Tuesday 17th March 2009


The Audi S5 Cabrio is £13K cheaper than a drop-top BMW M3. Alisdair Suttie finds out if it is money worth saving.

Audi reckons it has the perfect ruse for these cash strapped, don’t-flash-it-about times with its new S5 Cabriolet. At roughly £42,000 this soft-top is not only £13,000 cheaper than a BMW M3, it’s also cleaner and greener.

But green considerations will not be that high up the list of priorities for anyone considering an S5 open-top. What they want to know is if the S5 Cabrio is a match for BMW’s drop-top M3 for a lot less money?

The S5 Cabrio uses the same supercharged 3.0-litre V6 engine as the S4 saloon, turning out 328bhp. That’s enough to see the S5 Cabrio cover 0-62mph in 5.6 seconds, though this is half a second behind the S4 and BMW M3 Convertible. On the road, the S5’s 325lb ft of mid-range urgency makes up for the shortfall in overall power next to the BMW as this is 30lb ft more than the M3 can muster.

Between corners, the S5 has plenty of pace and slips through its seven-speed S-tronic twin-clutch gearbox with greased ease. Leave the gearbox to its own devices and the shifts can be on the slovenly side when you want to get a move on, so best to select Sport mode or use the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Work the gearbox in this way and the shifts are snappy and accompanied by a more than pleasing bark from the exhaust.

The engine makes a great yowl as it reaches its peak and the S5 is enjoyable to hustle along. It won’t keep up with a well driven M3, though, and there are some niggles to the way it drives.

For starters, the optional Dynamic Steering fitted to our test car feels too artificial at higher speeds. Around town, it’s quite heavy with a quick two and a bit turns from lock-to-lock and gives hope that it will be suitably sensitive at a quicker pace. Sadly, this doesn’t translate and the S5’s steering doesn’t provide the feedback needed to make it a truly sporting machine.

It’s the same when it comes to the handling. Yes, there’s Quattro four-wheel drive as standard and, yes, it gives incredible bite into corners. Press harder on the throttle, though, and the S5’s nose will run wide, but only if you really are travelling. In most circumstances, the S5 handles with a neutral balance, helped by the optional Quattro Sports Differential our test car was equipped with.

The QSD works by splitting the power between the front and rear axles, and from side to side with the rear wheels, to find the best traction in all conditions. It undoubtedly works very effectively, but there’s a nagging sensation that the S5 is doing all of the work and the driver is not intrinsically linked to the driving effort.

Audi offers the driver a chance to tailor the S5 to their tastes with a number of settings. This is worked either through the dash console button for comfort, normal and sport modes, or can be fine tuned via the MMI (multi media interface) that also allows the steering responses to be calibrated to the driver’s preferences. Either way, it feels like the S5 just doesn’t have the finely honed touch of a BMW M3.

With all of the setting at their most tightly wound, the S5 Cabrio experiences some shimmy and jitter through its body on rougher roads. Rein it in a notch or two and the S5 copes with super smooth and British-like bumpy roads with equal aplomb. This makes the S5 a great bet for long distance driving as it has comfort in abundance and its whole drivetrain feels happier when not being asked to give its all for the whole time. We noticed the brakes on our test car started to squeak after a few kilometres of hard driving, so the S5 is better in the role of GT.

Grand touring over long distances certainly won’t be a problem or hardship in the S5 Cabrio’s cabin. Front seat passengers are treated to leather bucket seats that support and bolster in all the right places, while there’s just enough room in the back for a couple of adults, though they will need to keep their elbows tucked in due to the narrower rear seat. There’s also a decent boot that can handle a couple of small suitcases and soft bags, so the S5 can do practical too.

With the hood up, it’s a struggle for adults to wriggle in and out of the back seats, and there’s not a great deal of headroom. However, for those in the front, the S5 is snug and hushed with the roof up. Folding away the electric hood takes 15 seconds (or 17 seconds to raise it), and this can be done on the move at up to 31mph, so no need for embarrassing fumblings on the hard shoulder when the rain comes.

With the roof stowed away, those in the front can carry on a conversation all the way up to motorway speeds without shouting. There’s little bluster from the wind, even with all of the windows lowered, though rear seat passengers might beg to differ when the S5 Cabrio is taken beyond urban speed limits.

There’s no doubt the Audi S5 Cabriolet is a swift, classy drop-top, but back to that question about whether or not it’s up to rivalling the BMW M3 Convertible? In a straight driving contest, the M3 has it every time. However, when you consider the S5 Cabrio is three quarters of the price of the BMW yet delivers 90% of the M3’s thrills and pleasure, the Audi makes a strong case for itself.