Has Audi finally made a false move with this curiously designed hatchback/coupé/estate?
2010 Audi A5 Sportback
If any car manufacturer has the right image for the 21st century it has to be Audi. From its advertising strategies to its motor sport victories using diesel technology, Audi has barely put a foot wrong in many a year. Its road cars are beautifully designed, well made and inherently safe. As a brand it has an identity that Mercedes or BMW would kill for. Yet the new A5 Sportback could, at last, be a step too far.
I just don't get it. Even as an exercise on paper it didn't seem like the best idea in the world. The whole point of an Audi A5 is that it's a three-door coupé and a damn good looking one at that. To give it an extra two doors and a hatchback makes it something other than an A5, surely. But Audi reckons it now has a market segment all to itself, so remains unapologetic about launching a car no one thought they needed.
When I first catch sight of it at our rural retreat in glorious Tuscany, it does look more handsome than I had imagined. Yet it's obvious, looking at the assembled models, that it's a shape that's incredibly sensitive to alloy wheel size and body colour. In silver with standard rims it looks anonymous and a bit bulky. Add a set of 19-inch wheels, some dark metallic hue and suddenly it looks muscular and athletic.
So what is Audi thinking with the Sportback? Surely if you want a practical, stylish and fast car for the family then we're already well served by the rest of Audi's vast range? It's a subject close to the heart of Audi's design chief, Stefan Sielaf, who tries to get me round to his way of thinking. "It's really a five-door coupé," he says. "It's a very emotive design, with an overt sportiness that appeals to customers who want the looks of an A5 but need added practicality."
It's almost 20mm higher than its coupe sibling yet still lower than an A4. Its wheelbase is 60mm longer than the normal A5 and it has the same rear legroom as an A4 sedan. It has four proper seats that easily accommodate four regular size adults and offers 980 litres of luggage space; so yes, it's a more practical proposition than an A5 but it's still confusing me. It still seems to me this is a car with an identity crisis.
Picking up my keys I'm hoping the 'sportiness' and 'strong emotion' that the trendy designers are so keen to harp on about comes across loud and clear when in the driver's seat. The V8 S5 is one of my favourite cars and the new, supercharged V6 S5 Cabriolet is also an incredible piece of kit but there's no S5 Sportback for the time being. I choose a 3.2-litre V6 petrol with the seven-speed DSG transmission first, because it's the closest in terms of performance to the S5 and surely the one that will deliver an emotive hit on the challenging, hairpin-strewn route I've chosen through the surrounding hills.
Inside it's all familiar A5 fare and that's no bad thing, with class-leading ergonomics and the use of high-quality materials throughout, so I can't fault it here. It doesn't take long, though, for me to get a bit bored while driving the thing. The roads here are really suited to fast, agile sports cars. There are so many tight bends followed tantalisingly by long straight sections that if I was in a Lotus Elise I think I might never go home. But I'm in a four-wheel-drive hatchback/coupé/estate thingie that purports to be sporty and I'm not getting any sense of involvement whatsoever.
When I bury my right foot in the carpet there seems to be little going on and, while I can see that the car is actually moving along at a decent lick, I can't actually feel it. It goes around Tuscan hairpin bends with contemptuous ease, as though they're not there and feels never anything other than rock solid, so perhaps I need to forget the marketing hyperbole and banish the word 'sport' from my mind. The A5 Sportback is simply a very good, very refined cruiser - a proper Grand Tourer.
The 3.0-litre TDI does feel properly quick in the mid-range and sounds great for an oil-burner but perversely, the A5 Sportback feels more alive when blessed with the smaller engines in the range. With just two litres in either TDI or petrol TFSI guise and only the front wheels putting down the power via a normal six-speed manual gearbox, the car feels more nimble, precise and heaps more fun. Audi didn't need to build the A5 Sportback but it's with us anyway. Whether the 'Premium B' segment that Audi so desperately wants to appeal to with the car actually falls for its slightly oddball looks and aloof driving characteristics remains to be seen but it will no doubt mark you out as individual in the company car park.
In the courtyard outside our hotel, there's an A5 Sportback on display next to a car that design chief Sielaf quoted as being an inspiration for the new car's rakish profile: a 100 Coupé from 1972. Even in the early 1970s this thing looked a bit awkward but now it has a sort of retro cool about it. It never set the world alight and is nothing more than a curiosity now, which is how we'll no doubt come to view the A5 Sportback in three decades' time. Nope, I still don't get it.