The 2020 Audi A5 Sportback, a Bit Damp

It’s a new week, and I’m back with another German car Rental Review for your enjoyment! Today’s rental is one of two American market entrants into the premium compact five-door liftback segment, and not a car one expects to find in an Enterprise lot. Presenting a 2020 Audi A5 Sportback, two years and 50,000 rental miles later.

The A5 Sportback runs in the oft-ignored liftback class alongside the similarly priced BMW 4-Series Gran Coupe. But the Audi’s name is a bit misleading: The real A5 is available as a coupe or convertible, has two doors, and rides on a shorter wheelbase than the A5 Sportback. The Sportback is actually an upmarket take on the A4. In all directions, it’s within an inch in size of the A4 apart from height, where the A4 trumps the A5 Sportback by an inch and a half.

The two cars have the same features, styling, and engine, but the extra cargo capacity of the Sportback demands a premium. Where the A4 starts at $39,900 in its most basic format, the current A5 Sportback asks $43,900. The same engine powers all A5 Sportbacks, across the Premium, Premium Plus, and Prestige trims. Each trim is available as 40 TFSI spec with 201 horsepower, or 45 TFSI spec at 261 horses. Prices top out over $55,000 for the top Prestige trim in 45 TFSI spec.

Trims changed for the A5 Sportback in 2021 when the engine gained a mild hybrid system and the 40 TFSI specification was introduced. Between 2018 and 2020 all cars were the 45 TFSI and had 248 horsepower. And though base horsepower dropped by 47 in 2021, prices didn’t decrease. The cost of progress, I guess.

$42,900 was the 2020 ask of the rental A5 Premium 45 TFSI Quattro, which sported $0 black paint, and a black interior. Tan, brown, and gray interiors are available presently for no additional charge. Quattro all-wheel-drive has always been standard on the A5 Sportback, and so is leather; two things not present in the competition.

Exterior panel gaps are consistent and tight across the Sportback’s svelte body. Current Audi design language translates well here, even if the black paint does the car no favors (it looks better in any other color.) Trim alignment is excellent, and there’s a nice continual piece of chrome trim across the roofline since the Sportback has frameless windows. The frameless windows and liftback are the only real differences between the A4 sedan and A5 Sportback.

Unfortunately, the shiny (and dirty) black paint shows orange peel along the roof line, and under the side windows. Paint quality in other areas was good, though the gloss black was no longer very lustrous after a couple of years of wear. Plastic panels up top accommodate the function of the panoramic glass roof and reflect hazy surface scratches. And although it’s a “panoramic” piece of glass, the actual roof opening inside is smaller than many a standard sedan, and the glass panel does not open fully. This roof arrangement is primarily to maintain smooth exterior looks.

The A5 uses dogleg door handles that angle upward when pulled, rather than outward. Combined with a heavy door, the net feeling is a lack of leverage. Fingers grab naturally at the corner of the window to open the door fully, which means all windows are marked with smudges. Door handle use sounds cheap and plastic on the outside, but inside operates with a quality motion. Doors close with a reassuring thunk and feel heavy and solid in their use. All windows drop slightly in coupe fashion to prevent glass damage upon closure.

Inside, the presentation is standard A4. Everything feels well put together, and there’s no VW parts bin. The dash is made of a solid rubbery material, much like one finds in a BMW. There’s a traditional-looking strip of thick wood trim (that looks artificial) across the dash and down the center console that’s very high gloss and looks unnatural. However, the trim looks better with any other interior color other than black, as the black clashes.

Black abounds with any interior color choice, as much of the other trim around the cabin is made of lovely piano black plastic. Highly glossy in finish, it shows plenty of hazing and scratches after two years’ use. It’s a bad material choice around the center console cubbies and cup holders where occupants naturally toss things.

Above, headliners are made of a scratchy and decidedly non-premium cloth material. The small “panoramic” roof opening does not extend over the back seat, and its sun shade is a perforated cloth that does not filter out all light. Imagine some basketball shorts stretched over a skylight and you’re there. The shade can be operated independently of the roof and left closed while the roof glass is open.

The standard leather seating surfaces are soft enough, and given the extensive use of this example seem to hold up under hard usage and minimal care. Seats at the front have plenty of power adjustments and ample bottom cushion for those with longer legs. Most should find comfort behind the wheel of the A5. Rear seat passengers have a very respectable amount of leg room for a compact car, though headroom suffers from the sloping roof on the Sportback. It’s not a car for those who regularly have adult passengers in the rear. However, the rear seat gets its own zone for climate control with separate temperature adjustment – a nice touch.

In addition to a very large cargo area in the Sportback (a powered liftgate is standard), the rear seats fold down to create wagon-like capacity. A board-like cargo cover behind the rear seats is supplemented with another that raises along with the back glass. Both ensure complete cargo privacy or can be removed if the rear area will be completely filled.

Climate controls are an interesting mix of satisfactory controls and irritating switches. Dials for driver and passenger control temperature, feel nicely made, and click with authority. Between them is a row of five buttons, which control fan direction, AC type, and fan speed. Those are touch-dependent and show their full function only when touched. They rock up and down for selection. It takes too much attention off the road as the information presented on the climate screen changes when a button is touched.

The climate control struggles to keep the interior cool on an 88-degree day, but the black paint, leather, and lack of tint do not assist. Heated seats are standard, but ventilated chairs are locked behind the $54,500 Prestige trim.

Below the climate is a row of less often used buttons for the drive mode, traction control, a bunch of blanks (in this trim), and the stop-start defeat. There’s a separate radio dial next to the shifter which controls tuning and volume. It’s also a “power” button, but the radio is never truly off, just muted.

Audio quality is fine with the basic (non B+O) system in the A5, but its lack of input methods is frustrating. CarPlay and Android Auto are present, but via cord only. There’s no XM Radio tuner, and there’s no Bluetooth at all unless the Audi driving app is installed first. It’s not possible to quickly connect and play music in the A5, and that’s lousy.

Audi is stingy with other tech in the Premium A5 trim. Gauges are standard analog with a central screen. They’re clear and nice to look at, however, and the central screen has good clarity. It presents limited information, but in a concise and usable way. Audi’s MMI system is limited in the Premium, and though the navigation arrow is there, the system reminds you that you didn’t buy it. But that’s what Apple/Android are for anyway.

Also missing are blind-spot detection and any driving aids besides crash avoidance. The backup camera’s image is not of great quality and has the sort of fish-eye distortion that makes all parking spaces look perilously small. It was more a hindrance than a helper when parking. The central screen is 10.1″ here (12″ in upper trims) and feels solid. Tug at it all you like, no flexing or creaks to be heard. Image clarity is sharp, and the limited menus make sense in their arrangement.

The A5 pleasantly surprised with its drive. The 2.0T Audi uses in many of its cars produces 248 horses and 273 torques in this application. It’s a heavy car at 3,726 pounds, just 150 shy of an all-wheel-drive 5-Series. And although the two cars share a horsepower figure, the 25 extra torques of the A5 make a big difference. The seven-speed automatic works well with the 2.0 to pull the Sportback along with authority; it always feels ready to go faster and is never out of breath.

There is turbo lag though, which rears its head in slower around-town driving and from standing starts. Floor it from a stop, and there are a couple of seconds of slow-ish progress until the turbo spools up, and off you go. You reach 60 in an impressive 5.7 seconds.

The transmission carries out its duties well, in general. Depending on which mode the car is in (comfort, dynamic, auto, individual), the transmission adjusts to serve up gears more or less harshly. In the same way, steering effort can be made heavier, and engine noise can, unfortunately, be added via the speakers. On its own, the 2.0 produces a decent sound for an inline-four and doesn’t sound like it’s stressed.

With its performance, the Sportback is happy to be tossed around back roads. The steering is direct and weighted to preference via drive mode but doesn’t provide much feedback. Brakes are strong and bring the A5 to a halt as quickly as required. The throttle is easy to learn and operate. There’s always plenty of grip with the all-wheel drive, though if a corner is attacked too rapidly lift-off oversteer may occur. Whoops.

The Sportback suffers a bit around town and on the open interstate, for two different reasons. In stop-and-go traffic the transmission fumbles gears on occasion, as though it’s not ready for light braking followed by gentle acceleration. The stop-start system interfered here too, with a jerky startup procedure that caused a bit of lag before movement. Easily defeated via a dedicated button below the climate control.

No such transmission problems at interstate speeds, but there’s a new one: Noise. Over 70 miles per hour, there’s notable wind noise from around the side mirrors, and road noise comes through the wheel wells into the cabin. It’s not a result of the liftback causing echo, just not quite enough insulation. Given the sporty mission of the A5, the noise level is not unacceptable. Fuel economy is in the low to acceptable range: 24 city, 32 highway, and 27 combined. After 18,152 miles on the rental, the average was 29 mpg.

In all situations, the Sportback’s ride errs on the sporty side of comfortable. Road imperfections are soaked up nicely, but you’ll certainly hear them. Ride quality is generally very composed and buttoned-down, to where it’s hard to find fault with the A5 in that area. Just a very good compromise of control and cushioning, and certainly everyday livable.

There’s where I was going to wrap this review, but the day after sunny testing something very concerning happened. While driving on I-75 in the rain, water poured in around the window seal of the driver’s door. It seems in this example that frameless design is causing water problems after just 50,000 miles. Verifying in photos from the day before, I noticed the lack of a driver’s floor mat and the water stain in the footwell. This has been a persistent issue for this car.

And so my A5 recommendation comes with two caveats. The first is if you do not absolutely need the extra cargo area of the liftback, get the A4 in similar trim and save some cash. The A4 has frames on its windows and is less likely to have a water issue than the Sportback. The second caveat is about power: If selecting either car, spend the three extra grand (at any trim) and get the 45 TFSI version. The horsepower difference shrinks the time to 60 from 6.7 seconds to 5.4, and that’ll make all the difference.

[Images: Corey Lewis/The Truth About Cars]

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Katherine T. Burrows

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