As an alternative to the smugness of Mercedes and the self-satisfaction of BMW, Audi always did very well. It was a minority player and very much the alternative smart German car.
But now its sales are accelerating as if on overboost and it's no longer any kind of alternative. As it gains full membership to the elite German club, Audi has started to cavort about with just the same smug self-satisfaction as its rivals, which is ironic for those of us who liked Audi in an 'I knew him before he was famous' kind of way.
There's a giant glass-palace Audi dealership going up that'll loom over the main Western approach to London like the transparently superior egos involved. The tone of Audi's advertising campaigns grows ever more snooty. And through their design, the cars themselves, which once presented an elegantly pared-back face to the world, look to have developed the same amore-propre.
I'm not slagging off the substance of the cars here. They've been getting better and better. I'd choose an R8 over a 911 or a Vantage in a heartbeat. The RS4 is pretty much peerless and the new TT's a peach. If someone told me I'd be using an A6 V6 diesel quattro Avant every day for the rest of my life I'd be properly chuffed.
'The design hogs your retina. The curves are fulsome, the jewellery bling, the grille immodest'
But look at them. Audi calls it 'emotional design'. Maybe you do too, but to me it's all a bit flash and it has given them an unbecomingly vulgar swagger.
Now here's the new A5 and its S5 version. The design hogs your retina. The curves are fulsome, the jewellery bling, the grille immodest. And it looks big. The shell is wider than an A4's and longer in the wheelbase, and then it's visually magnified by its full-hipped and low-roofed proportions.
See it on 17-inch wheels and it looks like a plump sofa on tiny castors. Our photo S5 is on 19s. But though it might look like an A6 coupe, it's a member of the A4 family, which puts it as a rival for the bigger-engined versions of the 3-Series coupe and CLK. The size is just symptomatic of the way Audi leads with the chin these days
It's a very new car, because we're talking about the next-gen A4, due at the turn of the year, rather than the current one. Body, suspension, transmission, steering, they're all a fresh generation. Only the 4.2 FSI V8 is an old friend, from the S4, but even so it's had a little extra souping-up so it hits a walloping 354bhp.
The biggest change is the front suspension. Big Audis always had a long front overhang, because they use longitudinal engines, and the engine and clutch had to be ahead of the front axle so they could take drive to the front wheels. That's why they felt so nose-heavy through corners.
Now though, some super clever jiggery-pokery with the components means the driveshafts and front suspension are ahead of the clutch, so the wheels have moved forward and the engine has - relative to the wheels - moved back, which is good for weight distribution. The quattro system's torque is rear-biased, too. Also the steering rack has been moved closer to the wheels, so its linkages are shorter and don't flex so much, to the benefit of accuracy and feel.
So I'm feeling optimistic. Audi's recent sporting cars have been good, and here's one where they don't seem to have spared the engineering expense. Right out of the traps it feels alive. The throttle has a bite to it, snapping the car ahead on even the slightest tickle, at which point a gorgeously deep V8 rumble starts swirling around the cabin.
The six-speed gearbox's action, specially shortened for the S5 over regular A5s, is sharp and quick, once you've learned it doesn't tolerate being mis-aimed across the gate. The brakes have a concise, reassuring action and they're not overservoed like so many Audis were. The steering is a bit overlight but, far more important, is as precise as promised.
'Is it really 350-plus horsepower? All the horses don't appear to gallop in the same direction every time'
And yet... when you push a bit harder you find that the S5 doesn't warm to the task. It doesn't come more alive as it works harder, rather its verve drains dispiritingly away.
Don't pay too much attention to the S5 badge, just think of it as an A5 V8. The job of tackling the V8 BMW M3 is for next year's RS5. Yes there's strong performance, but is it really 350-plus horsepower? All the horses don't seem to want to gallop in the same direction at the same time. OK, the S5's 5.1 seconds to 62mph isn't exactly shabby, but the diesel manages the same run in 5.9. The S5 is a ruddy rapid cruiser with big torque and an endearing noise, but it's not a supercar.
Then we get the vexed issue of handling. You sure get easy, very rapid travel. I love the reassuring traction when the road gets patchily wet or slippery. The steering isn't only accurate, it has useful feel to it.
But the message it sends out never varies. I'm understeering, it says, and there's nothing you can do about it. It's gentle, harmless understeer, but trimming the throttle doesn't alter the attitude one bit. I'm not asking for lairy slides here, but I do want to be able to point the nose inward by lifting-off or slightly edge the load onto the rear tyres by accelerating, and I want more of a sense that the car's enjoying the experience rather than just tolerating it.
At the end of my drive, the chassis engineer asked whether the new front axle layout made much difference. I didn't want to offend the guy, so I made noises about the improved steering accuracy. But given that he'd asked, I had to say the S5 still felt nose-heavy and lifeless at the limit. "Exactly," he flatly replied.
Seems the new layout means he can make the car far more playable, but the marketing types told him he had to pull it back to the usual Audi understeer because the customers like it - but have they tried anything else? Ah well, here's hoping he gets his way on the RS5.
If that sounds like a wasted opportunity, you have to remember there was another reason the front axle was redesigned: proportions and style. With the new pedestrian protection rules, all cars are getting longer in the nose, and that's not a good look.
Audi was already the maker of some of the world's biggest-conked cars, so if it hadn't done something to shift the wheels forward the overhang would have grown ridiculous. You'd have been driving through Lancashire and your front numberplate would already have arrived in Yorkshire.
So, this car I'd been looking forward to just didn't ignite my fervour. It's like when one of your favourite songs gets bashed out by a very competent covers band at a wedding. All the substance is there, but the edge has been taken off just to make sure the assembled aunties and pre-teens won't get their ears mauled.
Never mind, I bring better news. The A5, with its V6 engines, is a lot more satisfying. It's cheaper and makes a better job of dovetailing expectation with execution. Audi's 240bhp 3.0 V6 diesel is one of the very best for the way it spreads huge torque over a wide rev range and doesn't make any racket while it's at it.
'Get yourself a front seat and it's a good place to be. Audi still do cabin deisgn better than anyone'
And because any turbodiesel has a less sharp-edged accelerator response than a V8 petrol, the mute handling isn't such an issue, because the car bids you drive it in a different style. And then you notice the ride is really fairly supple. With quattro drive to contain the thrust, the A5 TDi is a good buy at £33,430.
These two arrive in July. After a few weeks there'll be a 3.2 V6 petrol. There'll also be a 2.7 diesel, and next year some four-cylinders, a 1.8 Turbo 170bhp petrol (from £26k) and a 2.0T 200bhp.
A cabrio version of the A5 is coming down the pipe too, and, yes, you can imagine exactly what it'll look like. Never mind what BMW has been up to with the folding hard top 3-Series, the A5/S5 cabrio gets a canvas roof. Audi people insist canvas is lighter, takes up less space when it's folded and if it's properly done is just as quiet roof-up.
I'm pretty sure too that the cabrio is the reason the A5 has such a minuscule back seat - the coupe uses a bench designed to fit around the cabrio's folded roof, so it's narrow and there's less legroom and headroom than in a Mini. As you can imagine, that's cramped. But negotiate yourself a front seat in the A5/S5 and it's a very good place to be. Audi still does cabin design and materials and illumination better than anyone else.
If you want more space, get the new A4. Not that that'll be exactly just a saloon version of the A5. The A4 will have a narrower track and have to do without some of the coupe's expensive aluminium bits in the suspension.
But the A5 does give us some clues that the A4 has the potential to be a fine saloon. Even a great one, if only Audi will allow itself to release all the potential.
"It's a rapid cruiser with big torque and an endearing noise, but it's not a supercar"
Edited by VaTRaXoΣ, 02 August 2007 - 01:06 PM.