by Robert S. Schultz
Officially, Audi held no premieres at the Chicago Auto Show this year. But that is a mere technicality, because four important new models had their coming out in this part of the Midwest: the totally revised Q5, the S4 and S5, and the A5 Sportback, finally making its bow in America with this latest generation.
Audi devoted substantial real estate to its lineup in Chicago, unlike next-door neighbor BMW, which downsized significantly. Virtually every model was on display in one guise or another, no small feat as Audi continues to expand its offerings in the U.S. Logistically, Audi orders its stand with Teutonic precision, aligning the cars like planes on a runway preparing for takeoff, and color-coding them in mostly red, white and gray according to their level of sport and performance. Media preview days gave us the opportunity to roam freely among the neatly arranged Audis, popping hoods, slamming doors, poking quilted leather and peering underneath, all in service of forming first impressions. Here’s what stood out with the new models:
Q5: Audi’s best-seller has received a thorough, if cautious, revamp. It’s now built on the newer MLB platform shared with the A4 and A5, so it is fair to say that the Q5 is the SUV of A4s. Audi’s measured approach to the Q5’s styling sets it apart from the audacious designs of Infiniti’s and Mercedes-Benz’s recent sport utilities. Audi is apparently unwilling to compromise luggage capacity or rear headroom for a more raked tailgate and sloped roof. So the hindquarters of the new Q can look a bit squat, especially in photos. But the Q5 fares better in person, where its curvaceous sculpting can be appreciated close-up. It doesn’t help, however, that the Q5 sits higher on its suspension than seems necessary, especially given the light duty that most Q5s will see. The real load that the Q5 carries is being Audi of America’s sales leader, a weighty task that the strategically reworked model appears poised to continue.
S4: The upgrade from A4 to S4 follows the usual Audi progression: Aggressive front and rear fascias. Upgraded powertrain. Aluminum-look brightwork. Lots of aluminum-look brightwork. Interior enhancements. Discrete alloy wheels. The hood of the S4 is newly creased, but it is what’s underneath that intrigues. A hulking turbo nests in the vee of the six-cylinder engine, replacing the supercharger of the previous S4. Will it produce the instant gratification, and we mean instant, of its predecessor? Will it offer the full-throated howl of the blown V6?
S5: Get out your magnifying glass and micrometer. You’ll need them to differentiate the new and old S5s. Actually, that’s somewhat of an exaggeration, but casual observers will have difficulty telling them apart. While the new S5 retains the basic proportions of the lovely original, it seems more compact, more concentrated. Which is ironic, because it’s really longer (by a scant 1.3 inches). Neither height nor width have changed, but the hood is more dome shaped and the rear window a tad more upright. The real differences are in the details: 4 sharp strakes along the length of the hood, a prominent wave line running from front to rear (variation on a design theme shared by A4/S4 A5 Sportback and Q5 ), and a modest flare over the rear wheelhouses that recalls the rear fender blisters of the previous RS 5. This latter feature is almost dimensionally insignificant, and difficult to photograph, but adds character to the car quite out of proportion to its size. Where the first generation S5 could look a little heavy in its rear flanks, the new model seems perceptibly lighter, perhaps due to those subtle flares. The interior starts with already-stellar A4 bits and elevates them to S level trim, including carbon fiber inserts on the door panels, lower dash and console sides.
A5 Sportback: Don’t call it a hatchback, despite the industrial-grade struts required to lift up the entire rear window/trunk lid assembly, which opens wide. Audi’s clever fastback, first seen here with the A7, comes at last to America in a more compact size. Stylistically this kind of sedan nee hatch configuration probably shouldn’t work, but Audi pulls it off quite gracefully. Where the A7 is lean and elegant the A5 Sportback is muscular and athletic. Not surprisingly, the design blends elements of the latest A4 and A5, along with some unique touches like frameless doors and a stylish kink in the C-pillar window trim. Specs aren’t out yet, but it will be interesting to compare luggage capacity with that of its A4/A5 counterparts. Thankfully, there’s a button to lower the heavy hatch automatically. Overall, the A5 Sportback is a classy car—car, mind you, not crossover wannabe—that successfully integrates style, sport and practicality.
Seeing nearly the entire Audi lineup arrayed in one place is impressive, a graphic reminder of the breadth of Audi’s range. The company is also on a tear with new product introductions and updates, and it’s refreshing to note that they’re arriving in America about the same time as the rest of the world. Premium/luxury buyers have an abundance of choices these days, as just about every manufacturer is courting them with one nameplate or another. From the floor of the Chicago Auto Show, it’s evident that Audi is taking nothing for granted.
The Chicago Auto Show continues through February 19 at McCormick Place.