When a company paints a car "meteor gray" with a "magma red" interior, certain expectations are raised. They could just as easily call the colors "cloud and rose" or "dolphin and lipstick."

Clearly Audi has something else in mind.

The 2008 S5 is the company's first foray into the compact sport coupe segment since it stopped selling the legendary Quattro nearly two decades ago. Since then Audi has been taking on BMW's vaunted M3 with a lineup of sedans, wagons and even convertibles, avoiding a direct confrontation with the two-door king of the hill.

Let the battle begin.

The S5 comes loaded for bear with a 354-horsepower version of Audi's 4.2-liter V-8 and a brand new all-wheel drive chassis that also underpins the more pedestrian A5 on which it is based.

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This being the sport model, it has an angrier-looking face, rubber-band-thin high-performance tires mounted on 19-inch rims and an interior dressed up with lots of go-fast bits. A pair of the kind of sports seats you dream about having every time you see one of those beautiful winding road signs with the S-curve painted on it give you a place to enjoy it all from.

Sitting there you'll find a six-speed manual transmission close at hand (an automatic is also available) and a black, leather-covered steering wheel dressed up with some spicy red stitching. The materials are of the high quality we've come to expect from Audi, and the dashboard takes on a much more driver-oriented demeanor than past efforts.

The shapes of the instruments are modern, but chrome accents add a touch of old-school sports car. With a single cowl taking in the instrument panel and center stack, the S5 has a serious cockpit feel to it, though the driving experience is more B-2 bomber than F-22.

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Weighing nearly 200 pounds more than the M3, the 3,891-pound S5 has a massive feel to it, but in a good way. A lot of that weight can be chalked up to the all-wheel drive mechanicals, the rest contributing to the structure of what is probably the most bank-vault solid Audi yet. While the company's products have always seemed one notch below BMW and Mercedes-Benz in the heft department, everything about the S5 is on par.

On the move, the weight takes a little getting used to.

At first the S5 comes across as more suited for storming down an autobahn than slicing and dicing through the mountains, but push it hard down one of those curvy roads on the sign and you quickly learn otherwise. Tuned with a rear bias, the all-wheel drive system allows for just enough tail-out fun to make things interesting before it goes to work reining the car back under control.

Seamlessly transferring power among the wheels, the Audi finds the grip it needs to stay on course. This is what stands the S5 apart from the rear-drive-only M3, and is something that should be an even greater benefit when Mother Nature isn’t in a cooperative mood. If you live in the Snowbelt, or even the Pacific Northwest, an S5 with some good wet-weather shoes on it makes a compelling argument for a one-car owner.

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Regardless of the conditions, you will need to mind the way you drive. The car feels and sounds so good under full throttle, you want to spend a lot of time keeping it there.

From the smooth rush of acceleration to the orchestral music coming from the drivetrain, taking your foot off the gas is much harder than eating just one potato chip. If you decide not to, the car will run from 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds. That’s a fair bit slower than what the 414-horsepower M3 can do, but still plenty tasty.

With that performance comes a good helping of practicality. The S5 has a huge trunk by coupe standards, and the rear buckets are neither hard to get into nor uncomfortable once you are.

One shortcoming, the sunroof is tiny compared to the nearly all-glass roofs found in many cars today. It almost seems retro, and is one of only two major flaws I found in the S5.

I really hope this is just a problem for me, because the S5 is a tremendous car overall, but the clutch pedal needs to be pushed so much further down than the gas or brake that it’s hard to position yourself without one leg ending up in an uncomfortable position.

Imagine trying to drive with a Timberland on your right foot and a flip flop on your left. I spent a week making adjustments, but never quite hit the sweet spot. Since the issue was pedal placement and not a shortage of seat travel, this situation might affect others regardless of inseam. Maybe it won't bother others as much, but if I were going to buy this car I'd have to settle for the automatic.

Oh, the horror.

Seeing it sitting in my garage — if I had one — might make that worth it. Where the M3 has a very muscular and technical body, the S5 is va-va-vroom sexy and photos do not do justice to the details.

One look and you know there's someone new adding a little spice to Audi's usually sleek, but dull exteriors. His name is Walter de Silva and, as Audi’s head of design, the Italian brings a Botticelli-like artistry with him that injects the S5 with a visual aesthetic never before seen in its cars. He says it’s the most beautiful vehicle he’s ever worked on. I’ll not disagree.

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Taken on its own merits, the S5 is strong competitor offering a flavor quite different from the BMW. It’s not quite as fast, but close enough to not matter to most drivers, including me.

If speed is your ultimate concern, hang on a second or a couple of months. Audi is expected to unleash a fire and brimstone RS5 version of this car next year, with upwards of 450 horsepower and a stack of performance goodies to go with it.

I'll take mine in "comet white" with a "depleted uranium" interior, but "whip cream" and "silver spoon" will do just fine.



Base Price: $50,500

As Tested: $58,490

Type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 4-passenger, 2-door coupe.

Engine: 4.2-liter V-8

Power: 354 hp, 325 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

MPG: 14 city/21 hwy

What do you think of the S5?

Send your comments to foxcarreport@foxnews.com.