Audi A5/S5 Sportback first drive review: a niche worth exploring

Those wacky Germans have found a way to explore every automotive niche known to man–and invent a few of their own. The BMW and Mercedes-Benz product lineups have grown to include every manner of coupe, convertible, sedan, crossover, coupe-like crossover, hatchback sedan, and veloco-transport, plus numerous performance versions of each.

Audi has taken a more measured approach. Yes, the standard body styles are there, but Audi has only explored the oddball stuff once. It came in 2010 with the release of the A7. This mashup of a sedan and a hatchback, a Sportback as Audi calls it, was immediately lauded for its beautiful looks and it quickly garnered strong incremental sales for the brand’s mid-size A6 lineup.

For 2018, Audi is taking that idea to its compact A4/A5 range with the A5 Sportback and its more powerful sibling, the S5 Sportback. The idea is to add incremental sales to the compact segment while providing a sexy alternative to the coupe and a practical option versus the sedan.

2018 Audi S5 Sportback

2018 Audi S5 Sportback

2018 Audi S5 Sportback

2018 Audi S5 Sportback

2018 Audi S5 Sportback

2018 Audi S5 Sportback

More than a sedan with a backpack

“We did more than make the A5 Sportback an A4 sedan with a backpack,” said Barry Hoch, director of Audi product planning North America.

The proverbial backpack of which Mr. Hoch speaks is the hatchback that the A5 Sportback, um, sports. Had Audi designers just started with the A4, and extended the roofline to create a hatchback they would have ended up with something akin to the BMW 3-Series GT–a taller hatchback lacking elegance. Instead, they wanted a baby A7, with the grace and beauty of that car.

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To accomplish that goal, Audi’s design team, led by Frank Lamberty, started with the A4’s wheelbase to get the appropriate length (it’s 2.4 inches longer than the A5), then used the A5 as design inspiration from the A-pillars back. Effectively, that meant lowering the roofline 1.7 inches, stretching the coupe-like profile almost all the way to the rear spoiler, adding frameless side windows with the rear kickup from the A7, and using the coupe’s more dramatic side sculpting.

2018 Audi S5 Sportback

2018 Audi S5 Sportback

2018 Audi S5 Sportback

2018 Audi S5 Sportback

2018 Audi S5 Sportback

2018 Audi S5 Sportback

The result is a car that fits between the coupe and sedan in terms of rear seat space, and exceeds even the sedan when it comes to overall practicality. Compared to the A5/S5 coupe, the Sportback has 0.4 inch more front headroom, 0.9 inch more rear headroom, and 2.4 more inches of rear legroom. Headroom and legroom are both within 0.6 of the sedan’s measurements, but the sedan has a 13 cubic-foot trunk, while the Sportback offers 21.8 cubic feet of rear cargo space in its hatch area and that can open up to 35 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down.

How does it work for people and their cargo? The rear seat has good space for a 6-footer to fit behind a 6-footer, but headroom and especially legroom start to become tight as the mid-major college point guards start giving way to shooting guards or small forwards. Two adults will fit back there just fine, but the unsupportive middle seat will only work if all three are kids or 1990s waif models. The biggest issue, and it’s not really a big one, is that the coupe-like roofline means taller folks will have to dip their heads and perhaps strain their necks when getting in or out.

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The cargo story is even better. The hatchback body style makes for a generous cargo hold and the low liftover height makes it easy to access. The coupe-like roofline means it isn’t as roomy as a wagon or crossover, but the car looks better. And the rear seats are easy to fold down from the side doors, opening up the full 35 cubic feet.

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