six-speed manual gearbox – which again goes with the S5's sporty appeal – is precise, the throws are short and is well-geared to extract all those horses from that sublime V8. What is especially commendable is that even at low revs, the S5 is not a handful to drive at all, it burbles along without any discomfort. And then when the road is clear, all you need to do is floor it, and it picks up speed without any hesitation.
In what feels like no time, my first route with the S5 gets over, and what was actually a one-and-half hour loop felt about half of that. Also, because of the narrow roads and a general disinclination to stop driving this machine, I couldn't take any pictures. So what you see in the pictures is what I swapped the S5 for, the A5 3.0 TDI quattro. It is amazing how different an animal a diesel-powered A5 is compared to the sporty S5.
Compared to the V8, the 3.0 TDI is no shrinking violet either. It is a brilliant engine in its own respect – after all, if it can power the monstrous Q7 SUV without much effort, it can't be all that bad in a luxurious coupe, right? The 2967cc 24-valve V6 TDI, featuring a variable turbine geometry turbocharger and of course, common-rail direct injection, produces 236 bhp at 4000 rpm and over 50 kgm of torque between 1500 and 3000 rpm. Compared to the S5, this oil-burning A5 seems to go well the concept of grand touring. For one, it is not designed to be too sporty – the engine develops power in a linear, gradual fashion and is not given to those quick outbursts like in the S5. And the gear shifts from the six-speed manual are more positive and sure-slotting, but are not meant for shifting in anger. The suspension too, is set up to give a more comfortable, pliant ride. It does a better job of keeping the vagaries of the road down where they belong. The net effect is that you can keep going on and on without wanting to stop.
The second route that I chose with the A5 3.0 TDI had a decent share of motorway in it, but it was most of the time exceptionally difficult to maintain the 130 kph speed limit because of that eager diesel motor. But the route also had some fantastic mountain switchbacks. There's something to be said about European machines and their handling prowess. No matter what the kind of car it is, handling is usually the strongest point. Powering through corners, the A5 does not feel too heavy for what is essentially a large GT coupe. It is quite nimble for its size, and even with a heavier engine up front, is pretty eager on the corners. Still, I wouldn't have minded having the S5 on this route instead!
The A5 is comprehensively equipped and features a new generation of Multi Media Interface, which is slightly more intuitive than the previous version. Not that I noticed it because these gizmos confuse the heck out of me (too many classic cars, I think). Besides that, the top-end versions also feature one of those funky Start/Stop buttons that make you feel like James Bond – in this, you don't have to even insert the key into the slot. Oh yes, the key. It's another supremely intelligent device that remembers everything about the car so that while servicing the car, the engineer has all the data with him. Impressive.
So where does the Audi A5 fit in the general scheme of things? To me, it's more for an older gent – the younger ones would prefer the TT anyway, and it is much more sporting. The A5 is a 2+2 with enough room for luggage and is luxuriously appointed, plus it can consume miles with ease – befitting the GT image. A decently speced A5 would be yours for approximately Rs 60 lakh or thereabouts, in case it does come to India. And it does make a style statement – a mild one at that – which ensured I went to sleep at the end of the day ALONE.