Have I missed something? How can we be reading about an S5 when we haven't even had an A5?
Because Audi knew BMW was going to launch its M3 this spring and wanted to spoil the Munich firm's thunder. So it decided to launch both the A5 and its hot 354bhp S5 spin-off at the same time. The £39,725 S5 isn't so much a rival for the 414bhp M3 though, as a rival for the £35,670 twin-turbo 335i. But there are bound to be a few potential buyers prepared to pay a few thousand extra for the M3. And a few more prepared to pay even more - probably more than £50k - for the Audi RS5 when that turns up in 2009.
But what exactly is an A5?
It's a 3-series coupe rival with a new-to-Audi swoopy design language. But it's also so much more because underneath those coke-bottle hips is Audi's new MLB chassis. MLB stands for modular longitudinal chassis and it's the architecture that will underpin the Q5 off-roader and A7 coupe as well as the replacements for the A4, A6 and A8.
What's so special about it?
Audi has stuck to its longitudinal engine layout - the same layout that has been criticised for making Audis feel nose heavy. But one of the key differences is that the front diff is now mounted ahead of the clutch. Another is the longer wheelbase. Together they reduce the front overhang and improve weight distribution to an ideal 50:50 split. Other changes include a steering column mounted lower in the chassis for better steering feel.
But does it all work?
Yes. Compared with rivals' racks (and with the honourable exception of the RS4), Audi steering feel has been foggier than a spring dawn. But with the S5, the inertia has gone; things happen just off the straight ahead position, and turn-in is a little prompter and a lot more communicative. And there is absolutely no kicking and tugging no matter how cratered the road and how crazy the pace. Unwinding lock is no longer a kick and rush affair, the helm does not stiffen up momentarily during quick lane changes, and precision has improved hugely. And it's one quick car. The S5 runs the latest version of the familiar 4.2-litre V8, equipped with FSI direct injection. This boosts peak power to 354bhp at 7000rpm, with maximum torque of 325lb ft kicking in at 3500rpm. Sixty takes just 5.1sec, although the push in the back feels more refined than frenetic. For now, power is sent to all four wheels by a manual six-speeder. A six-speed auto arrives early next year, a seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch 'box won't come to market before 2010. But the manual transmission provides a decent start. First is short enough even for the most extreme hairpins, second slurps up the short connecting stretches, third unleashes the car vigorously onto more open terrain, and fourth is just perfect for blasts on high visibility straights.
What's it like inside?
The S5 cockpit is Audi at its finest, so you get top quality, top materials and top ergonomics in one attractively styled package. MMI (Audi's take on iDrive) is still the pace-setter in terms of secondary controls, but the centre console is getting more and more crowded, and we certainly don't need any more chrome bezels and bling bits either. Turning to the rear, those upright and oddly-shaped back seats may look uncomfortable, but they're actually okay for the broad-shouldered, even if headroom isn't generous. Accessing them isn't easy though. If you travel three or four up most of the time, it's best to wait another year for the new S4 saloon. With 455 litres of lugagge space - and that's before any folding manouevre - the new coupe's boot almost matches the outgoing saloon's for space.
Leaving the fantasy S5 aside, what's the A5 range got to offer?
Much like BMW's 3-series coupe, the A5 comes in various flavours from very mild upwards. Bottom of the ladder is the £30,175 2.7TDi. It's front-wheel drive, like all A5s for now, comes only with Audi's Multitronic CVT gearbox, takes 7.6sec to reach 62mph and delivers 42.1mpg. The bigger 3.0TDi costs £33,410 and cracks 62mph in just 5.9sec but gives away 3mpg. And for petrol fans, there's the 3.2FSi - £33,205, CVT-only, 33mpg and 6.1sec.
Would I buy an S5? Yes. It's a pretty car and a convincing grand tourer. The new suspension hugely improves ride quality, the steering feels alive, and four-wheel drive gives the Audi a real-world edge over its rear-drive rivals. The transformation of Audi ride and handling shows that the MLB approach is a confident step in the right direction. With this flexible chassis as a foundation, it's no surprise Audi talks of dominating the premium world.