BBC Autos

Joyride

Audi S5, with a sweeter song

About the author

Deputy editor of BBC Autos, Jonathan was formerly the editor of The New York Times' Wheels blog. His automotive writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Details, Surface, Intersection and Design Observer. He has an affinity for the Citroën DS and Toyota pickup trucks of the early 1990s.

HIDE CAPTION

The steering wheel in the $52,000 Audi S5 would be right at home in the $115,000 Audi R8.

Yes, the aluminium trim is applied more wantonly than in Audi’s flagship sports car, and the spoke-mounted audio controls differ subtly, but with palms positioned at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock, the feeling communicated through the S5’s wheel is one of hundred-grand privilege.

That wheel, with its thick grip points and squared-off bottom, may reflect the most tactile change to the S5 for 2013, but deeper developments are afoot.

A 4.2-litre V8 engine has been jettisoned for a lighter, more efficient 3-litre V6. The smaller powertrain was available in the cabriolet version of the S5 in prior model years, but not in the coupe. The transplant spares the hardtop a gas-guzzler tax in the US – a penance borne previously by buyers of the V8 who opted for the standard six-speed manual transmission – without any sacrifice in performance, Audi claims. That is laudable, considering the 3-litre unit has 21 fewer horsepower than the 4.2.

A 333-horsepower supercharged V6 engine is still no friend of the earth, but nor is it a plunderer, coaxing the S5 to ratings of 18mpg in city and 28mpg in highway driving.

Keen eyes will also note some welcome streamlining of the S5’s nose for 2013, as well as bumper and taillight sculpting. Introduced in 2007, the S5 and its lesser brother, the A5, were overdue for a freshen-up, and Audi’s designers have deftly ticked the evolutionary boxes.

On the road, the 3-litre V6 is best considered an integral player in an ensemble piece, not a scenery-chewing diva like the departed V8. It thrums its way through the rev range, never breaking character, never letting loose with an impassioned yelp. Being a grand tourer, the S5’s objective is to transport its charges in comfort and with a measure of brio, but not drama. (Drama is reserved for those travelling in the 450hp RS5.)

In deepest New York winter, the S5’s six-speed manual transmission took its time shaking off overnight cold, requiring some effort to find first gear. But warmed through and working with the S5’s Drive Select system – a manually operated suite of settings that can smartly tighten steering and sharpen throttle response – the box inspired bouts of needless rowing, so satisfying was the shift action.

Fitted with the Prestige package, which brought toys like a Bang & Olufsen sound system and navigation, the tested S5 was still shod with Pirelli summer tires. A freak inch of snow was sufficient to transform the brawny midfielder into the proverbial elephant on ice skates. For all the praise heaped on Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive, without proper footwear, the system is dead weight. Dunlop Winter Sports were fitted after this test, we were informed.

An S5 occupies middle ground both within its own model range and the mainstream luxury marketplace. It does not stir R8 levels of lust, but it sustains the kind of slow burn that – provided a warm garage and a set of winter rubber – a driver rarely tires of.

Vital Stats: 2013 Audi S5

  • Base price: $ 51,795, inclusive of $895 destination charge
  • As tested: $58,445
  • EPA fuel economy: 18mpg city, 28mpg highway
  • Drivetrain:  direct fuel-injected, 333hp, 3-litre supercharged V6 engine; six-speed manual transmission
  • Major options:  Advanced key, lane-departure warning, Bang & Olufsen sound system, MMI navigation plus package