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Story and Photos by Jack Baruth

Quick – what was the most important Ford Thunderbird of all time? Most younger enthusiasts aren’t likely to get too worked up about this question, for the same reasons the Pebble Beach crowd refuses to care too much about the absolutely obvious distinction between an Integra GS and an Integra GS-R, but believe us, there are people who have an opinion about this. Most of those people will tell you that the 1955, 1956, and 1957 T-Birds are the ones that really mattered. They were the cars to take the Ford fight right back to the Corvette, the cars to which a generation aspired, the car which was immortalized in the song “Fun, Fun, Fun”… no, wait.

The T-bird that the heroine of the Beach Boys’ song took to the hamburger stand was, in all probability, a four-seater T-bird, a 1958-1960 “Squarebird” or a 1961-1963 “Bullet Bird”, or, heresy of heresies, perhaps even a ’64 “Flare Bird”. These bigger Birds didn’t have the perfect proportions or tidy styling of the original car, but they carried four people in muscular, stylish comfort. More importantly, they announced to the world that their drivers were people of leisure, able to own an impractical “personal luxury” two-door, but that they were certainly not the kind of friendless loners who wore string-back gloves and drove silly little sports cars. The template laid down by the ’58 Squarebird – striking if not perfectly handsome looks, powerful engines, indulgent interior luxuries, and eventually referred to as the “personal luxury coupe” – would resonate through the next fifty years, finding its expression in vehicles as diverse as the Chrysler Cordoba and the Mercedes-Benz CL65 AMG. In one blessed year – 1977, since you ask – a personal luxury coupe, the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, was the best-selling car in the United States. The American dream came to mean a chicken in every pot and two sassy coupes in every garage.

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Fast-forward thirty years, and it’s easy to see that the modern American dream is more likely to include a Yukon Denali than a Cutlass of any stripe. It’s been years since most carmakers bothered to field a proper four-seat personal luxury coupe. Honda, Nissan, and (until recently) Toyota all provide two-door versions of their mainstream sedans, but the sight of an Accord Coupe in one’s driveway fails to provoke envy among any but the most prosaic of neighbors. Surely the time is right for a modern Thunderbird or Eldorado, a car which proclaims style, wealth, and a soupcon of child-free significance to the world in general and that annoying, Prius-pedaling priss of a neighbor two houses down in particular. Such a car would have the looks of a supermodel and enough power to smoke the legions of surprisingly fleet-footed V8 sport-utility-vehicles in suburbia. It would coddle on demand and perhaps corner on demand a bit as well. It would lack for nothing technologically while sparing its owner the misery of an iDrive or the depressing button-strewn wasteland of the modern Japanese luxury sedan. In short, it would be a very personal, very luxurious, coupe. It’s a difficult brief, and one which no manufacturer has been recently courageous enough to attempt.

Luckily, Audi has shown itself to be remarkably courageous of late. Its recent new products have all been suitably daring, ranging from the who’s-going-to-buy-a-forty-thousand-dollar-hatchback A3 to the Lamborghini-as-imagined-by-Ludwig-Mies-van-der-Rohe aluminum R8 supercar. If anybody could bring a proper personal luxury coupe to market, Audi could do it – and with the new S5, they certainly have done so.

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Much like a ’58 Squarebird, the S5 has a very polarizing look about it – defiantly angry-faced in the current Audi mold, and aggressively curvaceous, with a flowing beltline which is a major departure from previous Audi styling philosophy and which also appears in the aforementioned R8. We’re fans of the new look, and while not everyone is likely to feel the same way, it’s safe to say that the S5 will not fade into invisibility as it becomes a frequent sight on the street. In front, its distinctive L-shaped LED running light assembly, which forms a hockey-stick shape around the projector headlamps, mimics the R8 and easily outguns BMW’s “angel eyes” in the twilight visual arms race; at the rear, unique and dynamic-looking trapezoidal tail lamps will stick in the mind of the Mercedes CLK driver as they fly past. A six-cylinder A5 will appear in the next few months, differing from the S5 in the usual chin-spoiler-and-ground-effect-treatment areas just enough to make sure that casual spotters will notice the fellow who sprung for the V8 engine denied to the “cooking” model.

The FSI direct injection V8, seen here in 4.2-liter, 7000-rpm-redline, 350-horsepower trim, is a deeply satisfying engine which currently powers the A8 sedan, the S4 sedan, RS4 sedan and convertible, and the magnificent R8. In the RS4, it is retuned for an 8250-rpm redline; in the R8, it receives the higher redline and a new dry-sump oiling system. The use of V8 engines in the sporting models is a departure for the company; in the Eighties and early Nineties, Audi defined itself with the combination of characterful turbocharged five-cylinder engines and permanent all-wheel-drive, reaching a peak in the North American market with the 227-horsepower S4 super-sedan before the five-pot was abandoned in favor of four-and-six-cylinder engines shared with Volkswagen. These were pleasant and powerful enough, but seemed to miss some essential character, even when turbocharged.

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By contrast, the S5’s four-valve-per-cylinder, direct-injected V8 has character in spades. As we flung the S5 around the claustrophobic, concrete-lined confines of Sonoma’s Infineon Raceway, the combination of the electric-motor torque delivery, distant, faintly NASCAR rumble, and medical-instrument-precise controls made it dangerously easy to imagine oneself as the cool, confident pilot of a Messerschmitt “Schwalbe” 262 jet fighter over the Western Front more than sixty years ago… Flying directly out of the sun, we are catching up to a hapless P-51 Mustang. He vainly tries to shake us off, but each change of direction only brings us closer to the killing range. With a faint twinge of regret at having to down a fellow aviator, I trigger the thirty-millimeter cannon… Oh, it turns out it’s merely another journalist out here on the track with us, and he’s quite upset by the pace at which we have appeared in his mirrors. Best to head back to base, er, cycle through the pit lane, and see what our little Messerschmitt can really do with clear skies ahead.

Previous Audis have been criticized for a tendency to understeer a bit, primarily due to the fact that, in Audi’s traditional transverse-mount design, the engine is well ahead of the front wheels. In the real world of road driving, this tendency has no doubt saved the bacon of many a driver whose courage exceeded his competence, but on a racetrack it’s a bit annoying. There isn’t much Audi can do about the position of their engines, but in the S5 the engineers have managed a neat trick, reversing the position of the differential and clutch to effectively move the front axle forward a few inches. Around Infineon, it became quickly apparent that this minor change yields major benefits. No, it doesn’t turn the S5 into a 50/50-weight-distributed BMW, and it doesn’t erase the basic Audi understeer posture, but it does change the essential nature of that posture. In a traditional Audi, indeed in most front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive cars, one sets the car hard on the outside front tire entering the apex of the turn and simply grinds the shoulder of said tire all the way through the apex and for the best portion of the exit phase as well. There’s very little adjustability in most street cars at this point, even with dramatic lifts of the throttle, because the considerable weight of the engine is tugging the car forward into a sort of dogged stability.

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By contrast, the S5 offers improved steering feel and response in that crucial mid-corner phase, rewarding a mild opening of the line with an energetic corner exit. The combination of rear-biased all-wheel drive and the improved axle position makes track driving enjoyable and permits a very light-hearted approach up to the limits of grip. At those limits, the big Audi tolerates all manner of ham-fistedness and cheerfully adjusts its line without punishing its driver one bit – and always there’s that muted NASCAR soundtrack to remind you of the straight-shortening power on tap once the corner’s finished. One mild disappointment; it does not appear to be possible to turn the stability control entirely off. Audi’s electronic nanny appears duty-bound to periodically interrupt our Messerschmitt fantasies with the reproach of a furiously-blinking skidding-car icon, reminding us that the S5’s natural home is not the track, but the fast side road and unlimited Autobahn.

With a drop of the properly weighted clutch, we’re out of Infineon’s front gate and heading towards the heart of California’s Napa Valley. Here, the S5 is utterly in its element. It’s not mandatory to shift between turns – after all, we have nearly a Corvette’s worth of power on tap – but the shifter is a pleasure to use and so our pace quickens further. Each turn is taken more aggressively than the last, the 235-section tires (on spectacular nineteen-inch wheels with thin spokes, the better to show off the S5’s large brake calipers) squealing first in compliance and then in protest. Down a steep hill and around a blind left-hander which tightens up beyond our expectations – and there are a few black tire marks exiting the turn to what looks like a considerable drop down the side of a mountain. A quick extra flick of aggressive steering and a dab of left-foot braking changes our cornering attitude just enough to make it through, brushing gravel gently off the white paint of the road’s edge with our outside rear wheel. In the wine country, the S5 is a subtle superstar, coldly dispatching slower traffic with just a quick shift and a brief crossing of the dotted centerline, the massive glass roof panel overhead cheering up the dark cabin, the Bang & Olufsen sound system playing some random variant of “House Of The Rising Sun” from the iPod interface, the driver and passenger relaxing in the large, comfortable sport seats. This is the way to travel.

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Before long, we’re across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the heart of San Francisco traffic, where the Audi plays its cleverest card yet. The electronic parking brake is hacked to provide a neat “auto-stop” feature. With the press of a button, driving a stick-shift on the city’s infamous hills becomes easy as pie. When the car comes to a stop on said hills, the brake engages and the driver can relax with feet off the pedals. Once it’s time to move, he simply depresses the clutch, engages first gear, and drives away – and the brake releases electronically to provide exactly the correct balance, only to reapply when the car comes back to a stop. With this small feature, Audi neatly removes one of the biggest annoyances of owning a manual-shift car, in a manner clearly superior to traditional “hill-holder” mechanisms.

Fifty grand and change will put you in the “base” S5, and there aren’t too many additional options to be had. The $2,390 Navigation Plus is worth having, as Audi’s nav system is best-in-class. The $1,700 Technology Package offers a rearview camera and keyless start, and the Bang & Olufsen sound system is a relative steal at $850. The only other options are for interior finish, so even with all the boxes checked you won’t spend the price of, say, a new M3.

Not that the S5 is an M3 competitor. There will be an RS5 eventually to fill those shoes, and to provide a home for the even more stirring 8250-rpm redline variant of the Audi V8. Nor is the S5 a sleepy full-sized coupe along the lines of the BMW 650i or Mercedes CL550. It’s really a secret weapon of sorts, having no direct competition in the American market. The Mercedes CLK550, the only other car with a similar price and mission, is smaller inside, neglects to offer a manual transmission or all-wheel-drive, and rides on an ancient, creaky platform. BMW fans might point out that the 335i is just as rapid as the S5, but this comparison neglects the sheer pleasure to be had from the V8 and the upscale pleasantries of the Audi’s interior.

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It was with real regret that we returned the S5 at the end of our test. In a market filled with vehicles pretending to be something else – station wagons masquerading as SUVs, chrome-trimmed mass-market sedans putting on luxury nameplates, and bloated, overweight “sports cars” – the S5 is perfectly content to be a very focused and honest vehicle. It possesses style, power, and comfort in measured quantities. While competent enough on the track, this coupe is not a wannabe racer; instead, it’s a private jet charter for two people and their occasional friends, able to conquer a back road and relax on a long freeway trip regardless of the weather or road conditions. It makes a statement – not the ridiculous assertion that one could climb a mountain or win a race, but rather a statement in the traditional sense. Much like the ’58 Squarebird, it’s absolutely fit for purpose – fast, flashy, and oh yes, fun, fun, fun.

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Jack Baruth

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