On Autos: Audi hatchback artfully disguises its utility

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The 2018 Audi S5 Sportback looks like a sports sedan until you open the back hatch. (Brady Holt/The Current)

There’s no shortage of spacious, practical luxury vehicles these days. Most fall into the premium crossover segment, and while many such models avoid the traditionally boxy look of an old-school SUV, they’re clearly taller and bulkier than a passenger car.

But you don’t need a crossover to nab some extra utility. Despite an economy car image, the hatchback has quietly established itself in the luxury market segment, providing the flexibility of a big open cargo hold rather than a closed-off trunk.

The 2018 Audi S5 Sportback has ample trunk space. (Brady Holt/The Current)

If you haven’t noticed a growing number of five-door hatchbacks from such carmakers as BMW, Porsche and Audi, it’s not because they’ve been unpopular. Rather, it’s because they’re artfully styled to retain the approximate silhouette of a sleek sports sedan.

For the 2018 model year, Audi has added another hatchback to its lineup: the A5 Sportback and its high-performance S5 variant, which are based on the popular A4 and S4 sedans and the A5 and S5 coupes. For a price premium of about $2,000 to $3,000 over a comparably equipped sedan, the Sportback delivers 68 percent more trunk space (a generous 21.8 cubic feet) with no compromises to the sedan’s excellent driving dynamics and respectable fuel economy.

On the road, the A4 and A5 deliver a supreme degree of competent composure. Though neither super-cushy nor extra-zippy, these cars quietly go about their business well enough to satisfy nearly any type of driver. A 252-horsepower four-cylinder engine delivers smooth and lively acceleration along with an EPA rating of 27 mpg in mixed driving with the Sportback’s standard all-wheel-drive system.

The 2018 Audi S5 Sportback delivers an impeccable combination of style, performance, luxury and utility. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The tested S5 version delivers additional acceleration and a richer engine note from its 354-horsepower V6, along with weightier and more precise steering. Yet unlike some performance models, it doesn’t suffer from a terribly stiff ride quality, and it’s rated for a respectable 24 mpg.

Audi provided the S5 Sportback test car during a media event at its American headquarters in Virginia, alongside the newly redesigned Q5 crossover and its SQ5 high-performance variant. Company officials boasted their crossovers drive so well that even driving enthusiasts will notice minimal sacrifice compared to Audi’s passenger cars — but, while pleasant, even the SQ5 was nothing like this Sportback. While impressive compared to SUVs of yore, the SQ5 felt big, tall and disconnected in comparison to the truly delightful S5 Sportback.

The 2018 Audi S5 Sportback has a top-notch interior with vibrant displays and excellent materials. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Like other new Audis, the new Sportback features dazzling dashboard displays. These include a high-resolution screen in place of the conventional gauge cluster, which lets the driver minimize the speedometer size in favor of a Google Maps satellite view. The Sportback also boasts exceptional build quality.

The only weakness to the new Sportback is the base price. Although it’s barely more expensive than a comparably equipped A4 sedan, the A5 Sportback comes with various standard features — including a more powerful engine and all-wheel-drive — that cost extra on the sedan. Accordingly, the A5 Sportback starts at $43,575 compared to $36,975 for the A4 sedan. While that premium is substantial for buyers who’d like a luxury car without all the add-ons, note that a similarly equipped A4 costs $41,475. The S5 Sportback, priced from $55,375, is a similarly modest jump from the $52,375 S4 sedan.

The most direct competitor to the new Sportback is the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe, another five-door hatchback that’s disguised as a sedan. For a similar combination of practicality and luxury in a passenger car — but with an unabashed station wagon silhouette — also consider the wagon versions of the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and the upcoming 2018 Buick Regal, along with the Volvo V60.