First Drive: 2012 Audi S5 Premium

OK, just in case you missed the news (and despite earlier media reports that it would), Audi did not drop the 4.2-litre V8 from the 2012 S5 Coupe in favour of the 333-horsepower supercharged 3.0-litre V6. That is not going to happen until the refreshed 2013 model comes out.

In a hurry to pick up the car, I had failed to see the discreet V8 emblem on its flanks and was expecting to hear the supercharged six fire up. The second I hit the push-button start, however, the distinctive bark from the dual exhausts instantly alerted me to the news. And, not to dismiss the blown V6 — I had sampled its goodness in the S5 Cabriolet earlier this year — the rich sound and immediate thrust courtesy of the V8’s 354 horses is what defines the Coupe’s reputation as a pre-eminent sport coupe.

Naturally, there are downsides, the foremost of which is the fuel economy penalty — Audi’s engineers have indicated a 20% improvement in fuel consumption will be realized with the supercharged V6. As it was, the 13.6 litres per 100 kilometres of premium unleaded I averaged during my week with the tester was a fiscal reminder that one pays for one’s performance pleasure.

In everyday usage, the S5 displays formidable grip. Naturally, much of this comes down to the quattro all-wheel-drive system and its self-locking centre differential. Under typical driving conditions, it distributes a majority of the engine’s power to the rear for a sportier feel — 40% to the front axle and 60% to the back. In the event the wheels at one end start to slip, the differential transfers a majority of the power to the other axle.

However, grip and handling performance were ramped up in the S5 tester with the addition of the $4,000 Audi Drive Select with quattro sport differential. The sport differential varies the power between the rear wheels as needed and depending on the driving conditions. Ultimately, it improves traction and helps prevent understeer when cornering at higher speeds.

Meanwhile, Audi Drive Select offers up to 27 distinct driving configurations, which provide a balance between performance and comfort driving. It manages the adaptive suspension, steering feel, transmission shift points and throttle response to the driver’s choice of Automatic, Dynamic, Comfort or Individual settings. Automatic is the default mode and it seems to offer the best balance between comfort and performance. Pushing the dash-mounted button for Dynamic noticeably sharpens the S5’s demeanour — you can actually feel the car tense, like a tiger ready to spring. It’s a little extreme for rush-hour traffic, although the throttle blip on downshifts is music to the ears.

Should you decide to unleash the beast, it will pin you back in your seat as the tires claw the pavement and launch the S5 forward with maximum thrust. One hundred kilometres an hour comes up in a titch more than five seconds, Audi claiming identical times for both the six-speed manual and the six-speed Tiptronic manumatic versions (the tester was equipped with the latter).

My only beef with the Tiptronic is that manual use of the console-mounted gear lever — as opposed to the paddle shifters — requires pushing the selector forward to upshift, pulling it back to downshift. Others may disagree, but, having driven stick shifts for more years than I care to admit, that’s counterintuitive to my thinking. There’s no such problem using the paddles, though — the left one downshifts while the right upshifts. And, with the Dynamic mode punched, those shifts are crisp and clean, settling the coupe into a performance rhythm that is a delight to explore.

Said exploration doesn’t come at the expense of an overly harsh ride, either — even in the aforementioned Dynamic setting. Yes, the S5 is a German sport coupe, so the term “European firm” should be expected. But, even when shod with low-profile winter rubber, the car doesn’t beat up its occupants. As for braking, with 320-millimetre ventilated discs up front and 300-mm solid discs at the rear, the S5’s stopping power is massive.

The S5 has a handsome, muscular look to it, one that is maturing rather than ageing. The same applies to the cabin, which retains Audi’s leadership role for interior design among the higher-end car companies. The dash layout is clean and logical with bright, clear instrument gauges, well-marked controls, all the modern conveniences a $67,200 sport coupe should command and plenty of room in comfortable, well-bolstered heated seats for the front occupants. Considering the S5’s overall size and rakish roof design, any rear-seat passengers should be of shorter stature.

It’s inevitable some motor head will bring up the fact that both of the S5’s primary competition, namely the new Mercedes C 63 AMG Coupe and the estimable BMW M3 Coupe, offer up considerably more horsepower (451 and 414, respectively). And, if I was doing a track test of all three, the Audi might not look so hot. Out in the real world, however, the S5 displays what I consider to be smart power — more than enough to give it a definite performance edge over the milder A5 (and more than enough to get you into trouble with the local constabulary if you choose to be imprudent) yet not enough to overwhelm the car. Plus, its quattro drive is a decided bonus during the winter months.

As it stands, the S5 is a very satisfying, top-shelf sport coupe, plain and simple.

Photograph by: Brian Harper, National Post