Review: 2011 Audi A5 2.0 TFSI quattro Tiptronic Coupe

By Kevin Miller

Europe is often romanticized by Americans; the old plazas and hidden passageways seemingly behind every corner on The Continent contain hidden surprises and untold treasure. The same can be said about European cars, the stylish, unattainable fruit, forbidden to American consumers by European importers. While both European cities and cars often meet or surpass such expectations, they can sometimes turn out to be not quite as idyllic as expected. Audi’s A5 is the latest European treasure that falls just shy of meeting elevated expectations.

In their unending quest to out-BMW their German rivals, Audi introduced the A4-based A5 coupe.  Although modern Audi cars tend to look a bit too much like one another for my taste, the A5’s proportions do set it apart from it siblings, in a good way. For 2011, the A5 is offered with Audi’s ubiquitous 2.0T turbocharged four-cylinder engine, now available with an 8-speed tiptronic automatic transmission or six-speed manual, and front or all-wheel drive. My test vehicle was equipped with both quattro and the tiptronic.

From the outside, the Brilliant Red test car, with its subtle and curvaceous sheetmetal stretched over 18” ten-spoke wheels looked ready to deliver on that promise of European perfection. The A5’s graceful shape features frameless windows which index when front doors are opened or closed. I found that water dripped from the roof onto the seatbottom cushions on rainy days when opening the doors. The car features large a glass sunroof with retractable opaque shade. While the large panel lets in plenty of light, it only tilts up at the rear to open, rather than retracting.

Inside the A5, though, the materials and design fell short of expectations. Leather on the steering wheel and seating surfaces are not a particularly premium grade of cowhide. Dashboard materials are neither as soft nor as good looking as those in high-end Volkswagen products such as the Touareg; I thought that Audi was supposed to be a more-premium brand than Volkswagen. While upper dash materials were a soft-touch grained polymer, materials lower down the dash and console were satin-finished or grained hard plastic. With just a small amount of silver accent trim, the A5’s interior was very somber, with a plastic-fantastic ambience.

Although the A5 comes with a keyless fob, that fob’s buttons must be pushed to lock or unlock the car, and it must be inserted into the ignition port in the dash to start the car. The entry-level A5 also comes with a color screen for displaying audio/phone/menu information, but that screen has surprisingly low resolution. The base car also doesn’t have Audi’s optional MMI system, meaning that control of audio, HVAC, and other settings is performed through a surprisinlgy complex mish-mash of awkward-to-use buttons and knobs on the audio head unit and climate controller. The knob on the audio head unit works opposite to convention; with a vertical list of choices, turn clockwise to scroll up the list, and counter-clockwise to scroll down. The learning curve was infuriating.

To pair a phone to the optional (yes, optional! On an Audi!) Bluetooth system, the Phone button had to be pressed, and then the Setup button. Simply pressing the setup button didn’t do the trick. For dialing the phone, the audio system’s rotary knob is used, with smallish numerals displayed on the screen in a rotary pattern. To scroll through the phone’s address book, all letters of the alphabet are displayed around a circle on the low-resolution screen, in text so minute as to be nearly worthless to somebody who should be his their eyes on the road.

The A5 I tested was equipped with the optional Audi Music Interface, which replaces a simple AUX input and allows an iPod or other digital music player to be connected to (and controlled through) the audio system. Rather than just a simple USB port in the console or glovebox, the Audi Music Interface consists of a USB port in a relatively large plastic box which seems to take up about half of the space inside the A5’s glove box. Bluetooth audio playback is not available. This implementation is far from class-leading. Sound quality from the audio system was decidedly average.

On the plus side, the A5 does have dual-zone climate control and heated front seats. Unlike most cars that have a just a button or a dial to control seat heating, the A5 has a heated-seat button on the climate control which, when pressed, calls up a pictogram of a heated chair on the main display screen, with numbers 0-6 displayed around a circle, with 0 representing no heating and 6 representing full heating. The main menu control knob on the audio unit is not rotated to select the heating intensity, though; instead the individual climate control knobs (left for L seat, right for R seat) must be used for the adjustment, which seemed like needless complexity. Control complexity aside, my wife commented on cold evenings that it took a while for the chair to actually heat up, even when set to maximum heat.

In front of the driver, the instrument panel has four clear  gauges: large circles for the tachometer and speedometer, with smaller irregular ellipses used for temperature and fuel level. Between the gauges was a monochrome display with red text which can show trip computer information and vehicle speed (a high-resolution color screen replaces the monochrome display in better-equipped A5 models); its information was selected by an un-labeled toggle switch on the end of the right-hand (windshield wiper) control stalk, with a reset button on the bottom surface of that stalk. Though the primary gauges are clear, the interior’s red nighttime illumination render many controls hard-to-see. One thing always too easy to see at night was the distracting, amber-colored  “Pass Airbag Off” indicator lamp on the dash.

The same tidy dimensions that give the A5 its sporting stance also rob space from the interior. Much as in the Cadillac CTS Coupe, rear legroom and headroom are minimal, with room for just two small people to squeeze in. I was able to fit a forward facing child seat as well as a booster chair back there and haul my two- and five-year-old kids; access isn’t bad thanks to quick seat  motors with redundant controls at the top, outboard edge of each front seat. The back seat does fold forward to increase luggage space, though my entry-level A5 did not have an armrest-passthrough, which is an option on A5 models.

So boo hoo, I’m disappointed by the interior of the beautiful A5. Pulling away from the curb, however, it became evident that the car’s external beauty is more than just skin-deep. The quattro all-wheel-drive system is set up to apportion a majority of its torque to the rear wheels, with dynamic adjustment of that power delivery as necessary. This torque split is incredibly well suited to the chassis setup, providing nearly ideal power delivery with minimal understeer. Communication to the driver is nearly telepathic thanks to plenty of hard work by Audi’s powertrain engineers.

The 2.0 liter, four-cylinder engine is the only engine choice in the A5 for 2011; it can be mated to either a six-speed manual transmission, or the eight-speed Tiptronic automatic as was on the vehicle tested. The eight-speed transmission has enough ratios to allow for a really tall overdrive, with the result that the engine spins at just 2000 RPM at a crusing speed of 80 MPH on the freeway. The unit has smooth upshifts and rev-matched downshifts, with manual shifts being actuated only by toggling the gearlever on the console front or back (no paddles are present on the steering wheel). When cruising along at a constant speed, stomping on the throttle sometimes resulted in a bit of confusion before the transmission chose a gear to provide the desired acceleration, though otherwise the unit worked as expected. Although the eight-speed transmission is a more efficient unit than the six-speed auto it replaced, I would argue that it neuters the driving experience compared to a manual transmission in the same car.

With 211 HP, the 2.0 liter four is not overly powerful. The direct-injected four-cylinder has a cheap, unrefined thrum at lower RPMs when pulling away from a stop, especially when the engine isn’t warmed up. While it isn’t going to win any drag races against competitors’ six-cylinder coupes, the relatively lightweight motor and lightly-equipped car really allowed the well-sorted chassis and balanced powertrain to shine. I came to love the way the A5 pulls through corners, only understeering because of poor driving technique rather than poor engineering. While the A5 isn’t doesn’t feel particularly quick, but it is plenty fast.

My week with the A5 was a busy one personally, which caused me to have a lot more seat time at my desk instead of behind the wheel. I was only able to cover 180 miles, over which I saw an average fuel economy of 21.0 MPG, which isn’t bad for the amount of full-throttle usage I gave the car around town. The EPA rates the a5 quattro Tiptronic at 21/29 MPG city/highway, with 24 MPG combined.

The Brilliant Red A5 2.0 TFSI quattro Tiptronic Coupe I tested has an MSRP of $38,200. It had the $3700 Premium Plus package (Xenon Plus headlamps; LED daytime running lights; LED tail lamps; 18” 10-spoke alloy wheels with all-season tires; Bluetooth handsfree phone interface; Three-zone climate control; heated front seats; Homelink Universal Garage Door Opener; Audi Music Interface; Rain/Light sensor, Autodimming interior mirror with compass), $130 exhaust tips, and $875 destination charge, for a total of $42,905.

While I didn’t immediately warm to the relatively-Spartan A5, it grew on me during the week I was able to spend with it. As I grew familiar with its handling and its power delivery, I came to appreciate how well balanced it is; without all of the electronic toys to play with inside, I was able to focus on the drive, which I found to be quite entertaining. The A5’s looks drew positive attention wherever I drove it. Still, at its price point the beautiful A5 is let down by its equipment level as well as interior materials and control layout.

Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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