155 in the first diesel sports car

Walter de’Silvia says it’s the most beautiful car he has ever designed. He should know all about that since he heads up styling department for Audi.

And the gleaming blue A5 coupe sure looks like a sports car even if the eight LEDs lining the bottom of each headlight pod are a little over the top.

It has two doors, a six-speed manual transmission and 19-inch wheels. The base engine is a stout gasoline V6 with 265 horsepower. There’s a V8-powered model, called the S5, with 100 more horsepower. Both have Quattro all-wheel-drive. But this . . . is different. It’s an A5 sports car with a diesel engine and the first true diesel sports car to hit North American streets. Of course, it’s not available there yet, but it is available here in Europe and a fast drive on an unlimited-speed portion of the German Autobahn is just the ticket to either confirm or deny this two-door’s claim as a true sports machine. Out here, looking the part just isn’t going to cut it, especially when nearly every other car is a BMW or a Mercedes-Benz driving in the fast lane.

The A5’s 220-horsepower 3.0-liter diesel engine is a new-strain of diesel with a combination of civil driving characteristics, outstanding torque (more than 400 pound-feet from a small V6, which is nearly double that of the gas V6) and a projected average fuel economy approaching 40 mpg. In terms of performance, Audi’s numbers are 5.9 seconds for the sprint to 60 mph and a top speed of 155 mph, 0.2 seconds quicker and 25 mph faster than the gas V6. Wow.

Largely absent from North American roads, diesels are immensely popular in Europe where fuel costs significantly more. At home, diesels are relegated to strong-man work, deemed too uncouth for much of anything else. However, a new-generation diesel is upon us that uses cleaner fuel while filtering out the black grime that used to be synonymous with diesel ownership. But a sports car? It’s the perfect vehicle to prove that the new diesels are for real. Audi also has sound logic for its development of diesel engines: the Environmental Protection Agency predicts that 500 million barrels of crude oil could be saved every year in the United States if just one third of all vehicles were diesel powered. While about half of European vehicles are equipped with diesels, in North America that number plunges into single-digit territory.

So, here we are just outside of Munich in the southern part of the country on a sunny 75 F day with the Alps carving a distinct-but-random path across the horizon.

Despite what you might have heard about the quietness of new-generation diesels, you can still tell this A5 has a diesel, although at idle it’s as quiet as any gas engine. Winging the throttle reveals a slight ticking, like a loud cat purring, at the lower end of the rev range, but nothing offensive.

A small hint of turbo lag — the time it takes for the turbocharger to build boost pressure and thus power — is present, but then an exhilarating rush of torque has you on your way. But almost immediately, you have to shift. Yes, probably the most obvious adjustment to your driving style, especially in a sports car, is learning to short-shift the diesel: which means to shift much sooner than you’re used to. For example, the gas V8 in the Audi R8 pulls past 8,000 revs per minute. The diesel? A whopping 4,500. So, you spend much more time shifting up and down when you drive a diesel sports car because the time spent in any gear is minimized by the narrow power band. The A5 diesel would no doubt be quicker to 60 mph than Audi’s claim if the driver didn’t have to go through so many shifts to get there.

On the plus side, the engine is only running at 4,200 revs or so at the maximum speed, which we can verify to be 155, or slightly better, as shown on the speedometer. At that rate, the A5 is gobbling up a football field in length every 1.3 seconds and the Alps are filling the windshield in hurry. This was with the optional high-end audio system and the climate control cranked.

Sheer speed and acceleration are one thing, but what’s more interesting is how the car drives, turns and slows while being pushed to the ragged edge. While many other cars are completely nerve wracking at anything over 100 mph, the A5, at 155, drives straight and true with minimal bobbing around when the suspension loads and unloads. Rapid deceleration when the occasional lunkhead decides to pull into your lane brings about a slight tail wag and only a hint of lockup.

So, this A5 passes with flying colors, with an engine that will also be available in the Q7 sport utility vehicle as well as the new Q5 wagon. The big question is whether you’ll buy one over the base gasoline-powered model. That will depend on how Audi works its pricing (the gas model begins at $39,900) and what happens to the price of fuel. If it continues its march upward, the reasons for buying a diesel-powered vehicle will be more apparent, at least in terms of savings and perhaps now with regards to performance, too.

Jeff Melnychuk is Wheelbase Communications’ managing editor. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase is a North America supplier of automobile news, reviews and features.

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