From the July 2017 issue
History tells us that Zunis have good aim.
On July 7, 1540, at a large pueblo near what is now the Arizona and New Mexico border, Spanish conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado took a well-placed rock to the head. The blow, delivered by a Zuni tribesman, removed him from the first military encounter between Europeans and first peoples in the future United States. Coronado regained his wits to discover that his men, lacking their concussed leader, had gone on to conquer the city of Hawikuh. Though Coronado’s stated purpose was to turn the locals’ loyalty to the pope and the Spanish throne, what he really wanted, the thing that had driven him there from deep in modern-day Mexico and before that from across the Atlantic, was gold.
Our purposes in Arizona are different. We’re here to retrace the steps that led Coronado to Hawikuh, to take the measure of the terrain, and to experience one of America’s most glorious driving roads. U.S. Route 191 between Morenci and Springerville, Arizona, is a 123-mile streamer of winding asphalt stretching south to north in eastern Arizona. Known now as the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway, it roughly follows the route Coronado took on his journey through the New World. Hopefully, for our sake, with less peril.
Coronado was Spanish, but we’re here with a German—Audi’s 2018 S5. And though the conquistador’s expedition included as many as 1500 horses, the S5 offers a modest 354. But its 3.0-liter V-6 shovels out 369 pound-feet of torque as low as 1370 rpm thanks to a single twin-scroll turbo mounted between its cylinder banks. It’s a drivable, if benign, lump. This is, however, the first S5 without an available manual transmission, so we rely on ZF’s competent but ubiquitous eight-speed autobox to do the rowing.
Other than a few hundred feet of guardrails near Alpine, a small village along the road’s flattest, fastest, and least consequential sections, the Coronado Trail lacks protection for the feebleminded. Heavily exposed, the road traverses more than 5000 vertical feet of relief between its highest and lowest points, rising, falling, and rising again over its entire length. Like the Spaniard’s original path, it suffers no fools. Get it wrong in the middle of the Coronado, and help is hours away.
Carving north out of Morenci, the first 10.5 miles of highway bisect the Morenci mine, a massive open-pit operation and the largest copper extractor in North America. Depending on your view, the mine’s red-terraced cliffs stand as either a testament to man’s governance over nature or as a staggering case of human overreach. Either way, those first few miles set the tone for what’s to come in only one respect: Despite the isolation, man leaves his mark. From Morenci northward, the Coronado Trail penetrates the vast, untamed reaches of the American West with the same resolve as did the man himself.
Coronado’s primary motivation was rooted in Spain’s view of the New World as a 16th-century ATM. Other conquistadors, like Francisco Pizarro, who in 1533 pillaged the wealth of the Incas in Peru, served as dubious role models. Coronado’s prospects had been fueled as recently as 1536 by embellished reports from shipwrecked explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Many tales of the largely unexplored north told of riches in the Seven Cities of Cibola where the palaces were encrusted with emeralds and where the rulers ate from golden plates. It was the promised wealth of those legendary cities coupled with the power that would come with their successful plunder that drove Coronado into the unknown.
Once north of the mine, the road bearing Coronado’s name winds into an 11-mile labyrinth of climbing corners. If the state of Arizona is to be believed, most of these are 10-mph bends, and in many of them that pace is nonnegotiable. The road isn’t perfect. We configure Audi’s Drive Select to its individual setting and dial the suspension to comfort, the extra compliance necessary to maintain composure on a surface beset with freeze-thaw imperfections.
Audi’s decision to forgo a manual transmission is regrettable on the Coronado. The manual’s death was driven by a lack of demand, we’re told, and the fact that the automatic makes the car quicker. Still, the loss of such a valuable control interface is palpable in a place where shift speed is irrelevant. There’s merit, however, in always having our hands on the wheel, inches from the shift paddles. We measured grip at 0.94 g on the test track, but on the road, the S5’s lust for cornering fades in direct proportion to its front tires’ purchase on the tarmac. Even in Coronado’s slowest throws, the S5 refuses to rotate meaningfully on or off the throttle. Its electronically controlled torque-vectoring rear differential, part of the S Sport package, is retuned to be more responsive and precise but is less palpable than in the previous S4 and S5. A purely mechanical torque-sensing unit performs center-differential duties for the all-wheel-drive system.
Eventually, we cross Four Bar Mesa, a 2.8-mile-long, 6578-foot-high plain and the only remotely straight section on all the Coronado. It highlights the S5’s straight-line ability. The run to 60 mph consumes 4.3 seconds, beating the last S5 by 0.2 second. The quarter-mile follows in 12.9 seconds at 107 mph.
The coupe kisses 140 mph before the road ramps toward vertical again, pressing into the switchbacks and overhangs of the Mogollon Rim. This massive escarpment of Precambrian rock forms the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau—a high desert drained mostly by the Colorado River. Coronado would, sometime after his hollow victory at Hawikuh, dispatch a unit of 12 men to push west from there in a search for anything of value. These men, led by García López de Cárdenas, were the first Europeans to lay eyes on the monument to geologic time that we know as the Grand Canyon.
Among the S5’s many effective subtleties are its brakes, which operate invisibly and without complaint regardless of how hard we push. Six-piston fixed calipers up front and single-piston sliders out back yield a 70-to-zero stopping distance of 150 feet, among the best in its segment. Possibly a more important subtlety is the S5’s variable-ratio dynamic steering, which quickens the more it’s spun off-center without feeling artificially enhanced. Like many Audis, its helm is accurate, predictable, and quick enough but refuses to transmit meaningful feedback.
It’s likely that even before the bloodshed at Hawikuh, which yielded corn and beans but no gold, Coronado suspected that the legend of the Seven Cities’ riches was exactly that. Hubris and a desire to save himself the shame of an empty-handed return drove him farther north. However, more-practical matters demand our commitment. In the 90 miles between Morenci and Alpine, not a single paved road intersects the Coronado Trail. The only way through these mountains by car, then, is this route.
Just south of Hannagan Meadow, at about 9400 feet, the trail reaches its zenith, revealing its full breadth. Here the terrain opens, the road mellows, and the speed climbs again. This, at last, is the proper dominion of the S5. At 3942 pounds, it weighs virtually the same as the previous-generation S5, and in the triple-digit sweepers it is a stable, connected partner. It’s also an adult’s car, lacking both the presence and the promise of Audi’s RS models. There’s no flourish in its downshifts, no nervousness in its throttle. And its exhaust note, though not without character, doesn’t lift the head of a single Arizona elk, even at full wail.
Starting at $55,575, the S5 is hardly a cheap way to cross the Arizona mountains, but that doesn’t keep it from being one of the quickest. All new S4s and S5s start at the Premium Plus trim level. Our Prestige-trim tester adds, for $4400, the interior tech that’s beginning to define the brand—namely its Virtual Cockpit display, a 12.3-inch configurable instrument cluster that, among other tricks, overlays Google Earth imagery on maps. Navigation and the Bang & Olufsen audio system also tag along. Our car came with the $1800 Driver Assistance package, $1250 nappa leather, and the $2500 S Sport package, which is required to get the $1150 Dynamic Steering. All in, this S5 is a $68,550 means to pursue Coronado.
Like the last-generation V-8–powered RS5, this coupe is rapid and capable, and, when it comes to passion-inducing driving tools, somewhat antiseptic. Though eager, it’s a picture of perfect etiquette, arcing into safe understeer in tightening corners. There’s no dancing with physics here, no risk, no awe—only the cold, stoic hand of Audi engineering aligning the S5’s abilities with its driver’s direction. Setting a wheel wrong will always be your own doing, because nothing about the S5 will draw you near that edge. No matter how hard it’s pressed, it remains a sober, competent companion, one that will never make you sweat.
There are places for an adult’s car. The Coronado Trail is not among them. A road this wild and unhinged deserves a machine imbued with the same general philosophy, a car honed to explore the limit. This is the sort of place to unload a fully baked supercar without fear of prison. But the S5, permeated by quiet confidence, is a car that will never be that raw; it is what we’d want to drive to this road and back from it, swapping into a Ferrari or a McLaren for the trail itself. Coronado, whose quest for gold ultimately took him all the way to present-day Kansas, left without his spoils. Rolling into Springerville, it’s clear that the S5, on some level, shares his predicament. Its ease, confidence, and stability are allies most of the time. But on the Coronado Trail, a place as ungovernable as any road in America, we’d want a car to match.