The psychology of driving a cabriolet is something I’m aware of every time I sit behind the wheel of an open-topped vehicle. At its core this issue deals with the anonymity of driving, something that the average road user, unless he or she owns a convertible, is not aware of.
In a study by Phillip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram in the Sixties on the now very politically incorrect topic of interrogation and torture, the psychologists found that in both cases, if the subject being tortured was hooded or facing the other way, double the amount of electric shock was administered than to those whose faces were visible to the subject — the conclusion being that when human identity was removed from the equation less humane behaviour resulted.
This translates to our behaviour on the road. Of course, when you’re in the anonymous metal shell of your car, what stops you from cutting someone off, racing through an unknown suburb or flipping someone the finger for whatever reason? Other drivers don’t know you and they’ll never find out where you live so you can be as rude as you want to. But life in convertibles is different as the exposure prevents their drivers from doing as they please.
This is why Audi’s supercharged S5 cabriolet is a cruel mistress. It is audacious, pretentious, enormous, strikingly styled and hugely powerful. I normally love that, but the psychology of driving around in it with the roof down is just too overwhelming. With 245kW and 440Nm from its supercharged 3.0-litre V6 engine, also doing business in the S4 and top-of-the-range A6, it is Audi’s most powerful four-door cabriolet. With a seven-speed dual clutch gearbox, this powerhouse never feels as though it wants to let up as it always feels really quick. It runs on enormous 19-inch rims, has “please may I have your attention” LED daytime lights, chrome-detailed wing mirrors, twin tailpipes and great S-line bucket seats with carbon-fibre interior trim. And each one of these makes it the most conspicuous car you’ve ever seen.
I took delivery of my test model on a balmy Friday afternoon in high spirits and proceeded to fold the soft-top roof away for a relaxed sunny drive back to my house — only to find myself in a typical “beat the Friday rush hour” snarl-up on the highway. The unexpected and unwanted attention the S5 attracted for the next half-hour was genuinely torturous. I’d neglected to shave or apply any of the hair product befitting a real Audi owner and I was shamefully underdressed for the occasion.
I could do nothing but stare straight ahead like a zombie in need of orthopedic support, as I fought to get the stereo loud enough not to hear people’s comments as they pulled alongside, but not loud enough that I looked like an ambitionless, jobless, trust fund baby. As I tried to manouevre the enormous S5 from lane to lane, it was always at exactly the wrong time.
My lack of anonymity in the cabriolet had completely altered my normally unshakable value system and ability to drive efficiently and competently in an environment in which I drove every day. I daren’t take a quick gap, fearing retribution from a wronged road user and, not surprisingly, no one was willing to let the flashy Audi in either. I ended up missing the turn-off to my own house.
There are other more tangible problems with the S5 cabriolet, I’m afraid. When you’re finally out of the city, comfortable enough to put the roof down in relative privacy and go for a drive, you don’t need to be Mario Andretti behind the wheel to realise the S5 cabriolet is not a particularly sporty car. With a soft suspension set-up, the heavy engine mounted in front of the front axle and the long ocean liner-like body flexing all around you, you quickly find fast, dynamic cornering to be a byproduct of the S5 cabriolet experience rather than its sole focus.
With intense concentration and, dare I say it, a fair amount of bravery, you can shift the Audi through corners at impressive speed, but the experience leaves you feeling detached and even a little ruffled over time.
It doesn’t feel as though Audi has done anything to sharpen up the steering or suspension from the A5 to befit a car wearing the S badge. Of course you can retro-fit Audi’s Drive Select system that sharpens steering, ride and throttle, but that should surely be standard fare on the hefty R705 000 S5?
Which begs the question: If all you want is a quick, good-looking cruiser with a six-cylinder exhaust note, why not save yourself R130 000 and get the 3.2-litre A5 cabriolet?
Or if you want a razor-sharp, continent-shifting grand tourer with a 4.2-litre V8, which saves you R70 000 and restores your dignity and anonymity , you should opt for the S5 coupé.
Trust me, anonymity is a wonderful thing.