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Audi A5 Sportback

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Audi A5 Sportback 2.0 TDI SE
5/10

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Road Test

Audi A5 Sportback Sportback 2.0 TDI SE

Driven August 2009

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Another month, another Audi. The Ingolstadt factory is busier than ever right now, belching out new models as fast as its conveyor belts can carry them. Audi sold over a million cars last year, and this A5 Sportback is the 33rd car to join the company's line-up. It's also the sixth to share the A4/A5 platform.

So what is the A5 Sportback, exactly? We will attempt to answer that as briefly as possible, but because it's complicated, it might take nearly a billion words.

Firstly, ignore the name because essentially what we have here is the first-ever A4 hatchback (the A4 has always been a saloon or estate until now). Audi will recoil in mock-shock at that allegation, and insist this is a blood member of the A5 coupe family. But there's no escaping the two extra doors at the back, and especially the third one hinged to the roof.

Confused? Not yet, you're not. Is it the swoopy roofline that messes things up, making this a hatch that dabbles in coupe-ness? Or is it a coupe that dabbles in hatch-ness? Or is it neither, as Audi might claim, because it thinks it's an entirely new type of car? If you disregard the hatch's shutline or just squint a little, it could be an A5 saloon, or, in other words, a lower, swoopier A4 saloon. Maybe the A5 saloon is coming next.

Let's keep ploughing on through this, because at some point we'll get to the answer.

Mechanically the A5 Sportback shares almost everything with the A4, on which the A5 coupe is based. The wheelbase is just 2mm longer than an A4, though overall it's a tad shorter and a touch wider - as if God has reached down from heaven and gently squashed the car.

Visually, it's obviously more A5 than A4. It shares the same nose, the rippled waistline, the flicky bootlip and has a similar rear end. It has the classy frameless doors, too. But despite its complicated conception, the look is cohesive rather than confused - though it takes a few glances to fathom what you're looking at, which is a hatchback A4 with an A5 coupe nose. Maybe. 

If you think we're going round in circles, you're probably right. But this is Audi, so it has built this A4 Hatchback and called it an A5 Sportback for a reason.

Scan any office car park and you'll see neat lines of saloons and estates, bookended by a slinky coupe in a spot marked ‘reserved'. It's the most obvious of status symbols - something swoopy for the boss, something ubiquitous and boxy for the underlings. Many company car lists restrict lowly staff to a four-door layout, leaving them wallowing in a saloon while the MD swoons around in his coupe. The Sportback fits somewhere between the two and gives middle managers a way around the rules. "An A4? Huh! No way, mine's a Sportback..."

Audi will tell you that the car is made for people who care greatly about design. And perhaps they do, but the fact that 70 per cent of sales will go down the fleet route suggests that, for most Sportback drivers, status is more important than style.

Is this starting to make sense? If it is, then think again, because we haven't stepped inside yet.

Appropriately, we'll start in the back. Swing open a rear door, plonk yourself inside and all seems pretty normal. Legroom is the same as the A4 saloon and headroom is compromised by just 5mm, which isn't a bad payoff for that sloping roofline. But look closer and you'll notice the lack of a middle seatbelt. Audi is selling this thing as a four-seater, which would be fine if the rear seats were artistically sculpted to cuddle your torso. But they're not. It's just a regular bench with a raised cushion where the middle seat would usually be. In other words, it's an incredibly lazy attempt to imitate a four-seat coupe, at the expense of practicality. Who will it impress?

Moving rearwards, the Sportback starts to make more sense. Despite the new arty silhouette the boot has a wide and unobstructed aperture through which to load your stuff. At 480 litres, luggage space is exactly the same as the A4 saloon, only more accessible as the hatch opens its big, yawning mouth.

At this point, you're probably wondering how it drives. Surely it will be like any other Audi, right?

Wrong. Somehow in the transition from coupe/saloon/whatever to Sportback, things have gone a bit soft. There's more body roll than in the A4/A5 and a floaty feeling on motorways, which on our test route, were as smooth as boiled sweets. Our car was on 17-inch wheels and standard suspension, which might account for some of the squidge - S-line cars did feel firmer. Audi reckons the spring and damper rates are identical to the coupe, but it doesn't feel like it.

That isn't necessarily a criticism though, as the entire Sportback experience was curiously relaxing. Best to forget Audi's claims of ‘extreme driving pleasure' and treat it more like a GT with which to hoover up motorways.

So now it's a GT too? Possibly.

The engines and gearboxes are more predictable. We spent most of our time in the 2.0-litre TDI, which was as strong and refined as ever. We also tried the 2.0-litre petrol, and that was smooth and quiet enough to put you off diesel for life, especially if you don't notch up huge motorway miles. But then it wouldn't be a GT, would it?

And while all that swirls around your brain like leaves in a vortex, consider this final twist. Spec-for-spec, the Sportback is more expensive than the A4 saloon - £1,700 in the case of a 2.0-litre TDI SE. Remember, what we're dealing with here is an A4 hatch (possibly), so a £1,700 premium over an equally-optioned saloon is madness. All you're getting is a swoopier C-pillar, more accessible bootspace and one fewer seat.

Compare that to, say, a Vauxhall Insignia - which carries no extra charge for the saloon-to-hatch transition - and the Sportback looks like a bit of a swindle.

And so we arrive at an answer, of sorts. The Sportback is an A4 hatch with the looks of an A5 and a ludicrously absent fifth seat. It's a comfy GT with usefully accessible bootspace. It won't satisfy your inner Stigness and it's far too expensive. And because it's an Audi, it will sell by the lorry load.

If that doesn't make sense now, it probably never will.

Dan Read

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