2010 Audi A5 Sportback 2.0 TFSI quattro

Does car design get any better than this? Nick March falls under the spell of Audi's latest beguiling product.

The Audi A5 Sportback, the latest addition to the German car maker's ever-expanding range, is a beautifully sculpted car.
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Ever since the early dinosaurs roamed the earth, Audi has been using three words to describe its range of cars - Vorsprung durch Technik - or "advancement through technology" as this collection of German words roughly translates to. It's a brilliant strapline - right up there with Nike's "Just Do It" - and is so typically Audi you can't imagine it being associated with anything other than the car maker's four rings.

Nevertheless, Audi has recently had to fork out bundles of cash defending its right to claim those words as its own. After a seven-year legal battle, common sense prevailed last week and the European Court of Justice upheld the car maker's right to trademark a brand statement that it had worked so hard to come up with in the first place. Really, did you see that one coming? It's hard not to instantly think of Vorsprung durch Technik when you spend any amount of time with the indecently good-looking A5 Sportback, Audi's latest addition to a rapidly expanding range, such is the attention to detail and precise engineering evident in this drop-dead gorgeous car.

The Sportback achieves its very majestic look by shaving 36mm off the top of the A4, which it shares a platform with, and stretching the wheelbase to close to the corners of the car. The effect is to make every exterior line appear to have been drawn to perfection, and I doubt that even the eagerly awaited four-door Aston Martin Rapide (which arrives later this year) will rival the A5 for beauty. Predictably, there is just one blot on an otherwise wonderful piece of design: the frankly awful LED daytime running lights that surround the headlights and now seem to be standard fit on every Audi.

There is though, little need to fuss over this small aberration, because the A5 really does manage to stitch together bits from a coupe, a saloon and an estate car and deliver a coherent and, indeed, clever package. Take for instance the Sportback's use of the kinetic energy produced under braking, effectively mimicking Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems used in Formula One last season. However, instead of producing the kind of power boost that made Lewis Hamilton's McLaren so unpredictable in competition last year, the Audi recuperation system instead converts this kinetic power into electrical energy and stashes it temporarily in the battery. Once you hit the accelerator again, this collected energy gets channelled back to the 211hp, 2.0L TFSI engine to reduce the strain on the alternator and, more importantly, lower fuel consumption. Audi claims combined cycle consumption of 7.5L/100km and remarkably, I achieved close to this mark for the duration of the test. A sporty car that's easy on fuel, now that sounds like the stuff of the future.

The driving dynamics are classic Audi - compelling and unfussy all at the same time. Audi's Drive Select system is standard on the A5, offering drivers the options of configuring the car's engine, gearbox, steering and suspension in any one of four modes (Comfort, Dynamic, Automatic or Individual). Put simply, if you drive the car in Comfort mode, you'll get low-rev gear changes and, indeed, fuel consumption your great aunt would be proud of. Switch to the Dynamic setting and the 2.0L engine delivers 350Nm of torque between 1,500 and 4,200rpm, and stirs into life quicker than a hungry bear at the end of his winter hibernation.

Audi claims a top speed of 241kph for the Sportback and a requirement of just 6.6 seconds to power the car to 100kph. Heady stuff and all delivered via a very willing seven-speed, dual clutch gearbox and kept on the straight and narrow by the car maker's fabled quattro all-wheel-drive system. It is a classy combination. Inside the cabin you also get Audi's much-vaunted rock-solid build quality, a dashboard that feels like it will last for a thousand years (or until the dinosaurs make a return to the earth, whichever comes sooner) and a four-seat set-up.

The back seats have been lowered to help ensure that beautiful sloping rear roofline doesn't compromise rear headroom. And there is, generally, plenty of space back there for two passengers. Interestingly, Volkswagen's cheaper Sportback alternative, the Passat CC, also came to market as a four-seater when it was introduced last year, although the car maker now intends to offer a traditional three-seat bench in the back in response to customer demand. It will be fascinating to see if Audi follows suit in a year or two.

Where the A5 also differs from the Passat CC and the Mercedes-Benz CLS, its more expensive rival, is at the tail. Conventional wisdom says that premium German car makers don't do hatchbacks unless they are coupes. But, with BMW chucking that assumption out of the window with its mind-boggling Gran Turismo 5 Series variant and Audi having an aggressive new model plan and market-busting niches to fill, it should come as no surprise that the Sportback is a hatchback after all.

It is all the better for it too, with room for a whopping 480 litres of luggage in the boot, well above the 440-litre capacity of the standard A4 saloon. If I had one bone of contention, aside from those dreadful daytime running lights, it would be with the MMI operating system. Almost alone in the world, I find BMW's iDrive system simple and intuitive to use, while the multi-buttoned Audi equivalent had me tied up in knots.

All that functionality clustered around the gearbox just didn't seem that sensible to me - or that easy to access when travelling at speed. No matter though, because the A5 Sportback is an engineering masterpiece. Vorsprung durch Technik as the European courts might say. nmarch@thenational.ae