Audi S5 Coupe Not So Sure What It is, Where It Belongs

Dec. 18 (Bloomberg) — Some cars are simply designed for dudes. Imagine, say, a 1977 Firebird Trans Am, and you can almost see a man with his hands stuck in his jeans at the sales lot, trying to convince his lady that it was, you know, perfect for the household. (Yeah, right.)

Audi’s brand-new S5 coupe certainly doesn’t have a “screaming chicken” (or anything else) emblazoned on the hood, yet it speaks the same language of dudedom. Big-boned and blunt, the design is steadfastly masculine, lacking the pretty lines of its stablemate, the exotic, eye-candyish R8 sports car.

In that sense, it has more in common with the Trans Am than you might think. This is a very suave and very modern European take on a muscle car.

After all, it’s relatively wide and long, yet the two doors and cramped back seat speak against innate practicality. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Because, dude, this $50K coupe will move you.

Audi has been hell-bent on expanding its product line, introducing 19 new or redesigned autos since 2005. All the obvious models — the luxury sedan, the topless roadster — have long since been spoken for.

So it’s no surprise that the new S5, released this fall, is a bit of a platypus. Built on the same frame as the A4 sedan, it’s wider and lower, with a wheelbase lengthened some 4 inches and with very little overhang on the front or back. The overall effect is husky, in an NFL linebacker kind of way.

So what is it, exactly? A two-door car with an outsized attitude, or just a slot in a lineup?

Plenty of Power

After putting in 500 miles on a round trip from New York to Massachusetts, I know that the S5 excels at certain tasks — like blasting down the freeway without a care. This is the S version after all, released even before the V-6-powered A5 (which will have 265 horsepower). And, as the immodest silver badge on the front quarter panel notes, the S5 is equipped with a V-8, a slightly less powerful version of the R8’s 4.2-liter, direct- injected ripper.

Mated to an easy-shifting six-speed manual, it has 354 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of grin-inducing torque that surges through the all-wheel-drive system.

The S5 is compliant at low speeds, yet when you pick a target on the highway that you want to pass — the 18-wheeler that keeps veering into your lane — the torque layers on sudden power, like a can of Popeye’s spinach.

The chassis is especially accommodating. Smooth and imperturbable at highway speeds, the car flicks through high- speed lane changes and down slippery off-ramps with swagger and confidence.

Usually there’s a price to pay for a tight suspension, especially while blasting through potholes. Yet the S5 sponges up the worst of Boston’s roads with aplomb.

Cool or Cold?

The aesthetic of the S5 is either cool or cold, depending on your eye. The front end has the most personality, lusty and expressive, with an outspoken grill, elongated headlights and two front intakes that wrap around the lower fascia.

The side view is where things get blunter, with a prominent “character line” running down the body. Below that line the sheet metal cleaves flat before sucking back in, lending weight and heft that plays off the fast-sloping roof. In pictures I liked it, yet in person it’s a bit cold, even standoffish — the jock with his polo collar turned up.

Audi’s interiors are some of my favorites, with a nice mix of functionality, sport and comfort. I love the steering wheels, which are crafted for a driver’s hands. The only hiccup in this case is the mouse-like knob for the infotainment system, located just behind the six-speed manual stick shift. I keep bumping it with my palm and messing up the navigation settings.

Stiff Seats

The S5 also has sport seats with wedge-like backs that are tall, solid and rather inelegant. My female passenger complains that they simply aren’t designed for smaller frames, and I have a feeling she’s right.

While rear passengers won’t exactly be stretching out, the seats are still more comfortable than those in the Infiniti G37 coupe and way airier than a Porsche 911’s, whose back seats were never meant to cradle actual human anatomy.

In the end, the S5 doesn’t really fit my needs. And that might be part of its strength: Audi doesn’t expect to make or sell a whole lot of them. It’s aimed at the kind of buyer (guy, definitely) who gets bored easily and doesn’t want to drive the same car as his neighbors.

So if you really want to stand out from the other coupe lovers out there, the S5 just might answer the question: “Dude, where’s my car?”

The 2008 Audi S5 Coupe at a Glance

Engine: 4.2-liter, direct-injected V-8 with 354 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: six-speed manual.

Price as tested: $58,490 (base of $50,500).

Speed: 0 to 60 in 4.9 seconds.

Best feature: The power and confidence when cruising at highway speed.

Worst feature: The rather polarizing exterior — some will love it, others will wrinkle noses.

Perfect for: The early adopter who wants something special.

(Jason Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)