We're inching through the tiny town of San Pedro in Cariano when we spot a small archway down a narrow side street and decide that it's the perfect backdrop for some photography. Finding picturesque locations near the town of Verona in northern Italy is not hard, but finding enough room to stop and actually take a picture is proving something of a challenge. This little archway seems off the beaten path and it's a bank holiday in Italy so the local shops are closed. Only a tiny nearby Trattoria is open and the staff in there is preoccupied setting up for the evening crowd.
Because we're essentially trespassing on someone's property in order to get the shots we want, we do our best not to draw too much attention to ourselves. But even maneuvering the S5 around as carefully and as quietly as possible, we get noticed. A shaven head pops out the door of the Trattoria and strides towards us with purpose. He tries to communicate with us in broken German (he sees our Ingolstadt number plates) and then flips over to broken English when he notices our blank stares. He's not gesticulating at us to get the hell off his property, though. He's smiling and pointing. I think he wants to get in and try the S5 on for size.
Naturally, he revs the engine hard and the neighboring alleyways echo with the haunting sound of the S5's howling, soulful V8. If San Pedro didn't know the S5 was in town before, it does now. He's constant use of the words 'bella' and the way his middle finger, fore finger and thumb were held together and swirled around as if conducting an imaginary orchestra gave us another indication he was impressed. Finally, he gets out proclaimed it to be the best thing since the coming of Jesus (we're guessing based on his animated conversation with another waiter) before insisting we come in for a coffee, maybe a grappa. We try to decline the invitation, but his pleasantly bright and breezy demeanor quickly disappears. He is visibly offended (frighteningly so, to be honest) so we park the bella S5 and talk with our hands through two astonishingly powerful espressos. By the time we get back in the car to attack the mountain roads above the village, we're so wired we can almost through time.
It's a good job we're so thoroughly caffeinated because otherwise our interest in the S5 would have waned much sooner. As out Italian friend pointed out, it is a very beautiful car, curvy and sensuous in an old-school muscle-car kind of way. The front is typical Audi, with its big cheesy grille and a pleasingly symmetry in the way the headlamps and air intakes complement each other, but the line of LED running lights and the detailed arrangement within headlamp cluster help to define the A5 as a new Audi by giving it an interesting and modern 'face'. In profile, the A5 pure elegance, with its coke-bottle lines, exquisite stance, flowing glasshouse and perfectly honed surface treatment, while the rear is extremely familiar to anyone who's seen the backside of a 3-Series Coupe, only here it's slightly more appealing because of its tidier lines and surfacing. The only real fault I can find with the A5 is its mirrors. They look like they were yanked off the side of a Ford F-250 pickup truck and while they're undoubtedly effective they're totally at odds with the lithe beauty of the rest of the car. The designer, Walter d'Silva, says the A5 is the most beautiful car he's ever designed. We tend to agree.
When you finish soaking up the looks, you throw open the door to find the new A4 family dashboard, similar to that of an A6 but executed with more visual appeal and flair. The basic ergonomics can't be faulted (I defy anyone not to find their ideal driving position in there) and the MMI on-screen menu system is a little less frustrating than before, but otherwise it's all pretty familiar and predictable despite its newness. The only real surprise is the amount space that's in there - I fully expected to be crowbarred into place but the A5 proved remarkable roomy for front seat passengers and surprisingly adequate for those in the rear, provided they're not in there too long.
On the move, the A5 feels very, very different to the outgoing A4, riding with more maturity and cornering with a LOT more finesse. Front end grip is much stronger than the nose-heavy, understeering Audis of yore while stability and poise through the bends also impress. The A4's (and S4's) propensity to loll around on its suspension is gone, too, supplanted by a surefooted-ness and calm competence that no other Audi, bar the legendary RS4, could even dream about. This is thanks to its completely new double-wishbone front suspension arrangement and the placement of the front wheels much further forward for better weight distribution. The steering rack has also been relocated to a point just ahead of the front axle for better responsiveness and feedback while the new trapezoidal-link rear suspension also plays its part in making the A5 and S5 ride and handle with such unflappable competence.
Sadly, despite all Audi's engineering whizz-bangery, the A5 is still a soulless car to pilot. It's a marvelous machine, don't get me wrong, but it's not as involving as you'd expect from a sports coupes. The steering is quick but rather numb in terms of weight and feedback. You hear the tyres loose grip before you feel them (and that's in the dry - in the wet you're relying on the ESP to tell you when you've reached the limits) and you have to read the car's body movements to interpret what it's up to and likely to do next. It's very controllable and forgiving if you mis-read what little information it's giving you and make an unwanted input, but that's not what you want in a sexy coupe like the A5. You want to feel part of the action rather than being another fawning admirer.
Most disappointing of all was the S5, no more engaging than the lesser models just faster and marginally better looking thanks to tasty wheels and a meaty body kit (an S-Line pack achieves the same look, incidentally). We drove it hard in the hills above Verona and while there was no denying its poise or the addictive wail of its glorious V8, it lacked real driver involvement and was actually quite tricky to drive smoothly because of its springy clutch and notchy 6-speed manual 'box. The 245hp, 500Nm 3.0-litre V6 TDi Quattro is a much better bet, 20 grand cheaper and almost as fast everywhere except the long straight bits where the V8 can use its 354hp and 440Nm to full effect. Even then, though, the 3.0 TDi isn't far behind (it can reach 100km/h from a standstill in just 5.9 seconds, only 0.8 slower than the S5) and with a slicker 'box and better clutch, it could just about match the S5 over most of the tight, winding roads we tested both cars on. Oh, and don't forget it's almost twice as economical, needing just 7.2 liters per 100km compared to the S5's staggering 12.4-litre thirst. If you can't quite match the S5 pace at least you know you'll pass it later as it pulls in for fuel.
It's best to think of the S5 as a GT car, then - swift, comfortable, quick and refined, while the diesel is an even better grand tourer and arguably more exploitable in the tight stuff, too. The 3.2-litre petrol isn't as quite swift or frugal as the diesel but otherwise feels very similar to the diesel (both sounds great, too) while the rest of the engine range wasn't available to us to test at launch. At the end of our day, we longed to return to our little Trattoria to tell our new friend that while the A5 and S5 might look gorgeous and be a cultured and refined machine, it's not really the kind of car to stir the soul to such an extent you give complete strangers industrial-strength coffee to celebrate. It's a great car, the A5, as long as you're happy to sit back and go where the car wants you to go. If you crave scruff-of-the-neck, you might want to look elsewhere.
Verdict: Beautiful, fast, composed, refined and exquisitely made, the A5 only lacks for one thing: Driver involvement. The S5 is faster but no more engaging.