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Review: 2011 Audi S5 Cabriolet

by Drew Johnson

Audi's luxurious droptop makes the perfect summer treat.

Looking to take advantage of the summer sun, we decided to order up a week in the Audi S5 Convertible.

Our week-long stint resulted in some pretty spectacular sunburns, but the S5 turned out to be the perfect vehicle to sooth our pains.

What is it?
Essentially a convertible version of the S4 sedan, the S5 offers buyers a nice blend of performance, comfort and style.

The S5 convertible leans a bit farther over the line of grand tourer rather than all-out sports and, unlike its V8-powered S5 coupe counterpart, the S5 drop top uses Audi's sweet 3.0-liter supercharged V6.

What's it up against?
In previous years, the S5 convertible would have gone up against the BMW M3, but Audi has reshuffled its lineup to provide a better apples-to-apples comparison. The S5 now lines up against the mid-level 335i, leaving the M3 for the Europe-only RS5.

Given the upscale nature of the Audi, potential S5 buyers will also have vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class Convertible and Volvo C70 on their shopping lists - even if those nameplates don't offer the same level of performance.

Any breakthroughs?
For better or for worse, the S5 cabrio is a bit of a technological tour de force, requiring an IT degree to operate many of the car's functions. While the third-generation of Audi's MMI is certainly the best iteration to date, it can still take your attention away from the road, which seems kind of against the point in a driver-focused car like the S5 convertible.

However, Audi's 3.0-liter supercharged V6 remains just as sensational as the first time we sampled it two years ago, and the S5's seven-speed automatic transmission is a huge leap forward from Audi's past DSG gearboxes.

How does it look?
The A5 is arguably the prettiest car in Audi's lineup - although that discussion is now clouded by the A7 - and those lines translate well to the drop-top version of the car.

The S5 gets a little more glitz and glam to set it apart from the standard car, with the S5 gaining a more sporting front end, silver capped side mirrors and Audi's signature S quad exhaust pipes.

Overall, the changes are quite subtle, and we like that. The S5 doesn't scream boy racer yet it manages to feels more special than a run-of-the-mill BMW 335i convertible.

And the inside?
Audi has long been known for its top-notch interiors, and the S5 cabrio is no exception. Audi's didn't cut any corners on the S5's material quality and the car's fit and finish is exactly what you would expect from a $60,000-plus luxury sports car. However, the S5 comes equipped with a manual steering column adjust, which seems kind of low brow at this price point.

The S5 gains a pair of unique sport bucket front seats, and we found them to be well bolstered and comfortable enough for long journeys. The S5's rear seats are standard-issue A5, but our tester's red and black color scheme really added to the car's sporting nature.

We liked the layout of the S5's dual-binnacle gauge cluster, but questioned the spacing of the car's speedometer. An optimistic Audi engineer saw it fit to equip the S5 with a 200 mph maximum, meaning you only realistically ever use of a third of the dial's face. While there is a redundant LCD screen next to the speedometer, it's just kind of odd to glance down and see 35 mph as a merely a blip on the analog dial.

The S5 utilizes a rather unconventional center stack, which can take some time to get used to. All functions are displayed via an LCD screen atop the S5's dash, but accessing some common functions is easier said than done. For instance, the car's interior temperature and blower are controlled by the same knob, requiring a "push" to toggle between the functions. On more than one occasion we reached down to crank up the AC only to accidentally turn the heat up to 85 degrees.

We had some equally frustrating moments with the S5's MMI system, but mainly because it averted our attention from the road. We became more familiar with the system as the week went on, but at several points we found ourselves wishing for an old fashioned radio and HVAC system.

A lesser gripe with MMI is that its controls are setup counter-intuitive to what you'd expect. Instead of turning its control wheel to the right to scroll down, you have to turn it to the left. Even after several days we were still instinctively turning the dial to the right. We can thank Apple's iPod for that.

But does it go?
Although 333 horsepower may not seem like a lot in a world with 638 horsepower Corvettes, make no bones about it - the S5 Cabriolet goes like the clappers. The S5 easily scoots off the line thanks to 325 lb-ft of torque and Audi's quattro all-wheel drive system, with all 333 supercharged horses rocketing the car toward its 7,000 rpm redline. Audi's S tronic seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox returns lightning-fast shifts, each marked by a sonorous back-pressure "˜pop' from the quad exhaust pipes.

But even with that kind of performance on tap, the S5 cabrio just feels like a normal car when tooling around town. The car's dual-clutch gearbox can be a little clunky during low speed operation, but nothing overly offensive. Compared to Audi's first crack at a DSG, the S tronic unit feels like a conventional torque-converter automatic.

Most drives will likely keep the S5 in "˜Auto' mode, but we far preferred the "˜Dynamic' setting. The Dynamic mode firms the suspension and increases the throttle response, but the biggest change, at least for us, was the increase in steering weight. The heavier steering gave us the sensation of a better driving feel, instilling confidence on even the windiest of back roads. At more than 4,300 lbs., the S5 is still more of a GT than pure sports car, but it's more than capable of blurring that line.

We found the S5's brakes to be more than adequate, although it doesn't feel like Audi engineers could wring out a little more stopping power.

Why you would buy it:
If you're in the market for an all-rounder, the S5 convertible might just be the car for you. The S5 can blend into any office parking lot and then turn into a canyon carver when the clock strikes 5. Throw in a retractable roof and seating for four and the S5 becomes a fairly attractive proposition.

Why you wouldn't:
If you're in the market for an all-out sports car, you'll probably be disappointed with the S5 convertible. There are plenty of other performance machines out there for the S5's $64,000 asking price, including the Corvette Convertible Grand Sport and even Audi's own TT RS.

Leftlane's bottom line
Despite some of the frustrations we had with Audi's MMI system, we found the S5 convertible to be a quite enjoyable summer joy ride. Audi's 3.0L supercharged V6 remains one of the sweetest engines on the market and the S5's much improved dual-clutch gearbox really added to the car's driving pleasure. Although we probably wouldn't put the S5 in our garage as a toy car, we could see it being a fantastic daily driver.

At nearly $65,000 our tester wasn't exactly cheap, but those shopping the S5 probably aren't that concerned with costs. However, the BMW M3 convertible is just a few paychecks more than that the S5 cabrio, which might cause us to pause.

2011 Audi S5 quattro Auto S-Tronic Cabriolet base price, $58,450. As tested, $64,225.
Navigation Package with Camera, $2,450; Sports Rear Differential Package, $1,100; Bang & Olufsen premium sound system, $850; Carbon Atlas interior inlays, $500; Destination, $850.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.