That mountain magic

Feature The Audi A5 proves to be head turner in Monaco. That must count for a lot.

Even in the rain, the winding roads of the super wealthy principality of Monaco are a joy to drive in the new Audi A5 Cabriolet. But thankfully, the top goes up in 15 seconds when you want it to.
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Some things just don't go together; you wouldn't wear a ball gown to McDonald's or put ketchup on a fillet steak. Likewise, with a car, one doesn't take that little sporty number to the desert or the chunky old SUV to the race track. But I suspected the Audi A5 Cabriolet would indeed go very well with the sweeping roads of Monaco, so I packed my Grace Kelly headscarf quicker than you can say 'au revoir'.

As a new day dawned on the tiny tax haven principality, we were all set to drop the top and be fabulous, but life rarely works out as you planned and it was teeming with rain. Still, the English mizzle-like conditions did little to dampen our enthusiasm for the drive ahead. At first sight, the A5 Cabriolet is a stunning car, roof up or down. It's not brash or brassy; it's classic and cool and promises a lot to the driver. It turned heads in Monaco - a real achievement when you consider that supercars are as common there as in the Middle East.

Our test kicked off with the sports S5, with its supercharged, 3.0-litre V6 and a host of Audi tuning tweaks. Exiting the city of Monaco - via sections of the F1 track, of course - we made our way to the winding hills above the principality. It was on this road that Monaco's most famous princess, Grace Kelly, met her untimely end. Looking down the steep drops is not good if you suffer from vertigo, and even less so if you are trying to play at being Grace Kelly - albeit in drizzling rain and 10°C temperatures. Rain does not stop play and the S5 propelled us round the twisting lanes in Hollywood style.

Audi has always built drivers' cars, although criticism has been levelled at the brand recently for dumbing down the driver's style. The S5, however, seems set to silence the naysayers. The car clung to the roads purring like a satisfied cat. I am all for a bit of top-down action, but when the rain started to fall more heavily it was time to test out Audi's claim about the roof. "The roof can be raised or lowered at speeds of up to 50 kilometres per hour in just 15 seconds," says the marketing blurb. Cue the stop watch. In a time just shy of 15 seconds, the roof was up and we were dry once more. The roof also offers very quiet top-up motoring for a soft top, which bodes well for a Middle East summer.

We hit the road to Nice, on the French Riviera, in the vehicle that will be sold in the Middle East - the 2.0L A5. It's just as good-looking as the S5, but without some of the beef. It took moments for my co-driver and I to comment that it didn't feel like a 2.0L. There was more than adequate power for whizzing along the mountain roads and more than enough left over to overtake an irritating bus, attracting attention all the way down the mountain to Nice.

If I had to level one criticism at the A5, it is that the steering appears to be quite soft, leaving you with little feedback from the car at low speeds. It's rather like playing a video game. I know that it's been a long time since steering wheels were really connected to the wheels, but a slight tweak in electronics could make all the difference. When it comes to cars that originally hit our roads as coupes and are then redesigned as soft tops, they usually have the torsional rigidity of a bowl of soup and, therefore, handling to match. The A5, however, is one car that could make me rethink that stereotype. The A5 Cabriolet has been so well re-engineered that it's probably unfair to compare it to its coupe sibling; it's every bit as good, if not better, than the coupe, and looks the part with the top up or down.

After chilling out in glorious Nice, we took the coast road back to Monaco, a true drivers' road which begged us to stop in quaint harbours and, of course, take a detour onto St Jean Cap Ferrat - home to some of the most expensive real estate on the planet. A couple of new technological tweaks can be found in the Cabriolet - although most of them you won't notice until you read the manual. A simple and shoulder-saving one is the automatic seat belt, which delivers the belt to your outstretched hand and negates the need to scrabble around searching for it. As an added option you can also opt to have a neck-level air vent in your seat - perfect for winter motoring in Europe, but as it only blows warm air and not cool air it is somewhat redundant in the Middle East. However, the request is in with the Audi boffins for a cool air vent for the necks of drivers in warmer climes.

As we see herds of manufacturers launching new eco-friendly, dual-fuel cars with much fanfare, Audi is subtly integrating energy-saving gadgets into their vehicles. The Cabriolet has Audi's energy recuperation system, which grabs the otherwise wasted kinetic energy produced during breaking or deceleration. This is a system you will be unlikely to think about, but you will reap rewards at the filling station.

As we cruised back to Monaco through Ville Franche Sur Mer and Beaulieu, it was clear that this is a true drivers' car well worthy of being celebrated in Audi's 100th year. The A5 Cabriolet in the 211-horsepower, 2.0L turbocharged version will be available in the Middle East from October this year, but prices and specifications are yet to be set. I think it's fair to say that anyone who buys the A5 Cabriolet will not be disappointed, although they might like to find some winding mountain roads to drive it on.